“I was told early in the investigation by someone in the [administration] to be afraid of Mr. Palazzolo. …To ‘be careful.’” —Testimony from Margaret Renfro, recent graduate of Arlington Heights High School and a witness against former Heights assistant principal and noted whistleblower Joe Palazzolo who was fired last year after reporting serious allegations of wrongdoings at the school.
The long-awaited Texas Education Agency appeal hearing following the Fort Worth school board’s 6-3 decision to fire Palazzolo got underway today at 9 a.m. in the boardroom presided over by hearing judge and Dallas attorney Jess Rickman. By the time this reporter left at 6 p.m., only four witnesses had been called: Superintendent Melody Johnson, Renfro and two teachers from South Hills High School who had made complaints about Palazzolo when he was a teacher there in 2007. (Those complaints obviously were not taken seriously by the Johnson administration at the time as he was promoted to the assistant principal’s post at Heights the following school year along with a file filled with glowing evaluations.)
The district has charged Palazzolo with several firing offenses, falsifying his initial application, inappropriate touching of a student, violating district policy, creating a hostile work environment and violating the teachers’ code of ethics. He has denied them all. Today’s testimony from Renfro casts doubt on the “inappropriate” touching issue and Jason Smith, a member of the Art Brender law firm here noted for its record wins of whistleblower cases, cut serious holes in the application falsification charge.
Renfro’s testimony was given via a video of her deposition taken earlier by the district’s outside attorneys from the Houston law firm Walsh Anderson and Smith. It was by far the most dramatic of the day and for some in the hearing room, the most chilling, when the pretty teenager with long, honey-coloured hair, calmly reported that her mother had been told by the district’s chief investigator Mike Menchaca of the Office of Professional Standards that there was reason for her to fear Palazzolo.
Of all the multiple accusations thrown at Palazzolo by the administration as reasons to fire him, the threat of violence was never one of them. Now, that ugly accusation has been introduced very late in the day. Palazzolo seemed stunned at her words.
Renfro’s testimony against Palazzolo grew from an incident at the school’s homecoming dance in October 2009. Renfro, the student body president and head of the homecoming committee, and a group of 40 friends hired a limo (yes, a very large one, she said) to take them to the dance after meeting at her home. When they arrived, she testified, Palazzolo and several police officers separated the girls from the boys and the students were taken by the officers to the bathrooms to be tested for alcohol. Four boys and one girl showed positive signs of drinking and the whole group was asked to leave since they had all come together, she said. Renfro refused to leave, claimed her friends were not drinking and demanded answers as to why they were all being kicked out, she said. She denied that she had been drinking and testified that she did not associate with kids who do. Palazzolo ordered her to leave three times and then put his hand on her shoulder to escort her out, she said. Lawyers for the district painted a picture of a limo full of hysterically crying girls and angry boys all denied their dance date because of Palazzolo’s actions.
Asked by Smith, if, in fact, the evidence that the students had been drinking was found by the Fort Worth police and not Palazzolo, Renfro said the police were lying and they were acting at the direction of Palazzolo. (At least one of those police officers is expected to testify when Palazzolo presents his side of the case.)
Renfro admitted, under Smith’s questioning, that at an earlier dance that year a student had overdosed on alcohol and drugs and passed out on the dance floor, causing the school to increase its surveillance of student gatherings such as the homecoming dance. “It was done in an abundance of caution, to protect the kids,” Palazzolo said in an earlier interview.
In one of the more curious exchanges between the district’s lawyer and Renfro, the young girl who was a junior when Palazzolo came to Heights to be assistant principal over the freshman class — “I never had any interaction with her as a student on campus,” he said — was asked a series of questions about Palazzolo’s abilities as an administrator. “Was he kind?” “No.” “Was he compassionate?” “No.” “Was he understanding?” No.” All he wanted to do, she said, “was constantly discipline people.” Yet she also admitted that she had no real contact with him on campus.
Palazzolo’s touch on her shoulder, however, was almost casually dismissed: “He was not aggressive,” she said with a small shrug. Still her mother complained to Principal Neta Alexander and a meeting was held with the parties. Palazzolo did not apologize or back down, she said. The matter seemed to have been dropped — until the next spring when Palazzolo acting on his own knowledge and the allegations of about a dozen teachers reported the serious wrongdoings going on at Heights. The Renfro incident happened in October of ’09. A complaint was allegedly filed in by her parents in May 2010, seven months later. District policy and state law are clear: any complaints against a teacher must be filed within 10 days of the incident and then the accused must be told of the accusations and the name of his or her accuser, and be given ten days to reply. Not only was the complaint filed out of time, Palazzolo was never told of the complaint nor the name of the complainant.
Renfro testified that her parents wrote the letter of complaint to Alexander and copied it to AHHS board trustee Judy Needham, on May 3. And even though Renfro testified that Palazzolo “was not aggressive” Johnson continued to state today that he had “grabbed” the student’s arm. Her source, she said, were the parents. “Wouldn’t [the student] have been the one to know” Smith said.
Needham was pulled into the fray earlier when Smith introduced an email into evidence that was written by her to Johnson following an email I had sent her on July 30, asking on what date she was aware of Palazzolo’s allegations of wrongdoing at Heights. She forwarded my email to Johnson with the note “Can you believe this evil woman?” and said that Joe Palazzolo was lying about her. Johnson said under Smith’s questioning that calling someone evil was “an inappropriate response.”
