San Dieguito superintendent, placed on leave for comments about Asian students, claims retaliation
Some say punishment for Cheryl James-Ward — San Dieguito’s first Black female superintendent, who has advocated for equity and inclusion — is too severe
After San Dieguito Union High School Superintendent Cheryl James-Ward was placed on leave last week for her controversial comments about Asian students, she and others say she is being unfairly persecuted as retaliation for filing a complaint about a board member’s abusive behavior.
Many community members have criticized James-Ward for saying during a recent school board workshop that Asian students do well in school because they are from wealthy families who recently immigrated from China. Several Asian-American parents and community members said that’s a biased statement because not all Asians are Chinese and not all Asians are wealthy. Many also emphasized merit over socioeconomic status as reasons for Asian students’ success.
James-Ward has apologized multiple times for her comments and has promised to work with the community to prevent such incidents of bias from happening again.
Still, several community members have called for James-Ward’s resignation or firing. But several others said they accepted James-Ward’s apology and that people deserve second chances to learn from mistakes.
On April 20, the board voted 3-1 to place James-Ward on paid administrative leave after hearing three hours of public comment. Two days later, they appointed Tina Douglas, associate superintendent of business services, to serve as interim superintendent.
But James-Ward alleges that the controversy over her comments is being used against her as retaliation for filing a complaint about Michael Allman, one of the trustees who voted to place her on leave. Her complaint alleges intimidation, harassment and bullying by Allman, her attorney Josh Gruenberg said in an interview.
“All of this is a sham,” James-Ward said in a recent interview with NBC7. “I know that all of this has to do with the fact that on March 10, I submitted a complaint against Michael Allman, so that is what this is all about.”
Now some community members are calling for Allman’s resignation and for James-Ward to be reinstated.
“As someone who has also been a victim of Mr. Allman’s intimidation and harassment, I believe that his behavior is toxic and is significantly harming employee morale,” district parent Robyne Ruterbusch said in a news release issued by community members Monday evening, April 25. “It is my opinion that Trustee Allman has directly contributed to a hostile work environment district wide.”
During a school board meeting on Feb. 17, James-Ward alleged that Allman had intimidated district staff. The topic came up when Allman said he had wanted to ask Douglas several questions about the district’s audit. But he said he was told he could not meet with Douglas.
James-Ward told Allman that wasn’t true, but James-Ward said she was concerned about Allman abusing district staff.
“The f-word was used with me. I have seen emails where people were intimidated. And so I just want to make sure that my staff is not disrespected by any member of the board,” James-Ward said during the Feb. 17 meeting. “I’m not saying that they can’t meet with Trustee Allman; I am simply saying that if he wants to meet with them, they actually should have two of us there to ensure that they are not intimidated, not disrespected.”
She added: “I know what I’ve been called. I know what’s been sent to me in text messages, and I don’t believe that anybody deserves that. I’ve seen what’s been sent in emails, and I don’t believe that anybody deserves that.”
In an email statement Tuesday afternoon, April 26, Allman said he had called for an independent investigation on Feb. 18 into comments that James-Ward made during the Feb. 17 school board meeting. He said the board hired a third-party investigator.
“I will have a lot more to say when the investigation is complete,” Allman said.
The Union-Tribune filed a public record request in early March for a copy of James-Ward’s complaint and related documents, but district staff has not provided any records to fulfill the request. James-Ward has declined to discuss the details of her complaint with the Union-Tribune, and Allman has said he cannot comment on pending investigations.
Last week, Allman condemned James-Ward’s comments about Asian students during a board meeting.
“Her words show a built-in bias that is unbecoming of a leader of an educational institution like ours,” Allman said. “I condemn her words in the strongest possible language and I do not believe that this is what our district stands for ... We’re not gonna tolerate biased actions or words without consequences.”
Two other trustees also voted to place James-Ward on leave: Board President Maureen “Mo” Muir and Julie Bronstein.
James-Ward is the district’s first Black superintendent and was hired last fall to glowing praise from several board members, including Allman.
She was previously the CEO of E3 Civic High, a charter school with a focus on project-based learning and preparing underserved students for college, and before that she was a tenured professor at San Diego State University for 14 years, where she taught masters- and doctoral-level courses. She has also served as a teacher, dean of students and principal. At San Diego State, she helped found the online master of arts program in educational leadership and led the university’s Chinese and American Leadership Symposium.
In the six months James-Ward has worked in San Dieguito, supporters say she has embraced diversity, equity and inclusion. Kristin Fay, youth co-lead for Encinitas4Equality, a community group that advocates for racial justice, said during the April 22 board meeting that topics and concerns about diversity “only ever received a positive response once Dr. Ward was hired.”
James-Ward met with Asian American community members in a “restorative meeting” three days after she made her comments about Asian students “to repair the harm I have done to our community.”
“I understand the magnitude of my comments and how I angered and disappointed our Asian-American community,” James-Ward wrote in an email to San Dieguito families on April 15. “I spoke insensitively with a bias I didn’t know was there. I am so sorry; I fully acknowledge this bias and am committed to uniting with my community to work through this bias, to learning from neighbors and peers, and to preventing anything like this from happening again.”
James-Ward’s attorney, however, said there was nothing wrong with what James-Ward said. He said socioeconomic status generally does play a role in students’ success — well-off families are able to provide time and resources for their kids that other families cannot. At the same time, Gruenberg said, James-Ward did not downplay the role of “hard work, grit and determination” in students’ success.
“The truth is that there is nothing offensive or inappropriate about what she said,” Gruenberg said. “And what is even more bad and pathetic is that this discussion was at a diversity and inclusion meeting where there is supposed to be a free flowing exchange of ideas without comments being used for retaliatory purposes.”
Katrina Young, who was the only trustee to vote against placing James-Ward on leave, said during the April 20 board meeting that while James-Ward’s comments “caused great harm to our district,” everybody has inherent biases and has made stereotypes or assumptions about others — that’s why the district is doing diversity, equity and inclusion training, she said.
“In this district, we don’t have a zero-tolerance policy. We instead hope to offer restoration support for future better choices and actions,” Young said.
She later added, “Aren’t we adding to the emotional weight of everyone if we don’t give everyone adequate space to recognize our mistakes and make amends for them?”
After Young finished her comments, several peopled booed and shouted, prompting Muir to call for respect from the audience.
3:26 p.m. April 26, 2022: This story was updated with a statement Michael Allman sent on Tuesday afternoon.
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