The Polk School District is investigating allegations of sexual harassment against Tenoroc High School Principal Jason Looney.
This investigation started at some point in July. Several of the complainants, including the woman most directly affected, came to me with their stories. I forwarded them to our HR officials and top staff. I told our staff through internal emails that I take the allegations very seriously and that I expected a serious investigation. For the record, I also forwarded the stories and perspectives of staff supporters of Mr. Looney.
After some initial concern, I’ve been convinced for weeks that we are investigating these allegations seriously. This is a sad and ugly and hurtful situation. My supervisory relationship policy suggestion and very public vote against administrative appointments relate closely to this Tenoroc issue. I had hoped that we could complete the investigation before having to address it in public with school and person names.
However, School Board Member Tim Harris severely complicated that wish on Thursday of last week.
Harris attended a mandatory staff meeting at Tenoroc, in front of Jason Looney, and gave a 12-minute speech. He made a dismissive reference to “rumors” — and he said both he and the superintendent supported Mr. Looney. The superintendent did not attend, and to my knowledge, she did not authorize Harris to speak on her behalf.
I will republish a transcript of Harris’ speech below so you can see it. I am addressing this today because I’m afraid that Harris’ appearance and message at Tenoroc on behalf of the superintendent might discourage open and honest testimony or statements. I think I need to clarify the record.
At our School Board work session yesterday (Tuesday), I asked Harris if he knew there was an ongoing investigation of Looney when he went to Tenoroc.
“No sir,” he replied.
I think that’s important for people to know. I think it’s also important to know that the superintendent said the investigation is ongoing. Below you’ll find a link to the clip of the brief discussion. The first couple of minutes are audio only for some technology reason.
You will hear me make reference to a 2010 investigation of Mr. Looney for sexual harassment when he was an assistant principal at George Jenkins High School. I have read it. The allegations were all based on eyewitness accounts, and the investigators said they could not verify them. Mr. Looney received no disciplinary action.
[Editor’s note: some sort of technical error is preventing me from embedding the meeting feed here. I’ve posted it as a comment below this post on Facebook. Here is a link to the YouTube video.]
When the current investigation is complete, I will provide a full public accounting of my perspective and role in this entire unfortunate episode. For now, I think this is an important clarification of the record in a very unfortunate situation.
Here is the Harris transcript. The audio is poor. I had to listen very, very closely to get the transcript. And in some places, I still couldn’t decipher. I’ve marked those as inaudible. In case you’re wondering about the taping, the courts have held that a public official has no expectation of privacy when speaking about matters of public interest. Obviously, someone who attended the mandatory meeting taped this.
[Recording begins with inaudible reference to “connections” to the school]
I taught for 19 years. Started my career in 1975 at Katheen Junior High. And then on to Lake Gibson and Lake Gibson High School. Then I worked for the district office for 12 years. I primarily taught civics then later American government. I always encouraged my students to get involved. I always said, “If you don’t vote, don’t complain. And if you don’t vote that’s fine because I always will, and I’ll basically run the country.” Using reverse psychology on them to get them motivated.
I would like to say thank you to the eight staff members from this school who emailed me in the last couple of weeks. You were very respectful in your email. You were very professional. You carried your heart and your passion and for that I appreciate it. There is nothing ever wrong with communicating with an elected official as long as you do it politely and you don’t point your finger and yell and curse at them.
I appreciate those of you were comfortable enough to send those emails, some of whom I did reply.
And as a result of those emails I felt like it was important for myself and the superintendent to come out and speak with you and show our support — and support of Mr. Looney.
Unfortunately, the superintendent cannot be here she has a very important family issue. [Inaudible] She’s out of the office for several days. So keep her in your prayers please.
I personally have gone through situations in my career, and I was with the school district for 31 years before I ran for School Board, where I had a supervisor, let’s just say had a different paradigm from mine.
I finally got to the point where I could handle the different paradigm because I decided that myself and that supervisor were always going to disagree. We just had a totally different philosophy of life. When I finally got to those mental positions with those three separate supervisors, I was able to deal with it a lot better and accept their differences from mine. It made looking for another job a lot easier mentally.
