Wednesday, February 11, 2009

CSW affairs: An Alumnus Viewpoint

A Public Letter to the Charter School of Wilmington Community.

The high school from which I matriculated, the Charter School of Wilmington ("CSW"), has recently been going through some highly public issues, stemming - as I understand - from personal and professional conflicts between the president (our principal figure), Mr. Ron Russo, and members of the school board. It is a matter that strikes deep into the heart of a community within which I struggled, grew, and lived for four of my most formative years, in which I still feel invested, despite having long since departed.

Background:

These are some of the pertinent details (feel free to skip to section 2, below, if you are familiar with the situation) that I have gathered from second- and third-hand sources (primarily here and here), a vague, if lengthy, public statement by the school board (here), and local newspaper reporting (here and here):

-Some time in the past few years, Russo had an affair with a fellow school employee.

-In February 2008, a complaint over repeated sexual harassment was filed against Russo.

-In July 2008, the school board held a poorly-publicized meeting, one of the purposes of which was to determine Russo's future role at CSW. However, he retained his position: sources disagree as to whether this result came from overwhelming student and parent support or because he agreed to change "inappropriate behaviors" at work.

-The board called another meeting for February 10th, the stated purpose of which was to allow Mr. Russo "an opportunity to meet with the Board in Executive Session to present his responses". The board also released a public statement further explaining this action (the harassment complaint, and noncompliance with the terms of his continued employment), as well as intimating to its intended audience that Russo presents a certain persona to the parents and students of CSW, and another entirely to faculty, board members, etc.

-After the closed Executive meeting, a public meeting was held, at which the board publicly voted to terminate Russo's presidency of CSW, with 7 for, 1 abstaining, and 1 (the parent representative) against. The board remains evasive about the particulars of Russo's transgressions.

Those are the salient facts, so far as I understand. For the moment - beginning tomorrow - the school's daily affairs will be under the guidance of another senior teacher and staff member, serving as interim president until a new president can be found, and this whole mess sorted out.

That's the background, setting the stage; now, for my personal thoughts on the matter.

My thoughts: the Board.

First off, I am not interested in judging the merits and injuries of Russo's particular actions. Indeed, I have to confess my own ignorance of the situation: I have not visited Charter for several months, and I know few, if any, remaining students. This is not about the veracity of the allegations against Russo: this is about the rather messy way that the community - students, parents, faculty, and board - has gone about addressing this whole matter.

My first, and somewhat lesser, concern lies in the general lack of credible information presented to substantiate the board's position: it seems that the board are perfectly willing to make allegations of Russo's indiscretions, but the stated facts do not match up with faculty, student, or parent response. The board, in its statement, claims that

"Mr. Russo presents very different behavior to students and most parents than he does to faculty, staff, and parents. This is very much an adult issue in which his behavior is materially and adversely affecting the workplace of the adults who spend significant time with our students."

First of all, this is confusing: Russo presents different behavior to most parents, than to parents? Perhaps this is true; but, if so, why does my only primary source say that there was "not a single speaker against [Russo]" present at the public meeting of February 10th?

Second, the board is setting itself up as an independent, impartial investigator of Russo's workplace conduct: if so, why is the staff member with whom he had an affair present on the board? Ethics demand, if not outright require, that she recuse herself on this matter. It is no surprise that the board warns parents that Russo is interested in a campaign of disinformation: that is precisely the tactics that have, thus far, been utilized by their side. The effect is a two-horned confusion on the part of outsiders who would otherwise grow involved: we cannot trust the board (they are too invested in this situation), but neither, apparently, can we trust Russo. And, in the absence or open undermining of outside support for Russo, the board possesses the power to make unilateral decisions. There is no check, and no balance.

Also potentially concerning is that another, less-well-publicized conflict in the school term immediately preceding the first attempt at ousting Russo was predicated upon his investigation of one of the board members for an unauthorized (and thereby illegal, according to the titular CSW Charter) expenditure of money. The expenditure? For a PR firm. It seems neat coincidence, then, that the Board's strategy on this current removal of Russo was founded upon a nice bit of public relations work to distance parents and students from Russo, by insinuating his untrustworthiness.

