Day Two: Joe Palazzolo V FWISD
Day two of Joe Palazzolo’s appeal of his termination last fall by Superintendent Melody Johnson got off to a good start for the beleaguered former assistant principal and whistleblower at Arlington Heights High School on Friday. Testimony from three of Fort Worth’s finest blew a few significant holes in the district’s attempt to paint him as a bad guy who bullied students and deserved to be fired. (See Blotch, Friday, Jan. 28.) The Fort Worth officers, instead, gave him kudos for always helping them “in a professional manner” whenever they had to deal with troubled kids at the school, once an enclave of the city’s white upper-class but now an inner-city urban school with all of the problems such a clash of cultures brings.
Palazzolo contends that he was fired in retaliation for uncovering and reporting a litany of wrongdoings at the venerable old school and that the resulting bad publicity so embarrassed the administration of Superintendent Melody Johnson that she and her cohorts set out to find a way to kill the messenger.
Detective Sgt Frank Halford’s testimony gave some weight to Palazzolo’s claim. Sometime last year, following the theft of a large number of computers from the school, he said that he was called by the district’s chief investigator, Mike Menchaca, who implied that Palazzolo may have had something to do with the theft because he had been seen in the building late on the night of the break-in. Halford quickly shot the allegation down, testifying that he told Menchaca that not only was Palazzolo not a part of the theft, but that he had helped the police catch the guys who did it. The perpetrators had been arrested and all of the stolen equipment had been recovered. The case was closed. Halford said that he had to tell Menchaca more than once that the case had been solved with Palazzolo’s help and that Palazzolo had not been involved in the theft in any way.
A series of emails between Palazzolo and district security officers show that the assistant principal was involved from the beginning in the investigation and its outcome.
Whenever he had to deal with a problem kid at Heights, Halford said, then principal Neta Alexander always referred him to Palazzolo who helped him handle the situation in a professional manner. Such was not true of at least one other employee there. Halford related one incident in which he contacted Palazzolo to tell him that he would be coming on the campus to issue two felony arrest warrants and asked him not to warn the students because one of the kids was “a high flight risk.” One student was on campus, but the high-risk student was not. Palazzolo, the detective and at least five other officers there that day told the absent student’s counselor that they were going to the student’s home and that the student was not to be warned. However, when Halford arrived at the residence, the student was packing to leave town. It was later revealed that his mother had been tipped off by someone from the school.
Two other Fort Worth police officers, W. E. Nash, Jr. and J. D. Henderson, countered the charge brought Thursday by 2010 Heights graduate, Margaret Renfro, who testified that Palazzolo had acted improperly toward her and a group of her friends at a homecoming dance in October 2009 at the “Wild West” themed River Ranch in the Stockyards.
Not so, said the officers.
Palazzolo had acted “in a professional manner” that night, both said. Renfro, the fourth generation of her prominent West Side family to graduate from Heights, testified on Thursday that Palazzolo was a “bully” who was “in charge” that night and somehow forced the two officers to find that four of her male friends, including her date, and one female friend, had been drinking; they were denied entrance to the dance. She also testified that no one was calling parents to pick up kids who were suspected of drinking.
In fact, there were five administrators there that night and five teachers, and a number of parent volunteers, all screening kids for alcohol at various checkpoints before letting them into the dance, testimony showed. “No one person was ‘in charge’,” Palazzolo testified later. “We [the assistant principals] were all equally responsible for the protection of the students.”
If they suspected a student had been drinking the kid was sent to the officers for a field sobriety test. The officers testified that they were the only ones performing the tests that night and if they found that a student had been drinking, he or she was returned to the school administrators for resolution. The rules of the district were clear, if a student was suspected of drinking, he or she was not allowed into the dance and parents were to be called. The officers stated that they witnessed parents coming to pick up students who were suspected of being under the influence.
Palazzolo testified that to his knowledge all of the parents of the kids who had been denied entrance had been called. “I observed two assistant principals at the entrance overseeing kids calling their parents and a teacher assured me later that all of the parents were called,” he said. (Renfro and her group returned to her home in the limo in which they arrived.)
