The District's Looney Scandal: Why I went quiet. Why that's over. And why we need an independent review -- now.
I go after Kelli Stargel and the terrible Florida state government as hard as I do to protect the people of the community I represent and the district I help oversee. That means, in part, I do it to give Polk School District leaders the space and protection they need to lead as if they really are the “servant leaders” they often claim to be.
We, as a community, are starting to create that space for our local educational leaders. But our local educational leaders have not yet shown themselves worthy of that space -- or the thousands of people who work so hard for them. Too many continue to tolerate or even create a toxic work culture that makes common purpose impossible. This needs to change. Immediately.
You may have noticed that I went quiet about the Looney scandal for a few months. There is a reason for this.
Back in December, I asked Jackie Byrd and Board Attorney Wes Bridges to engage an independent, outside review of the district’s decade-long relationship with the Looneys. I did this because evidence told me that this leadership and HR team is incapable or unwilling to face this issue. Jackie and Wes told me they would pursue this outside review. But Jackie wanted to do it quietly.
I could have made this request publicly and dramatically. But I wanted to show good faith toward leadership. I decided to mute my public scrutiny of the Looney issue as an act of good faith, to see what would happen. I wanted to give these “leaders” the public space to show some leadership.
As we have seen, nothing happened -- except a district statement of support for Jason Looney by apparently re-appointing him as principal of Tenoroc.
Jason Looney has been the subject of three massive investigations related to multiple sexual harassment and mismanagement allegations against him at two different schools. One occurred at George Jenkins High (2010) and two at Tenoroc that are essentially the same investigation (2017). These allegations include first-hand accounts of unwanted advances, giving and receiving lewd texts, inappropriate workplace language, sexualized personnel drama/favoritism and punishment with Looney at the center, and fear of retaliation toward alleged victims.
Most of the Tenoroc investigation revolves around Looney's treatment of former assistant principal Brandi Garcia Blanchard, who was let go from Tenoroc at the end of the 2016-17 school year. The GJ investigation also included the behavior of Laquita Johnson-Looney, who worked at GJ with Looney, and who was accused of reacting to the sexualized drama by involving or lashing out at co-workers.
The Looneys deny all wrongdoing.
Each investigation has been found either "unsustained" or "unsubstantiated," meaning that the investigator says the allegations cannot be proved or disproved. That is different from unfounded or exonerated, which would indicate the organization found the allegations clearly untrue.
The 2017 Tenoroc allegations have already sparked two lawsuits against the District concerning Looney’s behavior. Both are awaiting EEOC clearance. Both have a serious lawyer.
You can read about the Looney/Tenoroc case in excruciating and graphic detail in these posts:
Moreover, by my count, collectively, the Looneys have been complainants or complained about in at least six formal investigations of school-based disputes since 2010. In one case, the GJ investigation, they were essentially co-defendants. In every single case, no matter which side they were on, School District action sided unequivocally with the Looneys. Many people on the opposite side of the Looneys suffered deeply for it.
Nothing demonstrates this extraordinary deference more clearly than the immediate and severe consequences for teacher Juanita McCoy in response to Laquita Johnson-Looney's complaint that I detailed yesterday in this link.
The Polk School District removed McCoy immediately from her school, suspended her without pay for five days, and sat idly by while McCoy was wastefully prosecuted for a year before the charges were dropped.
This happened because McCoy may have put her hands on Johnson-Looney's upper back momentarily and said "excuse me" somewhat pointedly as she passed by her during a tense moment in what had been an ongoing two-way conflict between the women. McCoy denies touching Johnson-Looney. The only eyewitness says McCoy did touch her; but she flatly contradicts Laquita Johnson-Looney's account of being pushed with force.
If any number of accusers and witnesses who show up in the various complaints about Jason Looney over the years had been given the deference that Laquita Johnson-Looney's statement against McCoy received in 2017, it seems certain that Jason Looney would have an extensive discipline record.
In reality, he has none. No one with the Polk District has ever disciplined him for anything.
The Tenoroc personnel moves that do not include Jason Looney
Instead of discipline, by all appearances, Jason Looney has just been endorsed by the district through retaining his position as principal of Tenoroc. Two of his assistant principals were just transferred to other schools. This includes Summer Fisher, who was an important figure in the Tenoroc investigation.
A Tenoroc teacher told investigators she saw Fisher and Looney engaged in what appeared to be oral sex on campus during the summer of 2014, when the school was thought to be closed for repairs. And the teacher provided a detailed account of what she saw. Here’s an excerpt:
She stated that she walked past a room on her way to the restroom she happened to look back to the door and Ms. Fisher was sitting in a chair in very close proximity to Mr. Looney. Her head/face was at the level of Mr. Looney’s pelvic area. [the teacher] stated both Mr. Looney and Ms. Fisher were clothed. It appeared to her they were engaged in oral sex. When asked [the teacher] stated that she did not see Mr. Looney’s penis or buttocks. [the teacher] stated that after seeing this, she was mortified and she kept walking to the restroom. She stated she felt as though she had done something wrong.
