Fort Worth school district attorneys are apparently willing to intimidate witnesses in their scramble to stick a fork in former Arlington Heights High School assistant principal Joe Palazzolo. With his job in the balance, Palazzolo appealed his firing after he blew the whistle on serious (later proven to be true) illegalities at one of the city’s proudest old schools. Last week’s snow and ice canceled the appeal hearings, but they started up again this week.
One of the charges against Palazzolo is that he failed to declare a misdemeanor when he applied for work in 2005. In earlier testimony, Palazzolo’s lawyer showed that the 14-year-old conviction involved back child support that had long since been paid. At the time eight criminal background checks failed to turn it up. However, that led to a chilling moment in Tuesday’s testimony when a district lawyer tried to scare one of Palazzolo’s most effective witnesses by implying that the witness, too, could be fired because he failed to declare a misdemeanor conviction for criminal mischief that had occurred when he was 17. “I paid a fine and was told it had been expunged,” said Chad Whitt, head coach for boys soccer at Arlington Heights. But in the hall following his testimony, he added to no one in particular, “I’m probably next.”
Whitt and ninth-grade science teacher Jackie Segler testified that even though they both feared retaliation, they were there to testify to Palazzolo’s integrity and professionalism and to refute the charges from former Heights assistant principal Kerwin Cormier that Palazzolo was a “serial bully” who oversaw a “hostile work environment.”
Segler said she had “never witnessed an assistant principal make such a positive impact” on a school as Palazzolo. Whitt said Palazzolo was an “outstanding leader” who had to make “difficult decisions” because the school was so out of control when he got there. Segler recounted several instances in which Palazzolo defused serious problems at the school, ranging from an assistant principal’s verbal and physical attack on a teacher in front of two students to his professional handling of a lapse by the school when a student with dyslexia was placed in a regular classroom without assistance, which is against federal law. The student failed his entire first semester, exposing the district to the possibility of a lawsuit. Palazzolo helped arrange for the student to make up the lost credits, satisfying the mother. At press time, six more teachers were waiting in the wings to testify for Palazzolo.