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Two Trustees Playing to the Gallery Dominated Marathon Expulsion Hearing

It’s likely the most extraordinary public meeting in Santa Clara Unified’s history: a five-and-a-half hour expulsion hearing in public session. The December 2013 hearing was triggered when the family of a student facing expulsion waived the standard closed, confidential hearing and requested a public one – which creates a public record. The WEEKLY requested that record after learning about the unusual meeting.

SCUSD has never had a public expulsion hearing, to the knowledge of former Superintendent Don Callejon, who worked in the district 43 years. Other Bay Area school district administrators say that while parents can request public hearings, it’s extremely rare for them to do so. It’s also rare to have hearings last almost six hours, even if the student brings a lawyer.

Normally, those conducting expulsion hearings review the facts (some districts have independent panels) and make decisions about students returning to mainstream classrooms or getting other placement. However in this hearing, Trustees Ina Bendis and Christopher Stampolis apparently came prepared to prosecute a case against district staff instead.

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They hijacked the hearing to put administrators, teachers, and district procedures on trial; cross examine the district’s lawyer on his legal knowledge; suggest an alternative version of events; and present off-the-cuff psychiatric diagnoses far beyond the scope of trustee powers. Bendis alone spoke 160 minutes – nearly half of the entire meeting.

Ed Code Quiz, Cross Examination, and Psychiatric Diagnosis

Immediately Bendis asked if witnesses were allowed to hear other witnesses testify. No prohibition, the lawyer answered.

“I just pulled up on my phone…that section of the government code…” Stampolis jumped in. “And was wondering if counsel might opine.

“In 54957, which you just said you didn’t think was relevant – section (b)(3), which is part of 94957, which says that ‘the legislative body may exclude from the public or closed meeting during the examination of a witness, any or all other witnesses to the matters being investigated by the legislative body.’ … Would you comment on that about a public meeting in which you’re holding an examination?”

“That’s under 54957 which applies specifically to…personnel matters,” replied the attorney.

This went on for over an hour – including definitional discussions of “knife,” “possession,” “expulsion,” and “hearing” – before the board got down to business: The student’s history of fights and a pencil-stabbing; threats to bring a BB gun to school, break district office windows, stab another student with scissors, and suicide.

School psychologists repeatedly worked with the student on behavior improvement plans, until the student brought a pocketknife to school and was seen carving on a desk with it. The student was immediately expelled and moved to an alternative program, where the student was happier and doing better academically.

Trustees only got to talk about the student’s welfare for about 20 minutes, however, before Bendis began cross-examining staff about the expulsion letter. “Did you receive this on the 23rd or did you receive it on a different day,” she asked Coordinator of Student Services Rob Griffin, who said he received it after the letter’s date. “So when you received the letter … it wasn’t on the 23rd? It wasn’t transmitted on the 23rd? Which one of you transmitted this letter to Ms. Fisher? Was this something you initially created and showed to your supervisor and then worked on it?”

Bendis noted a “discrepancy between records you created on different days,” namely, handwritten vs. typed versions. “What changed ‘possession of’ knife to ‘brandishing a’ knife?” Bendis demanded of the principal.

Trustee Michele Ryan then observed it was now almost 7 p.m. and they hadn’t heard from the parents. Stampolis, however, returned to questioning staff about document dates and suicide assessment procedures. After this Bendis remarked she was “more confused than ever,” prompting Ryan to inquire if she was asking a question.

“This is a question and I’ll get to it,” snapped Bendis. “Any board member who wants to go home and go to sleep is free to do so – your salary will not be docked.” Trustee Andy Ratermann objected, calling Bendis’ remark “insulting.”

“I think it’s insulting for a board member to continue—” she started to say, but then returned to more questions about dates and placements, concluding, “The record will show that this was administrative issues that had nothing to do with this student.”

She then addressed the parents. “Did the psychologist tell you about any diagnosis that had to do with uncontrollable outbursts of anger? … I will share with the board the name of that disorder when I figure out—” she paused to consult her notes. “It’s called Intermittent Explosive Disorder. It is an … emotional psychological disability that’s in the DSM V.”