Also interesting is firsthand information that claims conflict between Russo and the Board is no new matter: "this all began three years ago when the board voted to cut all teacher bonuses without cause. The faculty and Russo strongly challenged the board and were shot down. It is only after his challenges that all the trouble began."

But, perhaps, the School Board is right, and Russo has acted unprofessionally (perhaps), immorally (likely), and unethically (?). However, the proper remedy to a bad headmaster is not deposing him by hook or by crook, but to do so professionally, morally, and ethically. The Board's actions may be moral; I do not think they have been either professional or ethical. With regards to ethics, my primary concern is that full disclosure of the history between Russo and certain Board members, and the ethically requisite subsequent recusion of Board members, has not happened. Russo's concerns about the board not only go unanswered, but unaddressed.

With regards to professionalism, the board says they want to keep the school running smoothly. Very well: but a smooth school requires relationships of trust between the guiding body of the school (whether a Board or a head), and disregarding parental and student requests for information is the precise opposite of such a trust. Must they disclose further information? I doubt it. Ought they? Indubitably.

Very well. This, then, is my response to the Board, at least that which I have composed in my few spare moments since this matter has begun: I beg, urge, plead with you to be transparent, for your own good, for the good of the school, and for the good of the students whose education you have chartered. If this requires the sacrifice of some personal dignity, of some of the Rights that the Board holds, still, for Heaven's (or not) sake, be open! It will be best, if likely humbling, and the school community can finally feel comfortable with, and not lorded over by, your corporate body. Ultimately, if or when a new choice for school head is brought in, the community will inevitably consider him or her to be "on their side": the more certain they can be that their interests lie not so far from ours, the smoother the whole deal should go down for all involved.

My thoughts: Student Responses.

On the part of the students, I have seen several sorts of responses, coming via various forms of public discussion. Some sympathize with Mr. Russo; others demonize; and some admit that they cannot know the entire story. All these responses, I must admit, resonate with me to some degree. But I would like to address, primarily, the discussion currently centred around the idea of some sort of "student protest," the most immediate and obvious of which is a "Sit in for information on the termination of Mr. Russo" being organized, at the time of this writing, for the first period tomorrow (Wednesday) morning.

I'm not interested in recounting my personal feelings on the matter at hand (whether the board has been forthcoming with information) - that is covered in the section above. What I am pleasantly surprised about, however, is the proposed reason for this sit-in: not in support of Russo, not in defiance of the Board, but in the interest of acquiring information, so as (I presume) to come, as a community, to a more fair and right-minded understanding of the situation. This is, I think, highly commendable. In fact, it illustrates one of the most valuable and crucial skills that Schools hope to impart: reasoned, objective thinking based on values applied in a real-world test.

This is why I worry about responses - whether from students or recent alumni - that condemn such actions as counterproductive, claiming, in the words of one message board post,
"If this is how we show our support to russo [sic], by rebelling against all he helped to build, even when new leadership takes over, all he work [sic] for seems in vain, no?"

No.

Now, such forms of protest would be in vain if what Russo "helped to build" was an institution simply established to pass on knowledge, to produce competitive students, and to garner a list of acceptances to A-list universities. If so, then, yes. So long as academics continue unimpeded, then, yes, we ought to be pleased with ourselves, and, yes, allow this transition to proceed on its way.

But academics cannot be equated with Learning, and facts and formulae are not the only goals of Education. The purpose of a School is not equal to its rank in the nation, to its college acceptance lists, or even to its students future pursuits. A School, at its best, is in the business of teaching life skills, among whose number we must count both values and virtue, both ethics as well as morals. And what pleases me so about much of the student and alumni response to the executive board's obtuse and occluded process is that it is an ethical response: protesting what seems to be an injustice done, while remaining humble and open to convincing otherwise.

Yes, it is difficult, often, to be ethical; it is certainly inconvenient; it is possibly even wrong to support Mr. Russo in this matter. But this protest, it seems, is not a partisan action: this is not about liking a president, or disliking a man. This is about due process, transparent governance, and proper polity. This is why I, both publically and personally, am in support of this sit-in, and any other future actions carried out in a similar spirit. This is precisely the sort of Test which schools cannot prepare, and only Life can offer: a test of character.

