It is not official yet — the Fort Worth school trustees as well as a Texas Education Agency hearings examiner will still have to hear his case — but if they uphold district superintendent Melody Johnson’s recommendation, former Arlington Heights High School assistant principal and whistle blower Joe Palazzolo will soon be looking for work. Johnson wants him fired.
“Melody Johnson should resign or be fired herself for her handling of this case,” said Jason Smith, Palazzolo’s attorney. “This is a classic institutional response [to a whistle blower] – don’t fix the problem, attack the messenger. … Joe has been a teacher for 12 years, been with this district for three years. He reported violations of the law, misuse of funds, and only after that did the district go after him.”
Last spring, allegations of sexual harassment, attendance fraud and mishandling of booster club funds were among the most serious charges brought against persons in principal Neta Alexander’s administration by Palazzolo and a dozen or more teachers at the school, triggering a lengthy, internal investigation. Johnson, sources close to the investigation say, has also recommended that Alexander be fired as well for her role in the scandal that has shaken the venerable old school to its foundations.
Those allegations were first made public by Fort Worth Weekly in August. Shortly after, Alexander and assistant superintendent Chuck Boyd, who was also alleged to have been involved in the scandal, were placed on administrative leave with pay.
Sources within the administration say that the district has upheld most of the allegations, first reported to the district in May by Palazzolo and the teachers, many of whom said in their signed statements that they had been reporting the problems to Alexander and even to its board representative Judy Needham for years to no avail.
The attendance fraud, which included changing the attendance records of more than 20 seniors with high truancy rates allowing them to graduate in order to keep the school’s completion rate high, is being laid at the feet of Izzy Perry, the former Heights girls’ athletic director, and former Heights assistant principal Harold Nichols, sources said. Both resigned in June. Boyd, a long-time friend of Perry’s who was accused of protecting her, is likely facing a non-renewal of his contract, these same sources said.
Adding to the district’s woes, the Tarrant County district attorney’s office is currently investigating the misuse of the school’s booster club funds.
Despite the fact that so many of the allegations reported by Palazzolo and the teachers have been upheld, Johnson has recommended that Palazzolo be fired on the grounds that when he was hired by the Fort Worth district three years ago, he failed to report two misdemeanor convictions that happened in Oklahoma 13 and 20 years ago. One was for failing to pay past-due child support following a “rough period of unemployment,” he said. The money was repaid and he became current with his payments, he said. A check of federal and state court records show that there have been no other child-support issues filed against Palazzolo since that time. The second had to do with a security firm he owned in 1988 when an employee allowed her security license to expire without his knowledge. As the owner, he was charged with a misdemeanor violation of a state licensing act and fined, he said.
The “failure to report” accusation has replaced the district’s earlier reason for placing him on administrative leave shortly after school began this year: an alleged complaint filed against him a year ago by a former Heights student who has since graduated. She said that Palazzolo refused her entrance to a school dance on grounds that she had been drinking, which the student denied, and that Palazzolo put his hands on her shoulders during the incident.
Palazzolo and his representatives say both charges are without merit, both on procedural and factual grounds.
According to both Palazzolo and Larry Shaw, head of the county’s largest teachers’ group, administrators who told Palazzolo on Wednesday that his firing was being recommended said it was because he had failed to report felonies. But Palazzolo, Shaw, and Palazzolo’s attorney Jason Smith all said that Palazzolo has no felonies on his record in any state. A computer search of federal and state court records appears to bear out their contention.
“When I questioned an administrator about this, she told me his crime was a felony,” Shaw said. “I said ‘No, it is a misdemeanor.’ She insisted, ‘No, it is a felony.’”
Palazzolo said it is true that he did not list the misdemeanor convictions on his employment application three years ago – because he believed he was only required to report felonies. Although the district’s current application asks for felonies and misdemeanors, Shaw said that for years the applications for employment in the district only asked applicants to report “felony convictions.”
Palazzolo understood that he had to report any felony convictions and did not know that he had to report misdemeanors, he said. A copy of the two-year contract that Palazzolo signed as well as the employee handbook in force at the time of his hiring specify that only felonies or certain other crimes that relate to an employee’s fitness for dealing with children, such as sex- or drug-related charges or crimes against children are reportable.
Moreover, the district did a criminal background check on Palazzolo at the time of his hiring and again a year later when he was promoted to assistant principal. Nothing appeared. Palazzolo passed criminal checks that were done in earlier years when he served for 14 years in the U.S. Army and when he worked for the Government Services Administration.
The complaint against Palazzolo by the former student was based on an incident that allegedly happened at the homecoming dance last year. After the district told Palazzolo about the complaint that they said was filed a year ago, officials refused to tell him who had filed it.
When he learned the specifics of the complaint this week (after reading the names of the complainants in the Star-Telegram) Palazzolo said he remembered the incident, and that he never touched the young woman, who at that time was the Heights’ student body president.
“I was one of five assistant principals at the dance, along with about three Fort Worth police officers,” he said. “We [the principals] were not checking the students for alcohol, the police officers were. I remember this young woman, and she was not accused of drinking, her date was. I think the parents were called, since that would have been the policy, and if it had been my daughter, that’s exactly what I would have wanted done.”
Shaw, head of the United Educators Association, said firing Palazzolo is the administration’s way of sending a message to employees not to bring forward any allegations of wrongdoing. “This has happened too much in the past,” he said, “with this administration finding a way to get rid of people it doesn’t want. But this time Joe is fighting back.”
The past year has been a roller coaster for Palazzolo and his family. After he first reported the wrongdoings, the district transferred him to a lower position at another school with a cut in pay, citing a “poor evaluation” from his principal Alexander. When Palazzolo refused the transfer and filed a grievance against the district charging retaliation, Johnson pulled back, allowed her deputy superintendent to change the evaluation to a positive one and sent him to an assistant principal’s job at Western Hills High School. The job at Western Hills lasted about a week before he was put on administrative leave with pay because of the complaint that had surfaced that dated back more than a year — even though district policy and state law state that any complaint against a teacher must be filed within ten days and that during that time the teacher must be given notice of the complaint and its contents.
The district chose to ignore its own policy and state law, Palazzolo, Smith and Shaw all pointed out. Not only was it out of time, Palazzolo said, he never heard of the complaint until the district used it to justify his suspension in late August. Even then, the district would not tell him who the complainant was nor would they tell him its contents.
When this paper asked for a copy of the complaint, it was told that the information was confidential and part of “an investigation.”
Shaw said that when Palazzolo was first transferred in early June, his group represented him.. “I sat with him and Neta Alexander and asked her if there were any complaints against Joe in his file, she had the file in her lap, and she said ‘No, none.’”
“Now a year later a complaint pops up? No way,” Shaw said. “I believe the district is going to have a very tough time proving they have grounds for termination once Joe’s case gets before the TEA hearings examiner. …That hearing will be completely independent, and in the past the Commissioner of Education has set the bar very high on termination cases,” Shaw said.