Moreover, it is not in dispute that Fisher and Looney were seen leaving the 2017 prom together from Orlando amid widespread rumors of an affair.
Fisher and Looney deny all allegations of romantic or sexual activity of any kind. Fisher acknowledged, however, that she and Looney left the prom together. She insisted it was simply for a ride home. Looney appears never to have been asked about the prom.
It is time for an independent review
If there has been any outside review, I have not been made aware of it. I have certainly not been interviewed, which I would need to be, considering the role I played in helping report Brandi Garcia Blanchard’s allegations against Jason Looney and bringing them to public light. I am quite willing to have my actions scrutinized for propriety. In fact, I looked forward to it when I asked for the review. I still do.
One might say staff leadership played me for a sucker in this. But I always knew that was a possibility, even a likelihood. This is a longstanding institutional problem; and it will take patience, persistence, and failures to address and change it. Playing a sucker in good faith might actually prove to be useful.
You might also say the tired, unaccountable, old line of the School Board has won for now. It would be hard for me to argue with you.
Consider these facts about board member behavior and relationships to the Looneys, which are not in dispute:
At a mandatory Tenoroc faculty meeting in August 2017, Tim Harris openly expressed support for Looney and suggested that people who work for him might need to leave the school if they couldn’t get with Looney's leadership “paradigm.” [You can read the transcript of this astonishing speech at the end of the first link I posted above to past articles.] Tim did this while Looney was under active investigation. He did this in front of actual and potential witnesses to the investigation. Tim did this weeks after he had been made aware of and commented on Blanchard’s allegations. His comment, at that time, was to wonder why she didn’t come to him to report them.
A Tenoroc investigation also stated that Jason Looney said he discussed Blanchard's job performance with Tim Harris prior to her dismissal. [I actually doubt whether this is true; but the report says it clearly. Tim has said he can't recall.]
On August 22, 2017, Jason and Laquita Looney attended a School Board meeting while Jason Looney was still under active investigation. The District had invited their son to say the pledge of allegiance. Afterward, Board Chair Kay Fields said to the child: “You know I know your mom, from when she was a little girl."
You will have to draw your own conclusions about what those facts say about why the Looneys have received the deference that they have over the years.
To help you do that, I am formally calling for an independent, outside review of this decade of deference. My next essay on this will lay out some specific questions that need to be answered.
Hopes and prayers
This issue isn’t about which board member wins or loses in some dispute. It’s about who we are as a district and community -- and the standards of organizational decency that we maintain for ourselves.
And, in a bit of good news, two of the three old guard board members -- including Harris -- have decided not seek re-election. So change is coming.
Of the long-term board member, only Kay Fields remains. And the public will get the chance to address her performance in this issue.
Fields has made it clear what she thinks about all of this. She said the following when I brought the 2010 sexual harassment investigation of Looney at George Jenkins High School to my fellow board members’ attention:
“And I guess my response to that would be that was seven years ago. And I would imagine that if there was anything we should be aware of that the staff would have told us by now. I would hope and pray they would.”
As I wrote at the time:
I think that crystalizes Kay’s approach to governing. Coupled with Tim's behavior, I think it crystalizes your School Board’s approach to governing for many, many years. I think that approach has been disastrous. I have a very different approach. You see it on display in this matter. The voters will have their chance to weigh these two approaches – and choose between them. I’m up in 2020. And there are candidates running in 2018 who I believe will help banish this passive, indifferent approach to governing to the ashbin of local history where it belongs. Please research them.
Indeed, it’s a simple fact that no sitting board member, except me, has ever demonstrated with any action that they care at all about this issue, or the workplace environment as a whole. The public must make them care. Or they won’t.
That’s why, rather than a quiet administrative leadership issue that could signal beneficial internal change, this now must become a public political issue.
I will do whatever I can to make this a central part of the 2018 School Board election. We’re going to see if the voting public is comfortable with what the Looney situation says about the district’s leadership standards and approach to the Polk County Schools workplace. That is the point of democracy and elections, to resolve points of impasse on important questions. I feel good about my side.
And I promise you, as soon as I am able to do so at a meeting, I will force every board member to go on the record about our district's handling of the Looney scandal. And if silence continues to be the on-the-record response, so be it. I'm done with silence. I tried it; it failed.
Moreover, I encourage the public to force every board candidate to go on the record about the Looney scandal.
What the evidence says about what district and HR leadership values
The consequences of this decade-long failure are acute, painful, personal, and life-altering for many individual people -- and not just Brandi Garcia Blanchard and Juanita McCoy.
Looney's continued leadership of Tenoroc signals active endorsement. It says that Polk District leadership, starting with Superintendent Jackie Byrd, values his approach to leadership.
With that in mind, I think it’s very useful for the public to consider what that means, through the lens of facts that are not in dispute and that don’t even get into the sexual harassment allegations themselves. Like the faculty meeting, these facts show Looney’s behavior -- and his sense of impunity -- just during the Tenoroc investigations of last summer (2017).