Johnson’s testimony was less dramatic than Renfro’s, but much longer. She was on the stand for at least six hours.
Before calling Johnson as their first witness, one of the Walsh lawyers, Sandra Carpenter, opened by telling the court that this should be a “simple case.” Palazzolo made it “complicated,” Carpenter said, when he charged that his firing was in retaliation for reporting a litany of wrongdoings at AHHS. “There were problems [at Heights],” she acknowledged and an investigation was started. But, she said, with emphasis, it was “because of allegations brought by otheremployees,” not Palazzolo. She said that Palazzolo made himself “appear” to be a whistleblower “just because he might have participated in the report [of illegalities at the school.]” She further accused the former assistant principal and retired Army captain of “manipulating facts and manipulating people” to make the district look bad and to support his claim of retaliation.
Smith fired back. “We believe the evidence will show that Joe Palazzolo was retaliated against for reporting improper conduct by staff at Arlington Heights,” he said. He pointed out that his client was investigated only after the initial investigation was opened into “all these other allegations” of wrongdoing at Heights, including the attendance fraud, that allowed those found guilty, Principal Neta Alexander, associate superintendent Chuck Boyd, girls athletic director Izzy Perry and assistant principal Harold Nichols, to resign or retire “in lieu” of further action. Boyd and Alexander even got to stay on the payroll until the summer of 2011. Johnson admitted that Arlington Heights administrators had falsified attendance records but would not say that the motive was to raise the school’s completion rate for 2009-2010, the very thing that had made it academically unacceptable in the state’s rankings in 2008-2009.
“I don’t know that that was the motivation,” she said
On August 11, Smith reminded Johnson, the Fort Worth Weeklystory came out detailing the allegations of wrongdoing at the school and naming names. Even though Palazzolo was not named in the first story (he was named in the second one), within two weeks, on August 26, Palazzolo was put on administrative leave and an investigation into his past began. “I think the timing of the investigation [of Palazzolo] and his ultimate termination shows the real reason he was fired as because he reported wrongdoings at Arlington Heights.”
Smith pointed out Palazzolo’s highly favorable evaluations from Principal Neta Alexander, with many “exceeds expectations” and praise for him for “providing exceptional leadership at AHHS” and finding creative ways to work with students.” Until he reported the illegal and unethical conduct of some of the school’s top staffers, that is. Then he was suddenly faced with a bad evaluation and a transfer to a lesser position at the International Newcomers Academy with a cut in pay. Johnson testified that she overruled that move when she realized it was a demotion and that his file had no documents to show that Alexander had counseled Palazzolo or that there was a “growth plan,” both required to be done by supervisors before an employee is demoted. “My first reaction was, why didn’t anyone tell me?”
Then, she testified, “the issue was resolved,” because he was given a lateral transfer to Western Hills High School, same position, same pay. She had heard “vaguely” that there were “concerns” about Palazzolo from “various sources” such as employees, parents, teachers, counselors, administrators,” but did not name anyone. Smith then noted that in Palazzolo’s file regarding all those complaints she said she had heard about, there were “no written warnings, no documented complaints.”
And then of course, there were the anonymous letters, one in September, one in October.
The letters accused Palazzolo of “committing a crime, and being terminated,” she said, and lying about it all on his application with the district. She testified that she sent it to her investigators, Menchaca and Chief of Administration Sylvia Reyna, who opened an investigation.
In an earlier interview, Palazzolo said that Menchaca had told him he would not investigate anonymous accusations when Palazzolo first brought the teachers’ unsigned allegations of wrongdoing at Heights to him. Palazzolo was told by Menchaca to get signatures or throw the statements away. However, Johnson testified, “We always follow through [on anonymous letters] to verify.”
Reyna found that Palazzolo was “convicted of criminal activities of some sort,” she said. But she, Johnson, was not personally involved in the investigation and did not read the reports. Reyna was advising her, she said. As it turned out, Palazzolo had one misdemeanor from 13 years ago arising out of a charge by his ex-wife that he owed her back child support from his mustering out pay from the army. Smith argues that it was not a “criminal” activity. Palazzolo paid the disputed claim and believed the case was expunged. In any event, Johnson testified that the type of misdemeanor was not one that would have prevented the district from hiring him. The problem was that he did not reveal it.
When asked if there were others in the district that had misdemeanors but failed to report them and are still employed, Johnson said, “Not to my knowledge.”
Then Smith pulled out a list to show otherwise. Smith introduced evidence that shows several unnamed employees were found to have misdemeanor convictions in their backgrounds that they did not reveal and the district found out yet they are still employed. “I was not aware of any of these,” she said.
District policy, according to Menchaca and others, is discretionary when it comes to termination for such offenses. He has said in the past that the district does not “have to take action” for such an offense, “but it could take action.” The most one employee got was a “letter of concern,” Smith said and others were simply allowed to stay on.
Toward the end of the day, Smith read from a long series of emails sent to district administrators in support of Palazzolo from his coworkers at Heights and friends at other schools. The emails were never included in the investigative report on Palazzolo that was sent to the board recommending his termination. Smith said to Johnson, “None of these were sent to the board, correct?”
She replied, “Yes.” Then from Smith, “You testified that one of the reasons he was fired was a hostile work environment. …These documents show a different view, correct?”
Today’s hearing is the beginning of the end of the administrative process. If the hearing examiner rules for Palazzolo, the case comes back to the board for approval or rejection. If they reject, the case will be decided by the Commissioner of Education. His decision is final.