At this coming Tuesday night’s school board meeting, Fort Worth schools superintendent Melody Johnson will recommend to the trustees that Joe Palazzolo, former assistant principal and the whistleblower in the Arlington Heights High School scandal, be fired.
This will come as no surprise to readers of this paper. Fort Worth Weeklyhas been reporting on the Palazzolo and Arlington Heights controversy since August. Palazzolo had been warned as early as last May that he was a target of the district’s ire for reporting a litany of illegal and unethical wrongdoings that had been occurring at the school for years with the knowledge and in some cases the collusion of the school’s principal, Neta Alexander. Eleven teachers at the school provided Palazzolo with signed statements detailing their first-hand knowledge of the illegalities which ranged from sexual harassment to falsification of attendance records, triggering an internal investigation that lasted five months. In a report released last week, district investigators confirmed almost all of the charges including the fact that three of its former administrators — Principal Neta Alexander, assistant principal Harold Nichols and girls athletic director Isabelle Perry — had committed fraud by falsifying attendance records, a criminal offense under the Texas Penal Code. The report also found that assistant superintendent Chuck Boyd, now on administrative leave after being implicated in the scandal, was guilty of “unethical behavior” and “poor judgment” for protecting his old friend Perry’s illegal actions and borrowing $4,900 from her putting him in a position of being beholden to one of his subordinates.
Ironically, Palazzolo, who was never named by the teachers or anyone else as one of the perpetrators of the illegal and unethical practices that were going on at the school is the only person involved in the controversy to face termination — in spite of the fact that the district investigators received over 80 emails from Heights teachers in support of Palazzolo. One wrote that a number of positive projects that he started would be lost if he is not allowed to return to the school.
That fact that only Palazzolo has been targeted has enraged board member Carlos Vasquez, a former school employee who represents District 1.
“I am very angry that they want to fire the whistleblower and take no action against those who committed the misconduct he reported,” Vasquez said in a telephone interview yesterday after receiving a letter from Sylvia Reyna, chief of administration of the Fort Worth schools, notifying the board of the superintendent’s decision. In it she said the reasons were based on “concerns … raised during the course of the District’s investigation of matters pertaining to Arlington Heights High School.”
“How does this look to the public,” he said, “to fire the person who brought the charges in the first place? This is all skewed. It is so wrong.”
Vasquez said he didn’t care what the charges are against Palazzolo, Johnson will not get his vote. “Whether he was an exemplary employee or not, is not the question,” he said. “This has been a witch hunt, to get the whistleblower who spoke out and brought attention to serious violations of the law. …This culture [of retaliation] permeates the district, if employees speak out, [the administration] goes after them. We are not supporting our employees and this has got to stop.”
Trustee Tobi Jackson said in an email response, “Out of respect to Mr. Palazzolo and his family, it would be appropriate to comment post the conclusion of this matter.” She also said she hopes the district will “insure that every member of the FWISD team knows they can move forward without the concern of retaliation.” Norm Robbins also mentioned to another newspaper that employees should not fear retaliation if they come forward with allegations of wrongdoing.
Board members Ann Sutherland and Juan Rangel have expressed concerns about the district’s sudden turn from investigating the serious charges Palazzolo brought to light to an investigation of the whistleblower.
“The intensive investigation against Joe Palazzolo began only after he reported problems to the district. After spending hours reviewing documents, I have concluded he did not commit any offenses that warrant his dismissal,” Sutherland wrote in an email response. Rangel said in an earlier interview, based on the evidence he had seen so far, he would vote against termination.
Judy Needham, who represents the district and was named by dozens of Heights teachers as having knowledge of the corrupt culture there but failed to do anything about it, has said she will recuse herself from voting on the termination.
Linda LaBeau, who ran against Needham last year for the board seat and who represented Palazzolo as a professional mediator, said that she plans to file “ethics charges against Judy Needham for her complicity with Alexander to alter testing and attendance records and her refusal to assist minority students in her district.” LaBeau said she bases her complaints on charges brought to her by teachers and parents in the district. LaBeau has also asked the Department of Education’s office of special counsel to open an investigation into the district’s handling of the Arlington Heights scandal.
“Everyone is going to wonder, ‘What happened to the other players’ in this,” said Larry Shaw, referring to the Heights administrators and Boyd. Shaw is CEO of the United Educators Association the largest teachers’ organization in the county.
He represented Palazzolo after he filed his first grievance against the district when it moved him to a smaller school and cut his pay shortly after he reported the allegations. The allegations brought against Palazzolo as a basis for firing him are highly questionable, he said, and are based on hearsay and mysteriously appearing documents that did not exist when Shaw met with Alexander and reviewed Palazzolo’s personnel file in June. “This simply doesn’t pass my smell test,” Shaw said. “It is one of the weirdest things this downtown administration has done yet and it is totally wrong,” he said.