As reported on Friday in this blog, the school had become more diligent about checking for alcohol after a freshman passed out on the dance floor from an overdose of drugs and alcohol at a dance earlier in the year. The student was rushed to the hospital and when he recovered was sent to an alternative school after a disciplinary hearing convened by Palazzolo. Following the incident, Palazzolo said, Alexander instructed her administrators that no student suspected of drinking or using drugs would be allowed to participate in any school activity and if they were found to have done so, they were to be disciplined equitably.
The five students in Renfro’s group who were believed to have been drinking, however, were never disciplined, on Alexander’s orders, Palazzolo testified. The principal, who was not at the dance, told him that she “knew the parents of the students in the limo and there was no drinking going on,” he testified. Palazzolo said that he felt that because the kids involved were white, upper-middle-class students from prominent West Side families, they were given a pass by Alexander.
It is his contention, based on his own observations and dealings with Alexander he said, that such a pattern of preferential treatment for the white, upper-income kids was a fact of life at the school under her leadership. He told the district lawyer “If those students [found to have been drinking the night of the dance] had been minority, there is no question that discipline would have been imposed.”
“It was a running joke at the school, don’t mess with the West Side white kids because their parents will be downtown right away, jumping all over us.”
Another example he gave involved a violent episode in which a group of 60 or more black and Hispanic undesrclassmen got into what most observers described as “a riot” on the campus last year. Palazzolo testified that the fight was instigated by a group of white upperclassmen who taunted the minority kids who were having a field day of games planned by Palazzolo and some of the coaches to give the kids some fun and to relieve tensions before the TAKS test scheduled for the next day. The white students, all male, were on a hill overlooking the games and they began to shout racial slurs and throw objects at the underclassmen, encouraging the two groups to fight and fight they did. Before it was over, blood was spilled and many kids were injured.
The white kids, who never fought, disappeared, Palazzolo said, but not before he got their names.
As it turned out, the only kids who received any punishment were the minority students. When Palazzolo told Alexander that the white students needed to be disciplined as well since they started the melee, he was rebuffed, he said. A number of minority students received three-day suspensions.
Alexander, who was in the building yesterday waiting to be called to testify, could not comment because she is on the witness list, she said. “There are always two sides to every story,” she said.
In the Renfro case, her parents came to the school the morning after the dance to protest their child’s treatment. But the matter was dropped — until May, 2010, when a letter of complaint was sent to Johnson accusing Palazzolo of acting improperly the night of the dance, seven months before. By then Palazzolo had begun reporting the allegations of wrongdoing at the school to Menchaca, including falsification of attendance records, a hostile work environment, sexual misconduct/harassment, theft of school property, foul language, mishandling of booster club money and disparate treatment of minority students, among others. Nearly all were found to be valid by a report released on October 15 and authored by Sylvia Reyna, chief of administration.
Alexander was found to have engaged in fraud by allowing the falsification of attendance records and by admitting to the investigators that she ordered a subordinate to not file truancy court cases against juniors, seniors, and “students of certain ethnic groups” because she did not want to risk raising the drop- out rates or lowering what is called “completion rates,” the number of kids who enter as freshman and go on to graduate four years later.
The report further states, “Ms. Alexander readily admitted that she asked [the employee] to concentrate her efforts” on the lower classmen rather than the juniors and seniors because “she did not want the campus AEIS [Academic Excellence Indicator System] rating to suffer.” Even if a high school’s students do well on the state academic tests, if the completion rate is below the state’s AEIS requirement, the school will get the dreaded stamp of unacceptable. And if the attendance rates are low, the school’s funding, based on average daily attendance, suffers proportionately.
Jason Smith, Palazzolo’s attorney, showed that the Heights completion rate was so low in 2008-2009 that it dropped the once-highly-academically-rated school’s state ranking to “academically unacceptable.” Alexander was in a panic, Palazzolo said, and under pressure by the Johnson administration to reverse the ranking. It was reversed by Alexander’s decision not to report 21 high-truancy students, allowing them to graduate in 2010 when they otherwise would not have due to high absenteeism. “These actions are a violation” of the Texas Education Code regarding the reporting of truancy cases, Reyna wrote.
