Last night, the Fort Worth School Board voted to uphold hearing examiner Rick Rickman’s recommendation that embattled whistle blower and former Arlington Heights High School assistant principal Joe Palazzolo be terminated for “good cause”. The vote came right at midnight last night following Palazzolo attorney Jason Smith’s appeal to the Board to take the full ten days it is allowed by law to consider the facts and the errors within the ruling before it either accepts or rejects the Rickman conclusions.
Smith had filed a brief with the Board earlier that day raising serious questions about the veracity of the ruling based on a number of critical errors in Rickman’s facts not the least of which was his misidentification of a white student as an African-American in order to support the district’s allegation that Palazzolo punished minority students more harshly and with more frequency than whites.
Rickman used as an example of such disparate treatment an incident between Palazzolo and a student with the initials “SS” claiming that the student was African American.
The student in question is actually white. That major error was first reported by this paper on February 27.
When Smith pointed out the discrepancy, the district’s outside attorney, Sandi Tarski, admitted that the student was indeed white, but that the error was insignificant and did not change the claim. She said that Rickman inserted the wrong initials and that the student who should have been identified was black. However, the incident that was reported by Rickman as the example dealt with a transfer student who was failing four classes. District policy requires that such students must pass all of their classes in order to maintain their eligibility to remain at Heights. At the request of her teachers and her mother, Palazzolo said that he pulled the student from class to warn her that she was failing and that her transfer could be rescinded. “I was simply enforcing district policy,” he said. Rickman even identified the student more specifically by describing a bracelet she was wearing when Palazzolo removed her from the class and comments that he had made regarding the bracelet that the student said had been created by her mother. The details about this student would not have applied to anyone else.
Rickman dug himself into a deeper hole by writing that the incident proved “bullying, and unprofessional conduct” by Palazzolo, leading Principal Neta Alexander to conclude that “Palazzolo did not work well with African-Americans and was constantly in conflict with them.”
Another misstatement of fact dealt with a couple of Hispanic students who were wanted by the Fort Worth police for felony burglerys. The attorney for the district painted Palazzolo as being so eager to make an example of one kid that Palazzolo identified him as a flight risk and allowed him to be handcuffed and walked down the hall between several cops in front of his fellow students. The incident was used to show Palazzolo’s bias toward minorities.
The attorney and Rickman both ignored the testimony of the police officer in charge of the arrest that day. Whenever he had to deal with a problem kid at Heights, Detective Sgt. Frank Halford testified on day two of the hearing, then principal Alexander always referred him to Palazzolo who helped him handle the situation in a “professional manner.” The incident referred to by the district’s attorney was one that Halford was very familiar with. He testified that 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 they were “a high flight risk.” It was Halford who made the decision to arrest the student in class, not Palazzolo. The other kid was at home. However, when Halford arrived at the residence later that day, the student was packing to leave town. It was later revealed that his mother had been tipped off by someone from the school.
None of that testimony made it into the Rickman report. Nor did the testimony of the eight teachers from AHHS who worked closely with Palazzolo who testified at length on his behalf. The above are just two of numerous examples of factual errors or omissions cited by Smith.
The vote to upholdPalazzolo’s firing was 5-2. Trustee Judy Needham, who figured prominently in the testimony as one who wanted to get rid of Palazzolo, left before the vote. Trustee Ann Sutherland, a strong supporter of Palazzolo, recused herself because, she said, that while she knew she could be fair, she had received materials about the case outside the official channels. Board members Juan Rangel and Carlos Vasquez voted in favor of Palazzolo.
The final step in this process is an appeal of the decision to the commissioner of education. Following that, Smith said the case will go to district court as a whistleblower lawsuit against the district. Fort Worth Weekly will have a more detailed report on this case in the near future.