Columbia Elementary Superintendent John Pendley is generously compensated — $166,000 a year — to make sound decisions, be a good steward of school district funds, respect open government and public access to school documents, and, most importantly, to create a safe learning environment for children.
Over the last 20 months, he’s earned failing grades across the board. Through a series of deliberate missteps, he’s put the interests of his son before those of students, parents and the taxpaying public.
For that, he must resign. Pendley first compromised the integrity of the district’s hiring practices when he participated in getting his unqualified and reckless son a job as an after-school aide. His son lacked qualifications, credentials and certifications required by others in that position.
Brennan quickly abused the trust and responsibility his father had placed in him by sexually exploiting a 15-year-old girl in his classroom. For sending lewd text messages to the girl, and for having illicit sex with her twice in his classroom, he was sentenced last month to a year in jail plus eight years probation.
Note: The crime scene was his after-school classroom on the Columbia campus.
In the days following Brennan’s resignation from Columbia amidst charges of inappropriate behavior, he was given another job at a second campus overseen by his father.
While he was rewarded with this opportunity, his victim, Jane Doe, was relegated to the school’s “focus room” — an in-school detention center.
How is this? Had John Pendley and his administrators already determined the relative innocence and guilt of those two?
Beyond that, what should taxpayers think of a superintendent who uses his schools as a family employment agency? Nepotism, when practiced by those at the pinnacle of power at a public institution, can have a corrupting influence on the culture of an organization.
In this case, John Pendley’s actions backfired wildly.
After sheriff’s deputies arrived on campus May 10 to question Brennan Pendley, efforts focused on “damage control” began at Columbia.
A few board members say John Pendley stood admirably on the sidelines — which is difficult to believe given his involvement in so much of what happened before and after the arrest of his son.
One piece of said campaign was a district “internal investigation.”
The lame, one-day investigation by the school principal and school counselor involved just three interviews — Brennan Pendley, the victim and another student. It was a hastily written, one-page report.
The district’s investigation found there was no serious wrongdoing by Brennan on campus. It also failed to ask deeper questions: How well was Brennan Pendley being supervised? Had any staff or faculty heard but failed to report rumors about the girl’s alleged sexual encounters with older men? The latter could trigger the state’s mandatory reporting law, which requires school employees to call law enforcement when they suspect child abuse.
No, the district says, no one knew anything. Yet, in his parting words, Brennan Pendley lamented the “constant emotional stress” he was under due to campus rumors about his alleged sexual activity.
The pro forma investigation wasn’t the district’s only attempt to contain the damage. District officials refused several legitimate requests for the release of public records, only to have their hands forced by this newspaper.
John Pendley continued to influence the thinking and actions of his subordinates even after his son admitted guilt.
Court record show Pendley “asked” at least a few Columbia employees to write letters to Tuolumne County Superior Court Judge James Boscoe urging leniency for his son — at that point convicted of a sex offense on the school campus.
A shameful, common thread in those letters and a handful of others:
Brennan Pendley, 23, was the victim and his student, Jane Doe 15, the instigator.
This orchestrated smokescreen, shifting the blame to Jane Doe is totally outrageous. The background of a troubled, at-risk 15-year old is of no consequence. She is a minor. A handful of the letter writers claimed the sexual activity was “consensual.” Yet the state of California says that no minor can consent to having sex.
It’s a point of law they — particularly counselor Tina Cruz — certainly should understand.
Tuolumne County Probation officer Ray Hylton, preparing a sentencing recommendation for Judge Boscoe, provided some perspective in his report that is lacking at Columbia:
“This officer is appalled by the behavior of the defendant and how soon he began his inappropriate contact with the victim … the victim was his student and therefore it was his responsibility to protect the student and not take advantage of her,” Hylton wrote, noting Brennan, “was under minimal supervision in the after-school program and it appears he had no training concerning inappropriate teacher-student behavior.”
More than a year has passed since a child was sexually exploited in a campus classroom, yet, what steps have John Pendley and the Board of Trustees taken to further protect students and insure no re-occurrence? For now, all we’ve heard from the board is a proposed “inappropriate touching” policy directed at Columbia’s students. This is consistent with the mind-set at Columbia: Avoid the real issue. Hold no adults responsible for what happens on campus. The children are at fault.
What can we make of all of this?
Most importantly, John Pendley clearly has put the well-being and protection of his son over the well being of students — especially one young, troubled girl he was duty-bound to protect.
John Pendley owes the students, parents and taxpayers of Columbia an apology and his resignation. Failing that, the Columbia Elementary Board of Trustees must exert its authority and responsibility to remove him as superintendent.
Weekly Arts and entertainment guide for Calaveras and Tuolumne counties