On Bullying - Part 3
"Someone out there will hate you now. But what you take is what you allow.” Sarah Bettens (song: “Come Over Here”)
In spring 2014, I was applying to be Superintendent of the Ross Valley School District. The search firm employed by the RVSD Board of Trustees conducted a comprehensive process that included a detailed application, writing samples, current letters of recommendation, several rounds of interviews, in-person conversations with more than thirty colleagues from my former district, extensive reference checks and a background investigation conducted by Baker-Eubanks, LLC.
At the same time the District was conducting their due diligence on me, I was conducting mine on them.
One of the first things I learned about RVSD from the May 22, 2014 "Leadership Profile Report," was that the top challenge facing the District and its new Superintendent would be "Manor School traditional/MAP conflicts." As I progressed through the many steps of the recruitment and selection process, this conflict kept surfacing to the point where it became a theme. In retrospect I had no idea of the full context regarding this long-standing and complex issue, but I knew this was an area I needed to research more closely if I intended to keep my hat in the ring.
Candidates for Superintendent positions typically have networks to call upon for candid information about school districts. I was no exception. Given my 36 years of experience serving four amazing Southern California school districts (two of them hired me twice), I'm blessed and thankful to have friends and colleagues throughout the State and beyond. This includes several contacts who either had direct knowledge of RVSD or could refer me to reliable sources who did. I reached out to a few of these contacts to learn all I could about RVSD and the conflict that seemed to be consuming it.
What I learned then, and virtually every day since, serves as a real-life study in bullying characteristics, behavior and the consequences to come for those who dare challenge it.
During the recruitment and selection process I spoke with several people who consistently described RVSD as a district "suffering from a 20+ year history of harassment and bullying." They used terms such as "broken," "demoralized," and "hijacked," to describe the ways in which a small "alternative" program headed by two former RVSD Trustees, dominated the District's focus, energy, resources and time. The result, among other things, was years of tremendous leadership and governance instability through constant turnover of Principals, Superintendents and Board Trustees. At the time I was being recruited to come to RVSD, the District had just lost its ninth Superintendent in fifteen years, another Manor Elementary School Principal, another Director of Student Services/Special Education and another Chief Business Official.
Of all the information shared with me about RVSD, perhaps the most memorable comment I heard about the District's decades-old conflict was, "In a nutshell, RVSD is a scene out of 'The Magnificent Seven'."
That seemed like a bizarre reference and comparison, to say the least. It definitely piqued my interest.
For those who may not know, "The Magnificent Seven" was originally released in 1960 and included a star-studded cast of veteran actors (see below). Adapted from the 1954 Japanese film, "Seven Samurai," the movie tells the story of a beleaguered farming village whose elders hire seven men to stand-up to a gang of marauding oppressors.
Oscar Wilde once wrote, "life imitates art far more than art imitates life." I can't really say whether RVSD had become a scene from this western-period classic, but I do see interesting parallels between what RVSD has endured over the years and the on-screen actions illustrated by some of the "Seven's" most infamous lines:
- CALVERA (Eli Wallach): "If I leave here with empty hands, everyone will answer to me when I come back." In real life and on the silver screen, bullies issue demands and make threats about what will happen if their demands aren't met. In the case of Ross Valley and the alternative program that morphed into a State-approved charter school, we've yet to have a single interaction where there hasn't been at least one "... or else" attached. It's almost uncanny and people who haven't lived with it can't grasp how this commonly used bully tactic so profoundly diminishes everything. There can be no rational conversation with people who make threats, much less what some refer to as "mediation." Ultimatums are the bully's bread and butter, at least so long as people are willing to tolerate them. This brings me to the next infamous line from the "Seven" script ...