Since then, Palazzolo has been moved to another high school, then shortly after that abruptly put on paid administrative leave in late August based on a complaint the district claims was filed by a student six months earlier — but one that Palazzolo has never been allowed to see even though the district’s letter telling him Johnson wanted him fired uses the complaint as a basis for firing him. The details of the complaint, without naming the complainant, were first officially released last Friday in the district’s report on the Heights investigation. The Star-Telegramreported two weeks ago that the complainant called reporter Eva Ayala telling her that she was a senior at Heights who was angered because, she alleged, Palazzolo turned her and her date away from last year’s prom because her date was believed to be drinking.
The district’s report claims that Palazzolo, on his own initiative imposed a breathalyzer test on the students, bullied them, tried to push the girl as he escorted them back to their chauffeur-driven limousine, failed to call the parents reporting possible alcohol use and then failed to take action against the students because they were white.
“If this is what the complaint states, it is all untrue,” Palazzolo told the Weekly. He remembers well the incident, but said that there were two or three police officers there that night and four other assistant principals and several teachers. “The Fort Worth PD did the sobriety tests,” he said. The young woman in question’s date was believed to have been drinking and was asked to leave, he said. “Their parents were called,” he said. “Another teacher was in charge of that and she reported to me that the parents were notified.” As for the failure to take action, Palazzolo said that was Alexander’s decision. “Alexander told a teacher there that night that the police officers were corrupt and she would take no action against the students because she said, “I know their parents.”
Several of the teachers there that night support Palazzolo’s version of the events. None will speak publicly for fear of retaliation.
Several things are wrong with the complaint even beyond the facts of the incident, Palazzolo, his attorney Jason Smith and Shaw point out: State law and district policy require that any complaint filed against a district employee must be filed within ten days of the alleged incident, that the accused be told of the charges and the name of his or her accuser and that a conference with the complainant and the accused be established within another ten day period for resolution. None of those conditions were met. In addition, in June, Shaw said he asked Alexander specifically if there were any letters or reports of complaints against Palazzolo in his file and she said, “No.”
“So now, this complaint appears months later, but wasn’t there when I asked? No way,” he said.
Other charges brought against Palazzolo claim that he falsified information on his application when he withheld information regarding his “criminal history and previous work experience.” The district claims he had a “conviction in federal court” and a criminal conviction in state court, both in Oklahoma. The report, authored by Reyna, does not state that both were misdemeanors that occurred 13 and 20 years ago respectively and that one, an issue over a security guard’s expired license, a worker in Palazzolo’s security company long defunct, was satisfied by Palazzolo paying a fine and was expunged from his record. The other, he points out, was a child support issue filed by his former wife and “was never on my record to my knowledge,” he said. “I paid the back support she claimed I owed and I only made one appearance in court to agree to the terms of the settlement.” Palazzolo said that the case was never officially filed until someone from the district called the Oklahoma federal court’s clerk seeking the information after being tipped off by an anonymous letter writer. “The clerk told me that she couldn’t find any reference to my file, but that the person from the district insisted that it was there. The clerk finally found the documents in an old filing cabinet and, noting that it had never been officially entered into the record, filed it on September 22, 2010 — 13 years after the fact.
Palazzolo said he did not lie about his past record, but believed that only felony convictions were required to be reported. His contract with the district and the district’s own employee handbook both refer only to felony convictions as reportable. He said he does not believe that his original application for employment, signed in 2005, referred to misdemeanors and felonies as reportable even though current applications do.
Palazzolo was also accused of “inequity” in assessing discipline to black and brown students as compared to whites, a charge he flatly denies, pointing out that in the original complaints from him and the 11 teachers at Heights, that charge was consistently raised by all against principal Alexander.
There are also two complaints from two counselors (unnamed) who claim that he bullied them. Another charge he denies. “I think I know who the complainants are, however,” he said. One, he believes, is from a counselor that he reported for interfering with a felony warrant for theft about to be issued against a Heights student by a Fort Worth police officer. Palazzolo was told that the police were on the way to arrest the student and was asked not to let him know. The student’s counselor was also told but she warned the student’s mother who came to get him before the police arrived. Another had to do with a counselor “who failed to issue instructional modifications to more than 12 special needs students,” he said.
But “To this day, I have never seen either of these complaints,” he said.
In the final paragraph Reyna writes, “A number of statements were received from staff members regarding your unprofessional behavior and bullying conduct,” without specifying who wrote the statements or of what exactly Palazzolo is accused.
“I asked in August and September under the Texas Open Records act for all of the complaints, the names of my accusers, the names of the district personnel who investigated the ‘anonymous letter,’ and the investigators reports” he said, “which is my right under the law and due process, to know who my accusers are and what the accusations are, but the district keeps denying me the information, based on the fact that I am ‘under investigation,’” he said.
Palazzolo provided this reporter with three letters from the district’s legal department head Bertha Whatley, in which she keeps putting off a release date for the open records requests based on the fact that he is under investigation. In the latest letter, she writes that he will get the information by October 29 — three days after the board will have been asked to vote on his termination.
“How can I defend myself against these charges, when I don’t know what they are, who they are from and will not even get them in time to respond? If this is how due process works under Melody Johnson, then I fear for everyone who works for this district,” he said