“It seems to me this is testimony,” said Ryan, and that Bendis should be sworn in as a witness. Ratermann went further saying, “This line of questioning is inappropriate.”

“Can I ask the attorney a question?” Bendis continued. “Are you familiar with U.S. Department of Education code 1415 [rights of children with disabilities]. Are you familiar with that? … with subsection five? I’m happy to familiarize our attorney with the particular part of the code.”

The student had no Individualized Education Plan (IEP), noted Ryan, which includes such diagnoses. “It’s irrelevant … because it’s not an issue that has been raised by the family,” said the attorney. “We are here for an expulsion hearing…disability is not an issue.”

Knife or Bright Shiny Object?

At 9:30 p.m. the parents – who hadn’t fully understood their child’s problems – finally got to speak. “I wanted a public hearing,” said the father, “because … There were things that didn’t make sense. I wasn’t really aware of…prior events.”

But before any clarification could happen, Stampolis and Bendis bickered about the order in which trustees could question the parents. After this was settled, the mother, who spoke no English and needed an interpreter, got to say they had complained to the principal about bullying. The principal didn’t recall any such bullying incidents.

Ryan took the father to task: “Do you think it’s not a big deal to have a pocketknife at school? There was a meeting last year. There were meetings this year. It seems to me those were issues for serious concern. There were signs along the way there was a problem.”

“My wife was in charge of that,” he replied. For 15 minutes, other board members were able to talk to the parents about the alternative program and the student’s improvement, before Bendis jumped back in for a personal conversation with the student.

Asking that exhibits be shown and the student point to the part visible from a pocket, Bendis said, “My opinion, which differs from that of our attorney, is that [under the] ed code this does not qualify as a knife … It’s blunt. It does not have a sharp point.”

Addressing the student, she said, “I have a nail clipper in my purse. I … have a problem with what’s called cuticles and … if it gets caught, it starts bleeding and if I don’t clip it off right away, it gets infected. Do you ever have that problem … Do you feel it’s important to you to have that with you all the time?”

Then she suggested the student hadn’t been ‘brandishing a knife.’

“When you were moving it around in class … were you playing with the knife?” she asked. “Were you having fun?” The student admitting liking shiny objects. “For someone like me who has Attention Deficit Disorder,” Bendis replied, “it’s actually sort of fun to move it from side to side and watch the light hit it.”

At this, Ratermann objected. “I don’t think this is the best means of [achieving] … what’s best for the student.”

Ignoring him, Bendis asked the parents, “Has the doctor ever evaluated him for psychomotor epilepsy?” and advised, “It would be helpful for you to take [the student] to the doctor and … see if the doctor believes [the student] could have some form of seizure disorder or intermittent explosion disorder or some type of disorder like attention deficit disorder.”

A Fight to the End, and Past It

After the diagnostics, Stampolis returned to definitions, asking, “Whatever happened during the class time” that was “very disruptive?” Showing a knife, replied the principal, is by definition disruptive. “So the disruption was the investigation,” he returned.

At this point discussion wandered from defining “disruption” to whether school buses are provided for expelled students to attend alternative programs and whether they should be.

Around 11 p.m. the expulsion finally came to a vote. As Ryan made the motion, Bendis cut in, “I indicated some time ago that I wanted to make a motion—” At this, Board President Christine Koltermann ruled, “You don’t ‘get dibs’ on it.”

“I don’t think Michele was recognized,” Bendis insisted. “I continue in my view, that has not been contradicted in reference to any case law or statute … My interpretation of the 2004 law IDEA, federal code 1415 sub five, sub a, and sub b is that … this hearing is illegitimate.”

Notwithstanding, the expulsion – under education code sections 48900(b), weapons, and (k), disruptions – passed 4-2. Stampolis then offered a losing motion, seconded by Bendis, to not consider it a 48900(k) violation.

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