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School District Announces Investigation into MAD Academy

The Santa Barbara Unified School District has informed the Police Department and District Attorney’s Office that it has conducted its own investigation of alleged improprieties by leaders at the MAD (Multimedia Arts & Design) Academy, Superintendent Cary Matsuoka said late Friday.

SBUSD Superintendent Cary Matsuoka

“The 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,” he said in a written, emailed statement.

Following several weeks of controversy within Santa Barbara’s schools community — which we’ve covered here, here and here — Matsuoka’s 250-word statement is the first official word about public accusations made by parents of students at Santa Barbara High School’s Multimedia Arts and Design Academy.

Two parents have alleged improper “predation” behavior by Pablo Sweeney, the resigned operations director.

Another released a social media video that shows Dan Williams, the longtime director of the program, who is to retire next month, with four students, one of whom hoists a bong and a jar of marijuana and yells, “Yack and rally!” Several of the students defended Williams in a newspaper interview this week, saying the incident was innocent.

Parents have pressed the district to contact law enforcement about their complaints, and accused school officials of effectively covering up allegations of wrongdoing by failing to do so.

Parents Mark and Tami Sherman said at last week’s meeting that their son first complained to Williams about Sweeney’s alleged behavior in January 2018, but was rebuffed:

“In January of 2019, having given the adults over a year to take action, in the interest of preventing more vulnerable prey to become victim (sic), our son reported all of this to” an assistant principal at SBHS, they said. “He handed over a file with copies of text messages and emails, a written statement, and a copy of the voice recording in which Pablo Sweeney admits to inappropriate behavior.”

Matsuoka in his statement said that the district then promptly hired L.A.-based Public Interest Investigations to look into the allegations.

He offered no elaboration about the district’s investigation.

SBUSD’s notification to law enforcement of the existence of the district probe appears to have occurred in the past few days; the superintendent’s statement stops short of saying the district has shared any of its substance or findings with the SBPD or DA.

Matsuoka also restated in his letter what the district has done in regard to Sweeney, who was employed by the nonprofit fundraising arm of the academy but who worked on campus, and Williams, a certified teacher and district employee.

“During the investigation, Academy staff member, Pablo Sweeney, resigned. MAD Academy Director, Dan Williams, reached an agreement with the district to retire and his last day of work will be June 7, 2019.

“The agreement with Mr. Williams did not involve any payout of money. Mr. Williams returned to work after a brief paid leave following a determination that his presence on campus posed no risk to student safety,” he wrote.

Matsuoka said the district has been hamstrung in communicating about the affair by laws prohibiting official comment and discussion of personnel matters, but insisted he has given full weight to the concerns of parents:

“The district is taking every allegation related to the MAD Academy seriously, our investigation is on-going and we are in contact with the Santa Barbara Police Department and the District Attorney,” he wrote. “Following first notification to a district administrator, we immediately commenced an investigation and took additional steps to ensure student safety.”

“Our ability to share information with others has been restricted due to the requirements imposed on confidential personnel investigations,” he said. “That limitation should in no way be interpreted as a lack of concern or attention to student safety.”

“I encourage anyone with additional information to either contact me, use the confidential STOPIt app located on the SBHS website, or call the Santa Barbara Police Department at 805-882-8900,” Matsuoka added.

This story first appeared at Newsmakers with Jerry Roberts on May 25, 2019.

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