- CALVERA (Eli Wallach): "If God hadn't meant for them to be sheared, he wouldn't have made them sheep." Another common characteristic of bullying is they typically see their victims as weak, defenseless, disorganized, afraid and powerless. Yet as we've explored in parts 1 and 2 of this "On Bullying" series, the balance of power can shift dramatically once people declare, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!" Here in RVSD the real-life shift occurred when so many in our community decided that their public schools had been held hostage for far too long. Even so, standing-up to the bullying in RVSD has come at a steep price for all of us, but particularly those children who (for years) were discriminated against on account of their race, gender, socioeconomic status, English proficiency and/or their disabilities. We've paid the price by enduring endless personal attacks on social media and in the local newspaper, where we are called names, our integrity and character are impugned by anonymous posters and historical context is manipulated beyond recognition in repeated attempts to propagandize a hateful narrative. We've paid the price in defending against the repeated frivolous lawsuits filed against our District and community. We've paid the price politically, in the words and actions of local politicians, self-described "journalists" and others, who are part of the bullies' entourage and seek to restore their myopic version of "peace in the valley." The good news is, these are all clear signs that standing up to the bullies is working. As the bully's tactics go even lower, it's a sure indicator that desperation has taken control. I don't like the personal attacks any more than anyone else, but it's important to remember that these are more a reflection on the attacker than the attacked.
- CALVERA (Eli Wallach): "Seriously ... that was my first mistake. I leave these people a little bit extra and then they hire these men to make trouble. It shows you, sooner or later, you must answer for every good deed." This particular line illustrates a couple of important points about bullies and their behavior. First, bullies who are challenged somehow miraculously find a way to twist the narrative around so they become the victim. Second, twisting the narrative around supports the bully's false belief that their prior actions were not only justified, but somehow beneficial to those they bullied. We've seen this scenario play-out in our own local situation, where those who held the District's spotlight for so long, now see themselves as the bullied, jilted by others who (to their "Monkey Mind" way of thinking) should actually be grateful for all the wonderful "choices" they've created. Another interesting aspect of Calvera's quote is the notion that the men hired to help the local townspeople are "making trouble." Indeed, at least from the bully's perspective, changing the long-held status quo is troubling. In our real life situation, the historical turnover of school and district leaders fed nicely into the status quo that reigned in RVSD. That all changed in 2014. When new leadership stood-up to the bullies' threats, attacks and intimidation tactics, that leadership (including me) became "trouble." The bullies want us gone at all costs, but the problem is, too many in the community are now fully aware and engaged. They are all standing-up, too, and I've a good feeling they'll continue standing long after current leadership "rides into the sunset."
- VIN (Steve McQueen): "[a] Fella I once knew in El Paso ... one day he took all his clothes off and jumped into a mess of cactus. I asked him 'why?' He said it seemed to be a good idea at the time." I consider myself fortunate to have had a good number of leadership opportunities over the years. Back in 2014 I was finishing my third year in a Deputy Superintendent role I'd originally promised I'd only do for two, yet the Board had recently extended my contract for an additional three year term (through June 2017). Great school boards, by the way, are a treasure and far more important than most people realize. In my former district we had one of the best, brightest, most student-centered and "personal agenda-free" boards I'd known to that point - it was an honor to work with them and a Superintendent I'd known and respected for over twenty years. Also, I was surrounded by a dedicated, talented and loyal team in a beautiful community where there were definitely challenges (we all have them no matter what we do), but the successes far outweighed the failures. Together our work was having a positive, documented impact on the lives of so many students. And like here, the voices of a few detractors occasionally seemed louder than those of the supporters who far outnumbered them, but that's just how it is sometimes. Overall I'd adjusted to that "mess of cactus" and so, you may ask, given all I'd learned about RVSD and its history over the past two decades, what made me decide to jump into this one? The simple answer is, in RVSD I saw a unique opportunity to join forces with a caring and committed Board of Trustees, to fix what many said was broken, empower those who felt demoralized and return this small but amazing district to its primary focus. It was, without question, our RVSD Board of Trustees who made this opportunity unique above the others I had, including the opportunity to stay another three years in my former position. From my earliest interactions with them, I knew the RVSD Board was the group I wanted to jump with into this particular "mess of cactus."