Visitacion Valley Elementary School parents call for removal of principal over ‘toxic climate’

Some 20 parents gathered outside of Visitacion Valley Elementary School on Thursday morning to protest what they said was a failure by the school principal to take action on pervasive bullying.

They alleged Principal April Scott has created a toxic climate that has pushed out dozens of staff members and stifled parent participation.

The parents said a total of 17 Visitacion Valley staff members — including teachers, coaches, nurses, and support staff — left the school, both voluntarily and through reassignment, in the 2016-2017 school year after butting heads with Scott.

This year, six more staff members have left, and “many more plan on leaving if she stays,” said Erin Gutierrez, the mother of a second grader at school, who read aloud text messages that she said she received from a teacher currently employed at the school.

“I heard since she started, the [staff members] have left either voluntarily or because their hours were reduced or they were pushed out,” said Gutierrez.

Former Student Advisor Debora Howard, who was employed at the school for three years, is one of them.

Howard said she requested leave from the school after filing a grievance against Scott with the district. She said Scott disapproved of Howard meeting her mentee, a fourth grader at the school, even after work hours and on the student’s lunch break.

“She had an issue with the mentee coming to see me on the mentee’s lunch time. She said she was disturbing my work and couldn’t be there,” said Howard, who has been an SFSUD employee for 30 years. “This is a fourth grade student that was really upset and wanted to know why the principal didn’t like her. That was my breaking point.”

Scott, who became the school’s principal last school year, was not present at the protest and did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

In a December memo sent to parents, she expressed her commitment to Visitacion Valley students and their families, “hoping they realized I wanted nothing less than the best for their children.”

Scott also listed her accomplishments, which she said included an increase in proficiency rates in state English language test scores for African American and Latino students.

In the memo, Scott indicated to parents that she would be leaving her position at the school, but a later memo clarified that she was not resigning, but taking “intermittent leave” to attend to family matters.

SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick said that the district “understands there are some staff and parents at Visitacion Valley Elementary School who have expressed concerns,” and that those concerns are being investigated.

Dudnick confirmed there were “vacancies this school year, but due to a variety of reasons, including resignations, non re-elects and transfers due to lack of funding,” but noted that all vacancies have been filled. She said a position left open by a teacher who went on maternity leave has been filled by a substitute.

According to Dudnick, the school currently has 18 full-time teachers and two resource teachers for 365 students.

“The principal holds regular meetings with parents, and is dedicated to partnering with families and the community to provide students with the best possible education and a supportive learning environment,” Dudnick said in an email to the San Francisco Examiner. “The assistant superintendent and director have also met with parents. Visitacion Valley Elementary has numerous supports in place to address bullying and other student behaviors.”

But parents who say their kids are currently victims of bullying disagree.

Marie Elena Mendoza said that her second grade son was locked in the bathroom with the lights off by an older student last month.

“He is in fear he can’t be in a place with the lights off. He is very traumatized and he is becoming very aggressive,” Mendoza said, through tears.

Mendoza claims that she addressed the incident at a parent meeting with Scott, who allegedly asked Mendoza if she had addressed her concerns with her son’s teacher.

“I said, ‘there is no teacher there. Who do we go to?’” Mendoza said. “Until today, there has not been a response.”

Former PTA President Jenny De La Paz, whose second grade son was transferred to a different school this week as a result of bullying at Visitacion Valley Elementary School, said that Scott has been “bullying teachers” and is “even approaching parents.”

“She’s not letting staff members speak to parents, we are not allowed to speak to our teachers or any staff,” she said.

Despite a heavy downpour of rain, the parents held up signs underneath umbrellas that read “Our neighborhood, our school” and “Parents for Vis Valley students,” in hopes of promoting change at the school.

In December, some 45 parents attended a school board hearing where they aired their concerns, and De La Paz says that nearly twice as many have signed a petition supporting Scott’s removal.

A parent who entered the school at the time of the protest defended Scott.

“I don’t have any issues with the principal,” said the parent, who declined to state her name. “Teachers left across the board. It’s not a principal issue. It has to do with the school district and the lack of what they are doing, and not supporting what is going on in these schools.”

School Board member Mark Sanchez said that a variety of issues could be playing into the tense climate at the school. The district has hired 700 credentialed staff — including 500 classroom teachers — since the beginning of last school year, he said.

“We had that kind of turnover and it really impacts the east side [schools] more than the west, and it’s an equity issue we have to tackle,” said Sanchez, adding that high turnover is de-stabilizing and helps create “a negative environment for behavior.”

Sanchez said that each year there are several school communities that approach the school board because they are “disenchanted with their leadership.”

“We need to do better as a district to train our site leaders to be less top down and more democratic in how they make decisions,” said Sanchez. “I’m not saying that’s what’s happening in that school, but I do see that often happening in our district.”

lwaxmann@sfexaminer.com

Laura Waxmann
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Laura Waxmann

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