Sunday, September 22, 2013

Another teacher suicide; students suspended for speaking out about bullied teacher Jennifer Lenihan of Bassett High School District

Jennifer Lenihan

See also post on death of Mary Eve Thorson.

Harassment and suicide are two of the results of the refusal of school districts to set up effective teacher evaluation systems and uniform policies for increasing teacher performance. If a teacher is doing something wrong, then the teacher should be given prompt and accurate feedback. Instead, principals tend to harass teachers they don't like, and incompetence is often not the reason for such harassment. In fact, weak principals allow incompetent teachers to rule the roost if they are politically powerful, and try to get rid of excellent teachers who don't go along with school politics. Ideally, evaluations should be done by outside observers who have no political ax to grind.

"Workplace bullying - the very stuff that Ms. Lenihan endured, the stuff your teachers fear - is VERY real. It IS 'the Elephant in the Living Room' of bullying at school. Children bully because adults bully."

Three students suspended from Bassett High for distributing stickers
By Jason Henry
San Gabriel Valley Tribune

LA PUENTE >> A little more than a week before her suspension, Associate Student Body president Johnell Gonzalez told the Bassett Board of Education that a staff member had scolded her for speaking her mind at board meetings.

That same meeting, senior Aaron Simental, spoke to the board about the problems the associate student body students had.

Gonzalez, who is the student representative to the school board, Simental and one other member of the student body were suspended Friday for circulating stickers calling for a “revolution” among Bassett’s students.

The stickers read “Revolution is coming” and depicted the mask of Guy Fawkes used in the film “V For Vendetta” and popularized by the hacker group Anonymous. Some of the circulated material included the date former teacher, Jennifer Lenihan, committed suicide. Lenihan’s family recently announced plans to sue the district after claiming administrators bullied Lenihan to the point she killed herself.

The students have expressed issues with their newly appointed advisor — who they said is an unqualified appointment — and with their lack of a voice in their own education. Recently, the students took issue with the school’s homecoming dance, which students said is slated for Oct. 4 but has yet to be planned out.

“We weren’t being heard, we were told going to meetings to have discussions about (the problems), but nothing was happening,” Gonzalez said after her suspension Friday.

The suspensions came after student Elizabeth Zevallos was caught passing out the stickers at the high school’s Back to School event Thursday night.

Administrators suspended Zevallos — the student body’s chief justice — and pulled Simental and Gonzales out of class the next day. Deputies were called to the school on a report of vandalism, according to the Industry Sheriff’s station, though no citations were issued. Placing stickers on a wall counts as vandalism because there is a cost, however minor, associated with their removal, according to a deputy.

In an emailed message to staff, superintendent Jose Reynoso said a student was found in possession of “items in the memory of Ms. Lenihan.”

“The propaganda apparently spoke to the recent small print flyers such as ‘bullies,’ ‘morale,’ etc., Reynoso wrote. “We will be proactive for our district, those employees that are being tried in the public media as well as Ms. Lenihan’s memory. It is my hope that this investigation will uncover the trail to this cruel and unacceptable human behavior. There is no room for this ugliness.”

The students say administrators told them they could face jail time for making a “terrorist” threat, if they didn’t turn over the names of everyone involved in the campaign.

“We were told it is considered a terrorist threat and we’ll be expelled if we don’t talk, and now I’m suspended,” she said.

Simental said he received the same treatment. “They said ‘if you don’t tell us what you’re doing right now, we’ll call the sheriff’s office right now and let them figure it out,’ ” he said.

Simental’s mother, Vira Simental, called the suspension “ridiculous,” noting her son has never been disciplined in his entire time in the district.

“They saw that nothing is being done when they turn to the administration, so out of frustration the kids create these leaflets,” she said. “They’re missing the issue at hand — that these kids are crying out for help.”

Vira Simental said she came to the school to pick up her son, but office workers told her they were not sure where he was. Administrators then refused to let her see him.

She said Vice Principal Nathan Arredondo told her he knew a teacher helped orchestrate the campaign and that he wanted her son to give up the name, she said.

When reached for comment, Arrendondo said he had no knowledge of any terrorist threats and that there had been a problem with stickers.

“They’ve posted a couple in the hallways,” he said. “It is not widespread or anything.”

He declined to confirm if any students were suspended.

School Board Vice President Joe Medina said he’d heard students were handing out “inappropriate” materials. He said it would sound odd if two students were suspended a week after speaking out about being retaliated against, but that he did not know enough details to say what exactly happened.

“I think we’re very careful with the use of suspension as a tool, as a discipline tool,” he said. “I could say it is something that we veer away from and try not to use.”

Petitioning Tom Torlakson
Bassett Unified School Superintendent Reynoso: Find out how Bad the Bullying Really is - and tell us!
Petition by Sandra Goodwick
Montrose, CA

On July 1, 2013, one of your teachers - Jennifer Lenihan - took her own life. Her step-dad shared at a recent Board of Education meeting that she had been harassed by administrators in front of her students and other staff members. According to Jason Henry (SGV Tribune, (9/01/2013) Family plans lawsuit against Bassett Unified over teacher’s suicide your district's teachers are afraid to speak out about workplace bullying because they fear retaliation. Another teacher states that the type of belittlement Ms. Lenihan went through is standard in your district. “It is part of what they do, they make you so unhappy, they want you to leave,” the teacher said. Your teachers union president said she has received a number of complaints about the same administrators who harassed Ms. Lenihan, and that morale has dropped dramatically within the district in recent years.

And, Superintendent Reynoso, you said, “I don’t know that that has been brought to our attention in terms of any written form. No one has brought that to our attention, and they have never asked to discuss this as an issue."