In spite of the Reyna report with Alexander’s admission that she had violated the law in order to save her school from a low academic ranking, Johnson told Smith on Thursday that she could not say what Alexander’s motivation was in falsifying attendance documents.
Following the report, Alexander was forced to resign “in lieu of further action.” The girls’ athletic director Izzy Perry was also forced out and assistant principal Harold Nichols was allowed to retire. Both had been found guilty of fraud by Menchaca for falsifying attendance records that allowed unqualified students to graduate. Associate superintendent Chuck Boyd, also caught up in the tangled web was forced to resign after admitting that he had borrowed $5,000 from Perry, a subordinate, and gave her cover for a laundry list of inappropriate behavior. That included acting as principal when Alexander was away in spite of the fact that she had no principal’s credentials, and using foul and sexually explicit language in front of teachers and students alike. Alexander and Boyd, however, both have been allowed to draw their full salaries until their contracts end in the summer of this year.
At Friday’s hearing, Smith, was able to raise further doubts about another of the stated reasons for his client’s firing: that he had lied when he answered “no” on an on-line application for employment with the district in 2007 when asked if he had ever been convicted of a misdemeanor.
Palazzolo was able to refute the accusation publicly for the first time. “I never applied for a job with the district on-line,” he said, under questioning from the district lawyers and later from his own attorney. Palazzolo said that he first applied for work with the district in 2005 at a job fair in Fort Worth. He filled out a paper application that he said asked only about felony convictions. He had none and answered truthfully, he said. That paper application was used when he was hired by the district in 2007, he said, but it has since disappeared. “It was the only one I ever filled out,” he said.
The district, however, has introduced an on-line application dated 2007 that shows that he marked “no” in a box that asks about misdemeanor convictions as well It is unsigned. Palazzolo testified that he never filled out that application and has no idea where it came from. His first contract with the district, which is signed, does not ask about misdemeanors — only felonies or crimes of moral turpitude or crimes against children.
When the district received two anonymous letters and began to investigate Palazzolo following his whistle-blowing activity, their investigators found what they called two decades-old misdemeanor violations. One was for a child-support conflict with his ex-wife in 1997 in which he was fined $10.00 and ordered to pay the disputed child support, which he did. He believed that the case had been expunged. He has introduced documents that show the case was never officially filed in the Oklahoma federal court system until last September — and then only after a call from the district to the clerk asking her to dig out the record. She found it in some old case files, saw that it had never been officially entered into the record and did so on Sept. 22, 2010. Palazzolo testified that he had been told by the clerk she filed it at the request of the district. The case was by then thirteen years old.
The second case went back to 1980 when he owned a security company and one of his employees failed to have her license renewed; as owner of the company he was ticketed and fined, he said. “It was an administrative violation,” he said, “like a traffic violation. …It was never entered as a criminal violation.”
He further testified that there had been no fewer than eight criminal background checks on him in the years to follow, at least three here in the Fort Worth district, and all had come up “clear.” He had also been cleared during that time by several former employers, including the Springtown ISD, the General Services Administration and the U. S. Army.
An email from the district’s legal director, Bertha Whatley, to Johnson, stated that all of his criminal background checks had come up negative.
On Thursday, evidence was introduced by Smith that shows a number of employees who failed to reveal an arrest or conviction on a misdemeanor violation were allowed to remain in their positions after the district discovered the lapse.
In November, Whatley released to Fort Worth Weekly a list of names of employees who have been arrested and/or convicted of misdemeanors during the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years and are still employed. There are 69. She released their names but in the interest of privacy, the Weekly will not publish them. In an earlier story, we reported that nine employees who were convicted of serious felonies during the last five years, including child molestation, theft, cocaine possession, assault, assault with a deadly weapon and alcohol abuse, are all still employed as well. The district released their full names and their positions, but again, this paper will not publish them. .
When Palazzolo filed his complaint charging retaliation for his first transfer, his case came before then Deputy Superintendent Pat Linares. She told him, he said, that he could go to any other school in the district as an assistant principal with no cut in pay — except Arlington Heights.
When asked why, Palazzolo said she replied, “It’s a board issue.” He then asked her, “So, if I had kept my mouth shut, I wouldn’t be sitting here today?” He said she answered, “Yes.”
Linares retired soon after.