Neither the Santa Barbara Police Department nor the District Attorney’s office is investigating parent and student allegations of wrongdoing at the MAD (Multimedia Arts & Design) Academy — nor has either agency received a private investigator’s report commissioned by the school district on the matter, law enforcement officials said.

“I was contacted by the school district’s attorney,” District Attorney Joyce Dudley told Newsmakers. “They wanted to turn their investigation over to SBPD. I referred them to SBPD.”

At the police department, Public Information Officer Anthony Wagner said, “We are aware that the school district has conducted an internal personnel investigation.

“However,” Wagner added, “at this point they have not forwarded the matter to us for criminal review.”

Santa Barbara Unified district Superintendent Cary Matsuoka

Both comments came in response to a carefully worded statement that Superintendent Cary Matsuoka released late Friday about the ongoing controversy surrounding the acclaimed Multimedia Arts & Design Academy at Santa Barbara High School. Here is a link to a primer on the issue.

Matsuoka’s statement confirmed for the first time that the district in January hired a private investigator who examined accusations lodged against Pablo Sweeney, who resigned in March as operations director of the MAD Academy, and Dan Williams, director of the program, who was placed on paid administrative leave in April, but allowed to return to campus not long after, accompanied by the announcement that he is retiring as of June 30.

In his statement, the superintendent’s first on the affair, Matsuoka said that the school district’s “investigation is continuing and we have reported our activities to the Santa Barbara Police Department and the District Attorney and offered to work with them to the fullest degree possible.”

However, the law enforcement agencies have received no formal complaint and therefore to date have nothing to investigate.

The district — through Griffith & Thornburgh, its private law firm — informed the SBPD and county DA, a few hours before Matsuoka’s Friday statement, that it had conducted an internal personnel investigation; it did not provide the work product of the investigation itself, however. 

An attorney for Griffith & Thornburgh declined to comment.

The law enforcement comments are significant for two reasons:

•  As a practical matter, they provide clarity in delineating authoritatively the status of inquiries into the academy controversy, which has grown more acrimonious amid an atmosphere of official secrecy, social media gossip, and whispers within the school’s community.

•  As a political matter, the disclosure that the district informed law enforcement of the existence of its private investigation — but not of its content — suggests that school officials believe that allegations put forth by parents do not rise to the level of potential criminal conduct.

The latter could fuel frustrations in advance of next Tuesday’s school board meeting, at a time when irate parents have grown increasingly vocal about their belief that the district has failed to take their concerns seriously. 

Specifically, some parents believe that Matsuoka, Williams and other school district professionals did not fulfill their legal obligations in their role of what is known in the state Penal Code as a Mandated Reporter.

Under the law, public school officials are required to inform law enforcement or a child welfare agency whenever there is a “reasonable suspicion” that a child has been subject to possible abuse or neglect. Some parents have charged that Sweeney’s alleged behavior on campus while employed by a nonprofit group that raises money for the academy rose to the “reasonable suspicion” level.

In addition to the primer, more of our coverage of the MAD Academy affair is here, here and here.

The five-member school board is to convene Tuesday at 5 p.m. A copy of the agenda is available here.

This story first appeared in Newsmakers with Jerry Roberts on May 26, 2019.


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