Berkeley High principal Sam Pasarow went on sudden paid leave Dec. 6. No explanation was offered to the school community, with the district citing confidentiality reasons. Photo: Mark Coplan

The Berkeley PTA Council has launched a petition demanding that the school district explain why Berkeley High principal Sam Pasarow went on abrupt leave on Dec. 6.

The council petition also states that if a “solid” or “credible” reason for Pasarow’s leave cannot be given, BUSD should reinstate him.

“We’re standing up for our students and their families and we want to do what’s right,” said Christine Staples, president of the Berkeley PTA Council, which represents school parent-teacher associations across the district. Staples said all sorts of rumors have been circulating since Berkeley Unified announced on Dec. 5 in an email that Pasarow would be on leave, effective the following day, without providing an explanation. “We need an update,” she said. “It’s not healthy for our community to go without information: it harms the community and it harms the principal who we respect.”

The online petition was launched on Dec. 29 and has drawn more than 260 signatures so far.

BUSD Assistant Superintendent Pasquale Scuderi wrote in the December email that the district could not provide any details as it was bound to “respect confidentiality whenever private or personnel matters arise,” but acknowledged that the lack of information might be concerning.

Speaking before the holidays, Ty Alper, President of the BUSD School Board, also referred to the difficulty of not being able to comment on Pasarow’s case. “I am fully aware it’s disconcerting and frustrating for the community,” he said. “But I strongly believe in the right to privacy.”

Pasarow, the former principal at Oakland middle school Edna Brewer, has been the Berkeley High principal for just 16 months. He assumed the position in July 2015, replacing Scuderi, who was principal for four years. During his tenure, Pasarow has been praised for his deft handling of the discovery of a racist message on a library computer, numerous school walkouts, including those connected to the racist message and the election of Donald Trump, and an examination of how to close the school’s achievement gap.

Pasarow has been criticized, however, for “bullying” staff. The school has also come under fire for not responding sufficiently well to sexual harassment claims.

Erin Schweng, Berkeley High’s executive vice principal, was named Dec. 6 to take over as the school’s lead administrator.

Alper said he was confident in the administrative team at BHS and that the school was “moving forward with business as usual.” “We will provide information of some kind at some point,” he added.

BUSD Superintendent Donald Evans suggested that communication about Pasarow, who is on paid leave, might be forthcoming later this month. In an end-of-year email sent out Dec. 30, he acknowledged “the continued questions and concern” about Pasarow’s “unanticipated” leave. “We recognize that unfortunately there have been rumors and speculation around the circumstances of the leave, but the confidentiality rules around personnel matters make it impossible for us to provide additional details at this time,” he wrote. “We truly appreciate the messages of concern and support for the school and for the Principal … We hope to update the community again in mid-January, and, meanwhile, have absolute confidence in our leadership team’s ability to guide BHS in the interim.”

A Berkeley High teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, said the rumor mill had been “swirling” since Pasarow’s departure, but that Schweng was “doing a great job in Sam’s absence and things are carrying on more or less as normal.”

Staples said four members of the six-strong PTA Council are Berkeley High parents. All of them know and have worked with Pasarow, and think “very highly” of him. She said she, along with many parents, was impressed with how Pasarow managed the student protest in November 2015 that followed a racist hate crime on campus.

“Pasarow supported the students, he empowered them to lead and marched with them,” she said. “The same thing happened with the protest the day after election — not only are the students being supported, they aren’t being punished. They are being encouraged to be leaders and activists and he’s keeping it safe.” Staples said the school climate — around issues like racism and building a stronger feeling of community — had improved since Pasarow took the helm, and that his contribution to the BHS Design Team working to overhaul scheduling and classes to reduce the student achievement gap, had been valuable.

L to r: Sam Pasarow, Hasmig Minassian and Tamara Friedman, met in the spring to discuss restructuring the BHS curriculum in order to reduce the high school’s achievement gap. They were part of the 35-member BHS Design Team. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
L to r: Sam Pasarow, Hasmig Minassian and Tamara Friedman, met in the spring to discuss restructuring the BHS curriculum in order to reduce the high school’s achievement gap. They were part of the 35-member BHS Design Team. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

But Pasarow has also come in for serious criticism. At the Nov. 16 School Board meeting, union leader Paula Phillips, president of the Berkeley Council of Classified Employees, accused him of bullying district staff, particularly employees of color, and of creating a hostile environment for staff and an unsafe environment for students.

