An Open Letter, Sept. 30, 2016

An open letter to: 

The Tucson Unified School District community and employees
The Tucson Unified School District Governing Board
E.W. Scripps, Rich Boehne, Board Chairman/President/CEO and leadership team
KGUN 9 General Manager Jim Arnold/Leon Clark, Reporter Valerie Cavazos, News Director Tom Burke

For too long, Tucson Unified School District has allowed KGUN 9 to report on issues regarding the district without coming to the public with our side of the story. Often, we are not able to respond to media inquiries because they single out incidents involving specific children, and the district is prohibited by federal privacy laws from discussing anything that might identify a child. We are left to offer broad statements, but cannot refute individual accusations.

Today, we are taking a stand. Wednesday, September 28, 2016, KGUN 9 again produced a story with generalizations, anonymous sources and a former teacher with a complicated history with the district.

Before addressing this particular case, we want to assure our Tucson Unified community of teachers, staff members, families and students that we take all incidents and reported incidents at our schools seriously. In fact, the vast majority of issues are addressed by working together through a process that is outlined by Governing Board policies and ensures everyone's rights are respected and upheld.

At the end of this letter we have included contact information to use should you have concerns to share. Please use them. We want to hear from you and support you.

Regarding KGUN 9's most recent egregious story, we would like to offer some facts not considered in the report.

Part of being an ethical journalist includes scrutiny of your sources. We've all heard the phrase, "Consider the source." On September 13, 2016, Stefanie Boe, Tucson Unified's Communications Director urged Valerie Cavazos, a reporter at KGUN 9, to do just that.

While Ms. Cavazos presented many positive aspects of Ms. Aho's career at Tucson Unified in her report, she made no effort to ensure that she had the full picture of the source she was using as the centerpiece of her story, a former teacher coming forward to represent current teachers.

Employee records show that Celeste Aho, the source of the September 28 story, resigned her teaching position with the district following months of complaints by the parents of her kindergarteners. The district received complaints from parents alleging Ms. Aho had verbally abused and humiliated their children. In fact, some parents recorded Ms. Aho's interactions with their children to share with the principal. Records also show Ms. Aho overstepped her bounds by requiring parents to sign contracts dictating decisions that should be made at home, such as when children would brush their teeth and what time they would go to bed.

In response to the parent complaints, records show the principal took action and launched an investigation. Ms. Aho resigned while the investigation was pending and prior to the end of her contract. 

These records were accessible to KGUN 9 and are subject to request by anyone from the public. In fact, Ms. Cavazos turned in a public information request via her news desk at 9 p.m. on Thursday, September 22 (nearly 10 days after the conversation with Ms. Boe). The district received the request the next morning and immediately began to gather records. Those records were available for viewing, September 29, just five working days after the request was received.

Unfortunately, Ms. Cavazos did not review the records before airing her story.  In fact, she did not provide a deadline for when the information was needed, a common practice for journalists, nor did she follow up on her request, though she had an opportunity when she spoke with Ms. Boe about another matter on September 26.

Instead, KGUN 9 chose to broadcast allegations from a disgruntled former employee. One of those allegations referenced an incident that happened in 2013. Ms. Cavazos left the date out, making it appear as though the incident was a result of leniency in the district discipline policy. That is clearly not true.

It is frankly ludicrous to suggest kindergarten students are running around hitting and punching teachers and principals.

As a district, whenever possible, we will no longer let this kind of misinformation stand unaddressed. It is not fair to the teachers and employees who work hard every day for our children and our district. While we are reluctant to share negative aspects of Ms. Aho's time with us, KGUN 9's failure to do so in this case and in several in the past, has forced our hands. We feel we owe it to the community to stand up for fairness when a news outlet won't.

Regarding discipline practices: Tucson Unified is one of hundreds of school districts across the country that are reviewing their discipline policies and moving toward practices that are proven by research to be fairer and more effective. This work has included input from all stakeholders: families, principals, teachers and students. It includes changes to the Code of Conduct, improving Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports and hiring a Discipline Coordinator with decades of experience as a principal.

This year, we also held Impact Tucson, a forum that focused on bullying, behavior and the bravery it takes to address problems. We are continuing that work by embracing the nationwide effort to prevent bullying in October, which is Bullying Prevention Month. In addition to school-based programs, the district is implementing activities to help combat bullying during the week of October 17-21. We will all wear orange on October 19 to support Unity Day and we hope you will join us. We will also host a Facebook LIVE event on October 19 to discuss discipline, the Code of Conduct and take questions from the community we serve.

Our children, YOUR children, deserve the best education they can get along with the tools they need to become anything they want to be. We are here to support them, and our teachers, and we won't stop.

If you have questions or concerns, Dr. H.T. Sanchez wants to hear from you: 520-225-6060

Or contact our Director of Communications and Media Relations, Stefanie Boe, Stefanie.Boe@TUSD1.org, 520-225-6101

To learn more about the Code of Conduct change process and timeline: http://tusd1.org/contents/events_discipline.html

The U.S. Department of Education's efforts to Rethink Discipline:
http://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/school-discipline/index.html

To learn more about PBIS and Dr. Sanchez's focus for 16-17:
http://tusd1.org/contents/govboard/packet06-28-16/6-28-16-BAI17-Presentation.pdf
http://tusd1.org/contents/govboard/packet06-28-16/6-28-16-BAI17-DistrictLeadershipRetreat2016.pdf
http://www.koi-education.com/pbis/

Learn more about Wear Orange day here:
http://www.pacer.org/bullying/nbpm/unity-day.asp

Learn more about Impact Tucson here:
http://www.tusd1.org/contents/distinfo/impact/index.asp