I will not discuss at length other historical protests. But I do not think it ludicrous to draw parallels between this action and those such as the boycotts, the sit-ins, the hunger strikes. It is not ludicrous because, despite the scale of this particular situation's effect being quite different from those others, the Ethics at stake knows no scale: If what has been done is wrong, is Unjust in any meaningful way, then this course of action is unqualifiedly proper. If one hopes to one day practice great virtue, then one must today discharge her or his duty in small ways.

So, to the students, to any alumni who may choose to take part in this: Go. Go! and do not leave, do not stop going, until this matter has been drawn up to the utter satisfaction of your conscience or rational understanding of what the Right Thing is in this instance. It will be inconvenient; it may be difficult; it may even be a little embarrassing, if, as it may turn out, there are many who are not so conscience-stricken as you. But, Go!

-Jason G.L. Chu (CSW '04, Yale '08)

6 comments:

Radhika said...

Hi Jason, it's nice to hear from you. I think it's awesome that you're writing so much about this. Everyone at Charter and even in Delaware is pretty worked up about this topic.

The main conflict everyone is concerned about is not whether or not Mr. Russo was guilty of the supposed acts he was following through, but the lack of information the Board gave. They gave absolutely NO real proof or evidence to prove their point. So when these board members start accusing Mr. Russo of this and that without giving us proof, we, as the students, naturally defended him. Most of us, for that matter. Personally, I'm standing by and supporting Russo until the Board issues out concrete evidence that Mr. Russo did in fact sexually harrass and everything else he was accused for.

As for our reactions today, I was absolutely AMAZED with how passionately yet maturely the student body reacted. When I walked into school, several senior council members were standing by the doors and handing out tiny slips of paper that said "Support Mr. Russo! Report to the auditorium after homeroom for a student meeting. We have the right." All through homeroom people were running around, inquiring their classmates of what their decision was: to skip first period or to go and support Mr. Russo. I was mainly caught up in the dilemma because I was afraid my first period teacher would get angry and assign extra work to those not present in class. However, Doctor Hollstein (temporary principal) sent out an email to teachers forbidding them from assigning detentions/extra work to those students not present first period.

So of course, I went to the protest! We first gathered in the auditorium, and EVERYONE was wearing white, holding signs, etc. I would say about half the student body was there. And only one staff member was there: Doc Hollstein. Right away, senior council members spoke to us about how we were here to demand justification of Mr. Russo's termination in support of him. They also mentioned that honestly, we probably wouldn't be able to make much of a difference, but this way at least our voices could be heard. We also signed a petition to get the permission to get an investigator to investigate what truly happened. Doc Hollstein then came up and gave a really nice speech, saying that he was supportive of our decision, but that after this period, we must remain respectful of those against Mr. Russo and carry on with our academic obligations.

Finally, when the media arrived (whom senior council member had contacted last night), the crowd moved outside, to the bleachers next to the football field. Chants were chanted ("who do we want? RUSSO! when do we want? NOW!; we want the truth! we want the truth!" etc. etc.) and students spoke to us and pumped us up, and it was pretty darn EPIC. After the media came and took pictures/video, we went back into school and the rest of the day went smoothly.

I just received a message from one of the creators of the protest saying that we may have actually impacted the board, but if we really care, we would write to the board. I feel like this is certainly not the end of this whole situation, and yes, in the likely fact that Mr. Russo stays terminated from Charter, he won't be going down quietly until the truth finally comes out.

Radhika said...

Sorry, I just realized I made a mistake, I wrote:
All through homeroom people were running around, inquiring their classmates of what their decision was: to skip first period or to go and support Mr. Russo.

But that makes no sense... I meant:
All through homeroom, people were running around, inquiring their classmates of what their decision was: to skip first period and go and support Mr. Russo, or stay in class.

Will said...

I'm glad you and so many other alumni remain interested in Charter's future. I certainly am.

