Education

Merced high school district holds special meeting on sexual harassment claims

Merced Union High School District Deputy Superintendent Ralph Calderon looks on during an Merced Union High School District special board meeting at the school district office in Atwater, Calif., on Thursday, May 17, 2018. The meeting was held to discuss three separate claims of sexual harassment within the school district.
Merced Union High School District Deputy Superintendent Ralph Calderon looks on during an Merced Union High School District special board meeting at the school district office in Atwater, Calif., on Thursday, May 17, 2018. The meeting was held to discuss three separate claims of sexual harassment within the school district. akuhn@mercedsun-star.com

After a marathon closed session at a special meeting of the Merced Union High School District this week, the board announced plans to improve how the district handles sexual harassment complaints following allegations by a decorated teacher and two students.

The board met for nearly four hours Thursday night in a closed session to consider "significant exposure to litigation" regarding three allegations, according to board President Dave Honey.

Honey noted two cases of alleged sexual harassment of students that were revealed during the May 9 board meeting, and a third report of sexual harassment and battery reported by Golden Valley High teacher Annie Delgado during the same meeting. Those cases are under investigation, administrators said Friday.

Delgado has not publicly identified the person she says sexually harassed her.

On Thursday, more than 40 teachers and staff members were in attendance and called for action against Ralph Calderon, deputy superintendent of human resources. Delgado has said Calderon mishandled her sexual harassment workplace harassment complaint.

Following Thursday's emergency meeting, Honey read a prepared statement:

"The board met with counsel and reviewed all procedures and policies related to the three cases on the agenda. The board of trustees takes all matters of this nature very seriously and has given very thoughtful consideration to all concerns expressed," Honey said in the statement. "The board has directed Superintendent Peterson to work with union leadership to receive input on addressing concerns around these issues. You can expect future communications soon that will outline specific action steps."

Mike Boykin, the teachers union president, said the board's intention to work with the union was just one of the changes the union and supporters are seeking .

"First there needs to be education for everyone involved in the school district, from students to the superintendent, sensitizing about the issue of sexual harassment," Boykin said. "Second, there needs to be a method of how complaints handled that doesn't put the blame on the victim."

During the May 9 meeting, Delgado, a social studies teacher at Golden Valley, said the school district administration and Calderon mishandled her reports of being sexually touched and harassed by another employee, and made comments that seemingly put blame back onto her.

Her speech, which centered on a "systemic" problem regarding harassment complaints, came the same night as several others staffers and students also said their reports of workplace and sexual harassment were either mishandled or ignored by Calderon and the Human Resources Department.

Some teachers criticized the timing of Thursday's emergency meeting. Notice of the meeting was given 24 hours and 10 minutes before the meeting's start time of 4:30 p.m., Boykin said. The school district is required to give at least 24 hours advance notice for a special board meeting.

Before the school board convened in closed session, some teachers tried to speak about additional claims of workplace harassment. But they were stopped by Honey after being notified that public comment session of a special board meeting can only be about the general topics being discussed in closed session, which included sexual harassment.

Teacher Anneka Schneider spoke about a female teacher who claimed another teacher gave her an unwanted kiss in summer 2016 at Sequoia High School.

The teacher said Calderon shrugged the complaint off when he was notified and said something to the effect of "that's what the culture is" at Sequoia High, Schneider said.

Marcia Bettencourt, a social studies teacher at Livingston High School, said the school district suffered from a specific brand of sexual harassment, which she described as "more pervasive" and "less subtle." She explained that women and female students often face slander when they have tried to fight back against sexual harassment by confronting accusers or reporting abuse.

Kathryn Forbes, a professor with the Women's Studies Program at Fresno State University, also attended the meeting and spoke about a lack of information and resources about reporting sexual abuse. She added she has requested information about how the school district handles sexual harassment and assault policies.

Teachers who tried to speak but couldn't during public comment shared their remarks with other teachers and supporters after the board left for closed session.

Following Honey's statement after closed session, Justin Kenny, the secretary for the local branch of the California Teachers Association, said the statement came as no surprise.

"There are outside agencies that are spotlighting this," he said. "It's an issue that's not going to go away."

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