“Sam Pasarow has displayed bullying behavior … to include verbal threats of discipline over the radio; non-verbal threats, to include staring, stalking our classified employees; emotional terrorism, such as terrorizing, defaming, intimidating and humiliating our classifying employees,” Phillips said, addressing the board. “And what’s sad about this behavior is that it’s been inflicted on the African-American classified employees in particular, both male and female.”

Phillips said the union had talked to both Scuderi and Pasarow about these issues, to which Pasarow had responded that he wanted “to do what he wanted to do.” Phillips said Pasarow had lowered the morale of safety officers, as on-campus safety issues brought to his attention had not been resolved. [Watch video of Phillips addressing the board, beginning at 8:00 minutes.]

Attempts by Berkeleyside to reach Phillips for further comment have proved unsuccessful.

The district, and Berkeley High in particular, have also come under fire in recent months for their handling of at least one sexual harassment complaint — that of Aniya Williams, who spoke at the Dec. 7 School Board meeting, as did her allies, and her father.  [Watch video, beginning at 1:04:40 mark]— and one lawsuit, filed on Nov. 21 regarding a 16-year-old female Berkeley High student who says the school mishandled her complaint of sexual harassment.

Complaints about the handling of sexual harassment within BUSD are not new. Advocates have been working to raise awareness about sexual harassment faced by Berkeley Unified students for many years, saying the school district has not done enough to respond to problems faced by students, or comply with mandatory rules. [Read more about the BHS Stop Harassing group and its work.]

In early 2015, the federal Office for Civil Rights launched an investigation into whether BUSD inadequately responded to sexual harassment claims at Berkeley High, thereby creating a “hostile environment on the basis of sex.” Failure to adequately respond to sexual harassment claims is a federal offense under Title IX.

Asked about the sexual harassment cases, Alper said the district was still under investigation by the Office of Civil Rights. He also said it was worth remembering that a school district is typically handling “any number of complaints” and “several lawsuits” of different kinds at any one time. “The important thing is that we handle them in a timely manner, with accountable procedures and that people feel they well handled,” he said.

In a Dec. 15 email to the BHS community, Schweng referenced “recent incidents,” and reminded staff and families of the importance of talking to students about sexual harassment and bullying.

In early December, District Compliance Officer and Title IX coordinator, Beverley Bueno, left her job after less than a year working for the district. It is not known whether she was fired or left voluntarily and the district won’t comment since it is a personnel matter. Her Title IX duties — which include helping to create and maintain a supportive, equitable and safe environment for all students  — have been assumed by Susan Craig, Director of Student Services.

Alper said many districts the size of BUSD don’t have a full-time Title IX coordinator, and that it’s a “hybrid” position. He conceded the district was persuaded to have one, “in large part due to advocacy from our students.”

The school district underwent a federal audit in 2016, that covered several of its schools, including Berkeley High. The report was published in October. Berkeley High was found to be non-compliant on several legal matters relating to sex equity (section 4), but the items appear to mainly relate to the need for correct documentation. [Read the full audit.]

The district is also handling a lawsuit for allegedly conducting racially targeted interviews to intimidate Latino, African-American and immigrant students — including several from Berkeley High — from exercising their free speech rights, as well as legal action by Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School teacher Yvette Felarca who was put on paid leave after her political actions raised concerns.

Meanwhile, Staples said the PTA Council is trying to gather as many signatures as possible on its petition about Pasarow in what she referred to as a “vacuum of information.”

“The next board meeting is not for another couple of weeks,” she said — it’s on Jan. 11 — “and we’re nervous that they might do something like terminate him. We would like him to be reinstated.”

Eds: This story was updated with a correction after publication to reflect the fact that BUSD did not directly relate Yvette Felarca being put on leave with her political actions.

Berkeley High principal on sudden leave, VP in charge (12.05.16)
Sam Pasarow named as new Berkeley High principal (04.09.15)
New BHS principal: School district seeks community input (01.08.15)
Kristin Glenchur named Berkeley High interim principal (06.13.14) 
BHS principal Scuderi moves to assistant superintendent (05.01.14)
Illegal enrollment is boon and burden to Berkeley schools (04.08.14)
Berkeley High expands with the opening of a new building (03.19.14)
New Berkeley superintendent Donald Evans: “This is my ministry” (07.11.13)
Pasquale Scuderi on his first year as head of Berkeley High (07.07.11)

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...