In quick summary:
On July 23, 2017, Looney wrote an email to investigators and district leaders attacking Tenoroc teacher Sherry Ross by name and blaming her for the investigation. Here's an excerpt: "I have known for years that Mrs. Ross and [another teacher] held meetings and tried to recruit/encourage as many teachers as possible to support whatever issue they had with me. Currently Mrs. Ross is continuing with spreading false rumors and attempting to encourage my staff to join them. Towards the end of the school year, she started the rumor mill again. She started the rumor on the campus that I was being moved and many of the rumors Brandi Blanchard has communicated. Her actions have been and continue to be toxic. I know the actions of both individuals have negatively impacted our culture and effectiveness. There are other concerns that I have no problem with sharing if the information is needed."
Shortly afterward, Ross found irregularities in her class schedule that she considered retaliation. She reported this to a senior arts administrator, who intervened immediately to fix the schedule. This prompt intervention on behalf of Ross is the only example of a district leader acting decisively and promptly to protect anyone from Looney that I have ever seen in the entire 10-year saga. It is the only act of productive leadership in relation to Looney that I have ever seen from this district. Period.
The district included Looney’s email about Ross in the Tenoroc investigation. But the Looney investigators never interviewed Ross and never told her about Looney’s attack email.
Ross eventually filed a union grievance over the schedule, alleging retaliation. At the time of her grievance hearing for retaliation, Ross did not know that Looney had attacked her in writing because the district did not tell her. She learned about the email from me. It became a part of her grievance. Ross is also pursuing a lawsuit against the District over Looney's behavior.
To settle the grievance, the district recently agreed to “rescind” Looney’s attack email. Moreover, Ross received a letter from HR saying that she is a outstanding teacher. And earlier this month, May 2018, Looney wrote this about Ross in a letter recommending her for service on a district committee: "I take great pleasure in recommending Sherry Ross to the SAO Teacher Cadre 2. I have supervised Mrs. Ross for six years at Tenoroc High School. During that time, she has taught multiple courses and levels of Art. Her AP students perform well on the AP exam. Her contributions to Tenoroc High School over my six years have been more than just in the classroom." [Billy note -¯\_(ツ)_/¯]
During the mandatory faculty meeting in August 2017, Harris told faculty, in front of Looney, that Jackie Byrd also supported him, even though she did not attend. When I asked Jackie Byrd, to her face, in a public meeting if Harris was correct in what he said about her support for Looney, she would not answer the question.
Looney has received no discipline, ever, for anything. That means the district considers his behavior, while under investigation, perfectly acceptable. It means the district actively values his leadership "paradigm," as Harris put it.
These facts destroy any credibility any internal HR investigation and decision might have. Individual details contained within the investigations are helpful. The conclusions are useless and tainted. We need an independent, outside review. Now.
Open season on everybody who doesn't have power
In part, we need this review because the Looneys can logically infer that they have the power to do anything they want to anybody without any personal accountability for it. And if the Looneys can logically infer that, so can anyone else with power in this district.
The district’s behavior in the Looney case makes it open season on everybody who doesn’t have power. If you work here, you are at the mercy of your supervisor’s personal decency and good humor. There is nowhere to go internally for help, except your union -- or maybe me. But my power is very limited in personnel matters. All of you who work for us need to know this.
Listen to Looney’s own conclusions about this from the “rescinded email” about Ross.
“I interviewed for the Tenoroc principal position and was ultimately chosen. That was a promotion. People normally are not promoted when they are moved for reason [cq] that would result in discipline. That in itself shows the thought process of someone that would make up a rumor.”
He is entirely correct about the logical conclusion to draw. And I can’t imagine a more articulate explanation of the decade-long systemic leadership failure and consequences here. Above all, in this case, the self-declared “servant leaders” of our district have protected and served themselves by protecting and serving the Looneys.
My expectations are reasonable, but non-negotiable
My number one expectation for District leaders is that they wake up every day committed to creating and enforcing a dynamic, supportive, honorable workplace for the poorly-paid people fighting the battle for kids every day. That’s how you put “Students First,” by providing them schools with strong morale and high professional behavioral standards.
I will tolerate failures if they are accompanied by effort and reflection. Everyone makes errors in judgement. Everyone has weak moments. I certainly do. I do not expect perfection. But I expect much, much, much better than this.
The endless leadership failure of these cases comes with catastrophic consequences for the culture and basic human decency of this organization. This is an ongoing bleeding sore for the Polk School District. I will not lie about that. I will not pretend that it’s not festering right here in plain sight. I don't care, ultimately, if the chummy district leadership club likes me. That’s not where my loyalties lie.
My loyalties lie with the people doing the hard on-the-ground work of this district without any protection from systemic abuse of power.
When our leaders fail miserably, I will point it out as relentlessly as I do the many failures of Kelli Stargel. That’s what I believe I was elected to do. And it’s what I will continue to do until we have educational leadership, everywhere, worthy of our people and their mission.