VIEWPOINT: The demise of common sense

VIEWPOINT by Joe Farrell

Many in our community have contacted me about the situation at Sumner and the termination of Principal Frank D’Emilio. I’ve been asked to help them understand the decision-making process of a school board on these types of matters, which are never easy, but are nonetheless serious issues that most school boards face. The 2 school boards I served on for a decade were no different. Claremont is concerned about this issue; its resolution will say a lot about our community.

When faced with facts like this, a school board should seek to understand the motivations of the employee when taking the actions that are at issue, balance the district’s interests with those actions, and then use the reported facts to determine the appropriate consequences.

In the Sumner situation, 3 young children were involved in a type of play that had sexual overtones. None of these children had moral or actual position authority over the others, and there has been no suggestion of coercion or bullying. 

Mr. D’Emilio, in his role as principal at Sumner, did not perceive the acts as sexual abuse, exploitation or as being anything other than children behaving inappropriately, likely not understanding what they were doing. His response was informing the parents, providing student education grade-wide, and counseling the students involved. Is this not exactly the student-centered approach that we seek in our staff members?

Mr. D’Emilio’s failing was in not reporting to the school board or superintendent what had occurred. He has explained his reasoning and apologized for it in a 7-page missive and apology. He tendered his resignation as principal, but the board chose to not accept that resignation and instead terminated him.

Question 1: Do the facts about the situation and Mr. D’Emilio’s motivations and actions warrant his termination as principal?

Up until this point, Mr. D’Emilio has had an exemplary career in Claremont, and has the support of hundreds of parents willing to testify to his character and demonstrated concern for placing “Children First.” Moreover, Sumner earned the designation as a California Distinguished School under his watch, which is of great significance.

Militating against this is a bias in the mandatory reporting law toward reporting incidents to the state, rather than exercising independent judgment. Given the arguments for and against the incident being reportable, he should have worked with his superiors at the district level to more thoroughly consider the situation.

Running an elementary school is not a fiefdom; it is a collaborative environment where the principal is the educational leader of the school site, but still subject to oversight by district administration and the school board. 

Mr. D’Emilio failed to access the resources available to him at the district level, and to fully consider whether the actions claimed were reportable. The administration was instead surprised when it first heard about the incident from DCFS and law enforcement, rather than its own school leader.

Such a circumstance shows poor judgment on the part of Mr. D’Emilio. He recognized this shortcoming and offered his resignation as principal of Sumner.  That said, given the historical latitude with which the school board and administration has given school sites to run themselves, Mr. D’Emilio had every reason to expect that he could make the decision he made. 

In hindsight, the school board and administration created an environment over the past decades where the individual schools ran themselves as they saw fit, and given that relationship the school board should have accepted his resignation rather than terminate him as principal.

Question 2: Did the district take into account Mr. D’Emilio’s motivations and employment history when terminating his position?

What a school board should struggle with is balancing the 25-year exemplary career and character displayed by Mr. D’Emilio in the past, with a single instance of a lack of judgment. We all want to be given a chance to correct our failings; life should not be “make one mistake” and that’s it for your career, unless it’s a whopper. It is certainly awkward to accept a distinguished school award for the school on the same night you terminate the employment of the principal who led you there.

Mr. D’Emilio was placed in a difficult position regarding reporting these acts to the state or law enforcement, which I believe was a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” decision. Like most teachers I have known, he wanted what was best for the students involved.  He determined that under the relevant statute, notably Penal Code §11165.1, that the actions between 7- and 8-year-olds, without bullying or coercion, could not possibly be sexual abuse or exploitation. Such was a common-sense interpretation of the law and the actions of the students.

Making a spectacle of actions that 20 years ago would [and should] have been handled behind closed doors between parents, staff and counselors, is instead played out today with bureaucrats and law enforcement. Which track directs more trauma into the lives of the children involved? Which choice is better for the children under these facts? Such is the ultimate inquiry the school board should make.

At the end of the day, if Mr. D’Emilio acted in the best interests of the children involved, the punishment should not be going after his credential and terminating his employment.

We need caring people who, acknowledging the intent of the law, look out for the best interests of the child. The mandatory reporting law is intended to protect children from adults, and from abuse and exploitation, not from their peers involving them with inappropriate sexual “play,” unaware of either the consequences, or in all likelihood what they are doing. The law is intended to protect children from adults and those in authority, not expose them to further ridicule and embarrassment by adults.

A school board should be able to put policy violations in perspective when the policy is violated in the best interests of a child, assuming there is even a policy violation here.

As noted in letters to the COURIER this Saturday past, these facts do not rise to a violation of the law, triggering a mandatory report. Given the self-sufficient environment created and encouraged by our school board over decades, is terminating an employee—who exercised independent judgment in a way encouraged by the school board—the correct response?

Mr. D’Emilio responded with compassion, and used it as an opportunity to educate and counsel the children involved. Should the school board not follow that lead and use this as a learning opportunity for all in the district?

There are complex issues which surround this decision making process, and I don’t know what our school board was told by the superintendent, its lawyers or law enforcement that may have led to their decisions. Did they exercise independent judgment, given the decades of exemplary service by this employee? We don’t know because the school board has not explained its thought process or how it came to its decision.

Reacting as both the administration and school board did here impairs the future ability of this district to recruit and retain excellent educators and administrators. Educators express fundamental fairness as a core belief; they must instill this in their students daily. When the adults in a district act one way, and expect the children to act another, such endangers the core beliefs expressed in the district mission and vision statements. 

At a minimum, Claremont, Mr. D’Emilio and the rest of district employees are entitled to understand the reasoning that led to the decision in the face of the totality of the circumstances.


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