You have an opportunity here, Superintendent Reynoso. Workplace bullying - the very stuff that Ms. Lenihan endured, the stuff your teachers fear - is VERY real. It IS "the Elephant in the Living Room" of bullying at school. Children bully because adults bully. Teachers and other employees commit suicide for the very same reasons school kids do - bullying. Superintendent Reynoso, denying it or minimizing its impact will only mean that bullying continues to wreak havoc among your students and teachers, parents and the community at large. This is real It will only get worse when ignored!

Honor your entire school community by contacting an organization such as Dr. Gary Namie ("Work Doctor") at 360-656-6603 Workplace Bullying in Schools Dr. Namie's organization has already worked with several California public school districts right here in southern California. Your school district can take a FREE Online Workplace Bullying Prevalence Survey. FREE!!

Then, share with your community what has been learned. If there's no bullying, we'd all breathe a sigh of relief! But if there's bullying, then honor ALL the people you serve - your students and their families, your staff, the surrounding community ... and tackle this - a problem that leads to suicide, disability and violence. Honor us all! We ALL care!

Family plans lawsuit against Bassett Unified over teacher’s suicide
By Jason Henry
San Gabriel Valley Tribune

LA PUENTE >> The stepfather of a Bassett High School art teacher who committed suicide in July has announced plans to file a wrongful death suit against the district after claiming his stepdaughter’s death resulted from bullying by administrators.

A series of incidents led to Jennifer Lenihan taking a stress leave, which left her in such financial turmoil that she took her own life July 1, the day her mother went to give her money to help with rent, according to Manuel Jaramillo, her stepfather.

“We believe she was driven to suicide,” Jaramillo said. “She had journals, she had emails, she has other friends that are willing to come forth in the trial.”

In the documents she left behind, Lenihan spoke of being harassed in front of students and other staff members, Jaramillo said. He declined to give names because it could hurt his future case.

A fellow employee who spoke anonymously out of fear of retaliation said she recalled two administrators, Robert Reyes and Jimmy Lima, the principal and assistant principal respectively, yelling at Lenihan in a courtyard in front of teachers and students. A friend of Lenihan said she told him of also being talked down to in her classroom while students watched.

Reyes and Lima did not return calls for comment.

A second ordeal involved a yearbook class the high school’s administration took away from another teacher and gave to Lenihan, despite her saying she did not feel comfortable teaching it. The class, typically a senior level class, had too many freshmen and did not receive enough funding. It also did not have lenses for the cameras used in the class, according to the teacher. When asked not to have the class, she was told she had to take it or she would lose another class she taught, Jaramillo said.

“The pressure got too great, and she left the school,” Jaramillo said. She received half her monthly salary while on a stress leave, which lasted from October to July, during which time she was denied disability and workers’ compensation. She took out a personal loan just to get by, Jaramillo said. She did not receive any part of her salary the month she killed herself because of the denial of workers’ compensation, Jaramillo said.

She was instead told she could resign or apply for a waiting list to return to the district, he said.

The type of belittlement Lenihan allegedly experienced has become standard in the district, according to teacher Tom Covington, who spoke separately from his position as the teachers union’s vice president.

“It is part of what they do, they make you so unhappy, they want you to leave,” Covington said.

Bassett Teachers Association President Maryellen Daners has received a number of complaints about Reyes and Lima, and in general, says morale has dropped dramatically across the district in recent years.

“People see what is happening, and they’re afraid it could happen to them,” she said. Changes, such as eliminated positions, seem related to personal issues rather than performance ones, she said.

Lenihan was meeting with the California Teachers Association to get assistance with her problems in the district, but Daners could not speak to specifics.

Bassett Unified’s new Superintendent Jose Reynoso said he is not aware of Lenihan formally bringing up the problem to the district’s top administrators.

“I don’t know that that has been brought to our attention in terms of any written form,” he said. “No one has brought that to our attention, and they have never asked to discuss this as an issue.”

Reynoso said he had no idea of the family’s accusations until the family announced their plans for a lawsuit at a recent board meeting.

Reynoso confirmed a number of small notes were found spread across Bassett High School’s campus after Lenihan’s death that read “Think before you speak to teachers,” “Bullies,” and “Where is the morale of Bassett teachers?”

No one came forward to speak about the notes and the topic dropped, he said.

The district does not have a morale problem, he said. Teachers who have spoke to him seem positive about the new year, he said.

“I see a new spirit in them, and it really brings me joy,” he said.

Reynoso said he feels sad about the passing of Lenihan and the pain her family is feeling but that he feels the district did everything it should have.

Desmond Jervis and Hugo Lopez both had Lenihan their senior year in 2005 and continued to stay in touch with her after graduation. Jervis described Lenihan as someone who, despite barely making enough to live on, would buy paint and supplies for her classes out of her own pocket.

Jervis noticed the change in recent months. Lenihan stopped wanting to be around her friends and even turned down visits to art museums, which she previously loved.

“She couldn’t even sleep, she just keep thinking about what went wrong,” he said. “I saw her cry the last time I saw her. I’d never seen her cry before.”

“They took away her happiness,” he said.

Lopez spoke before the Bassett Unified board at its last meeting and called for a change.

“I urge you to never let the fantasy of a few undermine the well-being of the many. Jennifer and I always agreed on that point. All of her activism and creativity lives on with me, her colleagues and every wayward child she taught to express what was in their heart,” Lopez said. “It’s time to pay her back with our future decisions. We can start here, in the school and in the district that originally gave her the platform and the audience to change individual worlds.”

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