Here's what I think. The Board is the legal authority that determines hiring and firing at Charter. Serious allegations have been made against Mr. Russo to federal authorities (and the Board may be in trouble for failure to act on the accusations. The EEOC will evaluate the allegations, and until they release their findings it would be completely inappropriate for the Board to discuss particulars. In the mean time, the Board took the action that they felt was necessary to ensure that Charter will function they way it should.

On the subject of sexual harassment - you, Radhika, and most other people supporting Mr. Russo or demanding more information fail to grasp this very vital point: you have no need whatsoever to know the particulars. They are being handled by the appropriate legal authorities, which do not include the students or alumni. Finally, what proof do you want? What do you feel is "concrete"? Proof is determined by the EEOC and the Board, not public opinion. Clearly, they felt there was sufficient evidence. That is all there is to it. Mr. Russo is not coming back.

Kerri said...

Will -

You are wrong in saying we have no need to know the particulars of the sexual harassment suit. Indeed, its an open secret that it was Donna Urban who filed it, and it was essentially a big middle finger using her as the secretary for the board. A woman scorned, as it were, is not the most reliable source of a sexual harassment claim. In the US though, the woman is 9/10 going to be assumed correct in a he said / she said.

Additionally, we all know there were other reasons that the board fired Mr. Russo - essentially, he wanted one direction and the board wanted another. This was sleezy legals twisting the spirit of the law into their own use. I, for one, have no real hope for charter without its two major creators - Ron Russo and Greg Meece. The school will most likely turn into what St. Marks did after Mr. Russo was run out - crap.

The said...

Kerri,

Shame on you for:

a) Posting the name of the woman you believe accused Mr. Russo of sexual harassment on the Internet. Even in court cases, the names of alleged victims of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment are often not legally released to the public in order to protect their identities. Eventually this happens in high profile cases such as that of Kobe Bryant, which is hardly on the same public scale as the issue at hand, which concerns a very small, tight-knit community.

b) Making blanket statements on the basis of your preconceived notions as if they construct the reality of this issue. "A woman scorned, as it were, is not the most reliable source for making a sexual harassment claim": you mean to completely discount the validity of a claim that you admit you know nothing about on the flimsy basis of your stereotypes about women.

c) Not acknowledging the right to privacy of whoever made the claim not only by posting her name on the Internet, but also by assuming your purported need-to-know is more important than her right to privacy. This issue is certainly one that can be healthily debated, but should not be rationally dismissed as a non-issue.

d) Saying this -- "In the US though, the woman is 9/10 going to be assumed correct in a he said / she said." Words cannot begin to express how wrong this idea is. You will never find the evidence to back this preposterous statement up; in fact, you may find quite the opposite if you try. Most who encounter sexual harassment as well as other forms of sexual violence do not, in fact, report, because they are aware of the stalemate that will be reached if it becomes a case of "he said/she said." I encourage you to take a violence against women class in college.

Take care.

Charter `05

Grand Master - 108 Tongues, Bustout! Family said...

Will

-I largely agree with you about your approach to this sexual harassment issue. Your suggestion that Kerri might "take a violence against women class in college" is advice that, indeed, ought be echoed to many of us.

That said, my primary concern in these issues is not the veracity of the sexual harassment claim (note: not claims). That is, in fact, the precise issue which I want to avoid.

With some time having passed since this issue came to light, and now that I have heard from different voices in the community, I have grown increasingly convinced of two things: (1) the seeming facts of the environment at CSW are difficult to pick out, and highly colored by one's relationship to the situation, and (2) the ostensible reason for Mr. Russo's dismissal is by no means the only, or even central, conflict at hand.

So I am far more interested in transparency in these other issues. Yes, an allegation of sexual harassment - and I feel warranted in asking ourselves to be reminded that we are still dealing with a claim - is something to be dealt with seriously, and I am, in fact, quite interested that this is done, not only for the sake of other Charter faculty, but for the sake of Mr. Russo himself.

That said, the other issues surrounding Mr. Russo's dismissal seem highly pertinent, and underdeveloped.