It was standing room only at the May 14 school board meeting that went well into the night. Though the board voted on a number of contentious issues, including the renewal of the Just Communities contract for the 2019-2020 school year and to delay the implementation of the Ethnic Studies graduation requirement by one year, these actions were overshadowed by troubling public comment made by the parents of Multimedia Arts and Design (MAD) Academy students at Santa Barbara High School.
Mark and Tami Sherman have two boys who have attended the MAD Academy—one a recent graduate and another who is a current student there. The couple began their statement praising the academy for the instruction and skills their boys have acquired. But they quickly moved into the controversy that’s been surrounding the academy. “We are also intimately aware of the inappropriate relationships and the reprehensible and dangerous actions and inactions that define the culture of the MAD Academy, as exhibited by their current leadership,” read the parents. The Shermans explained their son was an alleged victim of MAD Operations Director Pablo Sweeney’s “predatory behavior.”
The Shermans told the board that their son collected screenshots, emails, text messages, and voice recordings documenting what they described as Sweeney’s inappropriate behavior. Their son reported the incident to Academy Director Dan Williams in January 2018. According to the Shermans, Williams downplayed the accusations and claimed the texts were not intended for the student but were a result of crossed wires and technical chaos at the time of the debris flow. Following his graduation and in the interest of preventing future victims, the Shermans’ son reported the incident to Santa Barbara High School Assistant Principal Tiffany Carson in January 2019.
Sweeney, who was employed through the MAD Foundation and not the district, was barred from being on campus shortly after the incident was reported. In a recent phone interview, Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources John Becchio said he believed Sweeney was placed on paid administrative leave by the MAD Foundation and later resigned.
More recently, on April 18, Williams was placed on temporary administrative leave pending an investigation but resumed his position as director two weeks later after reaching an “amicable agreement” with the district. He is now scheduled to retire from the district at the end of this school year.
The district has not commented on the reasons behind Williams’s temporary leave. However, Justin Tuttle, who has two children in the academy and is running for the 2020 school board, has provided media, including the Santa Barbara Independent, with a copy of an Instagram video in which a group of students are shown holding a bong and a jar of what appears to be marijuana. The Instagram caption claims the video was recorded at Williams’s home. The caption reads, “Also found this vid of [name withheld] when he got nicotine poisoning and yacked in wan dilliams [sic] house.” In the video, a student says, “Yo, Dan, give me a thumbs-up, bro,” and a man who appears to be Williams is then seen giving a thumbs-up. The district could not comment on whether they were aware of the video. However, Williams’s investigation is ongoing, according to Becchio in a phone interview.
In an interview with Tuttle before the school board meeting, he believed the video showed a familiarity and openness with Williams, such as calling him by his first name, that suggested the behavior was not a one-off event. Tuttle said he’s spoken to at least a dozen parents who have similar concerns. A group of those parents, according to Tuttle, are seeking legal counsel and are exploring the option of pursuing legal remedies, alleging inappropriate conduct by Williams.
If parents move forward, this would add to the growing list of litigation against the district, including a suit by former San Marcos High School principal Ed Behrens seeking compensation; a suit by Fair Education alleging anti-white, anti-Christian, anti-male, material is being disseminated within the aid of the district; and, most recently, a suit reported by KEYT alleging a hazing incident at Dos Pueblos High School.
Behrens’s suit against the district alleges there was a “secret reason” behind his demotion to a teaching position last May and filed for reinstatement and punitive damages. On May 9, Judge Pauline Maxwell denied Behrens’s request for reinstatement. In a 12-page opinion, Maxwell wrote, “The court cannot find that the District has a ministerial duty to reinstate petitioner Behrens …. nor can it find the District abused its discretion in removing him from that position….” The cause of action seeking damages are yet to be heard.
While the suit by Fair Education against Just Communities and the district is still underway, the board decided to approve a new and less-expensive contract for the following school year. More than 30 supporters of Ethnic Studies and Just Communities spoke in favor of continuing and expanding cultural proficiency training in the district. Several made the point that they were white, Christian, and male and did not feel Just Communities material was anti-white, anti-Christian, or anti-male, as the Fair Education suit against the district claims. A handful of white parents also wore shirts reading “End White Supremacy” and called out Fair Education as being a “white supremacist” organization.
“Tackling implicit bias is not radical,” said Capps about the allegations against Just Communities material. UCLA requires it for hired professors, she added. The board also voted unanimously to approve the modification of the Ethnic Studies graduation requirement. They responded to requests by community members and staff to push the date back an additional year to ensure a strong launch of the program.
During the public meetings, Santa Barbara Unified Superintendent Cary Matsuoka was largely silent and only commented on the Ethnic Studies pushback after being probed by Boardmember Kate Ford. “It’s very important this launches well,” said Matsuoka, who asked boardmembers to remain mindful of resources available in the district. “There’s got to be resources that match up with vision,” he said.
Among the many controversies surrounding the district, Superintendent Matsuoka’s evaluation was also on the agenda. In response to questioning, Board President Wendy Sims-Moten stated that the review was “not regarding any type of incident.”