Culture of silence grips La Cañada Unified

Parents, students say complaints about teachers lead to retaliation.

November 12, 2011|By Daniel Siegal and Megan O'Neil,

Concerned about teacher retaliation, local property values and their own standing in the community, numerous La Cañada Flintridge parents say they are reluctant to openly criticize practices in the La Cañada Unified School District.

The issue — below the surface for years, and perhaps decades, parents and community members say — came to a head last month. It did so after a complaint against La Cañada High math teacher Gabrielle Leko, filed by La Cañada Unified School Board Member Cindy Wilcox, became public.

Wilcox filed the complaint in June, alleging that Leko addressed a ninth-grade geometry student as “Jew boy” during the 2010-11 school year. Wilcox said she based her allegations on complaints from numerous students, all of whom claimed that Leko regularly made derogatory remarks. Wilcox had to make the complaint personally, she said, because many victims and witnesses were afraid to do so.


Leko did not respond to email and telephone requests for comment. 

Two former school board members said they are not aware of any retribution against vocal parents or their children, and that the community feels comfortable airing concerns. But several parents disagree.

Fear of being labeled ‘difficult’

In the course of interviews with more than 20 people, members of several La Cañada Unified families said speaking up often led to school administrators labeling students as “difficult,” or to teachers dishing out bad grades to them.

In an email sent to district officials last month, parent Amy Bernhard noted the unwillingness of families to come forward about Leko. She also acknowledged holding back from contacting her children’s teachers about classroom concerns for fear of marring the “pleasant relationship.”

“What a sad, sad state of affairs, and what a sad statement it makes about our schools and our families,” Bernhard said. “Why bother teaching ’To Kill a Mockingbird’ in our ninth-grade English classes if our adults are so unlike the principled Atticus Finch [a central character in the novel]?”

Debra Archuleta, the sole parent to add her name to Wilcox’s complaint, said fear stops parents from “doing the right thing.”

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