The Higley Unified School District has a volatile situation on its hands as parents react to news that a high school band assistant accused of raping a 15-year-old student never underwent a criminal background check, and that a large number of other district employees might have escaped such scrutiny as well.
School board members and district administrators would like the public to show some restraint and patience as they try to determine what Higley what has done, or failed to do, in screening teachers and other staff.
But the district only sowed more mistrust when the board abruptly denied parents a chance to talk about their concerns at Wednesday night’s public meeting.
As Tribune writer Tammy Kirkorian reported this week, Higley officials say the band assistant didn’t have a criminal history, so he would have been cleared by the state to work with children. But his arrest has raised questions about Higley’s diligence in following a state law that requires state “fingerprint clearance cards” for all teachers and most other school employees who come in contact with students. So the district launched an audit of its personnel records and policies.
One Higley board member, Kim Anderson, told parents before Wednesday’s meeting that audit has discovered 195 employees, or about 20 percent of the district workforce, have not undergone the criminal background check. District spokeswoman Christy Stevens said Anderson’s information is inaccurate and the audit hasn’t even been finished yet. But the district’s attorney apparently was so concerned about what has been uncovered that she hired an outside investigator to conduct an independent review.
Many Higley parents came to Wednesday’s school board meeting planning to speak about the issue through the “call to the public.” An item found at many government meetings, residents can come forward to address any topic they wish for a couple of minutes. Under the state’s open meetings law, officials generally aren’t allowed to respond to these public comments, but specific issues can be referred to a future meeting.
But when the Higley board met behind closed doors Wednesday, a majority voted to keep the “call from the public” off of the agenda, denying the audience any opportunity to ask questions, to criticize school officials or even to praise the district in a public forum.
No school board is required by law to have a “call to the public.” But it’s a useful way for governing bodies to fulfill their constitutional obligation to listen to petitions to “redress grievances.” Certainly, the Higley board is implying it has something to hide when it brusquely denies parents a chance to speak their minds.
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