Now one of those case I did not change jobs. It was the supervisor that was eventually promoted.
[Here Harris goes into a discussion about one of his former supervisors that is hard to make out. This sentence that follows is about all I could make out.]
Don’t work yourself to death because he literally did. Only one time did I get to work before he did. And he was late at 5:30 am [inaudible] You live to work or you work to live.
Sometimes decisions made at a level above us we don’t understand because we don’t, in Paul Harvey’s words, know the rest of the story.
Since I have been on the board, it has become even more obvious to me to be a good board member [inaudible phrase] you need to have previous board experience at a pretty significant level to be an effective leader in that position.
Just think about that when you vote for people for public office: have they ever served on a corporate board or a major non-profit board before they run for a public office? There is something to be said for experience. There’s something also to be said for a fresh voice and a fresh face. [Inaudible phrase]
When I talked to the superintendent, I told her, that you know, I’m not [sounds like: “hearing about”] those rumors floating around that many of you addressed in your emails. And she said, “I’m not either. I don’t know why they’re out there.” There are no plans for turmoil [inaudible phrase]. And if anyone would know, it should have been the school board member who represents that school. [Inaudible phrase]
As a 31-year employee and 11 year board member, I know how important it is for all of us, including myself to think of ourselves as salespeople of the Polk County public school system. Because wherever you go, you don’t take off your School Board employee hat. The public knows who you are they know who you represent, they know who I represent. Whether you like it or not. We are held to a higher standard. Higher stand of behavior. Higher standard of dress. Higher standard in the things we create in front of their child.
I urge you to make sure that when you, and we all do, need to get something off your chest, you don’t do it in the aisles of Publix or Walmart.
That’s because people hear what you say. You don’t know who is listening to your conversation. We’re all salespeople. It could be negative or it can be positive. If it’s negative [inaudible] they might say: “If you work for that organization and you’re lambasting them, why are you still there?”
Or [Inaudible phrase]] hear you as a person on the inside singing the praises of the school… [inaudible [phrase]
I also wanted to make sure when I came and spoke that I didn’t just talk to…
[Harris says something about football game attendance. Much of this passage is inaudible.]
There are 14 schools in this district 7 and about 69,000 population in each one of the 7 districts
I had a supervisor one time who called me about being involved in civic affairs. Isn’t that ironic? Talking to a civic teacher about being too involved in civic affairs. I am here as testimony that I did not listen to that man. Being involved in civic affairs is a large part of what led me to this place in my life. The path that you are on will take you where you’re going to go. Upward or downward.
And I just want you to know that the door, the phone number, and the email is always open if you ever need to share. Though, I will tell you, or ask you, what I always ask members of the public when they contact me. As a matter of fact, as I was riding over here I got a call from Tallahassee, where someone called Tallahassee about one of the schools in the district and berated then for 30 minutes and when they asked if you’ve spoken to your school board member, they said, “Well, no who is it?” [uses a mocking voice here]
When I get calls, I ask that same question, “have you spoken to the school administrator; if you have, have you spoken to the school administrator’s supervisor, or the deputy superintendent? Or the superintendent before you call me?” Because no one likes it when somebody goes over over your head. [Inaudible]
So think about positively representing the organization that you work for and the school you work at. Think about that positive communication with your elected officials, whether School Board member, [inaudible], state legislator etc. Do whatever you can to support the leader that you have in front of you. And if that is not something you are comfortable with and you are on a totally different paradigm, that’s [inaudible phrase] too. And if [inaudible word] can get to [inaudible word] you at another school, [inaudible phrase] your choice.
But splattering things out in the public is not going to solve problems. You got an issue? Come talk to me. Send me an email.
It’s my job [sounds like: “to be a board member” but not certain], not [inaudible phrase] the superintendent or school leader — for those of you who don’t know the chain of command. Once that chain of command has been worked up, and you still have an issue, then it is time for the board to step in
The board has three jobs basically: sets policy for the whole district, hire the superintendent, and [inaudible] the annual budget. That’s our three primary roles. Questions?
I’ll be staying around for a few minutes.
Got a chance to talk to one of your officials. You don’t get too many times to meet face-to-face with someone you’ve elected to office.