Columbia Elementary: Student safety high on agenda
Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat /
Columbia Union School District Trustee Jo Rodefer addressed the topic of student safety at a board meeting Tuesday, emphasizing that she and other school board members take the issue seriously.
Rodefer said Columbia Elementary School reexamined its policies after crimes in spring 2010 involving Brennan Pendley, son of district Superintendent John Pendley, and an eighth-grade student in Columbia's after-school program.
Brennan Pendley pleaded guilty in 2011 to having unlawful sex with the student on campus while he worked as an after-school aide.
Members of the public have attended almost every Columbia Elementary board meeting since that time, calling for Pendley's resignation and asking what the district is doing to prevent sexual misconduct.
Before being elected in November 2012, Rodefer attended several meetings herself to criticize John Pendley's handling of the crimes and call for his resignation.
She said at Tuesday's meeting that she wanted to address public concerns about student safety, which she called "fair."
Previous board members have refused comment on policies to prevent sexual abuse, stating that a legal claim on behalf of the victim prevented them from speaking about it.
Though the tort claim was settled in February for $100,000, Board President Laura Phelan declined comment on safety policies after the district's meeting that month.
Rodefer pointed out Tuesday that the "superintendent's council" - formed of about 10 school staff members - reviewed school board rules on superintendents, nepotism, personnel duties, after-school programs, and several other topics relevant to Brennan Pendley's crimes.
When Brennan Pendley was hired at Columbia, he didn't have an associate's degree and hadn't taken the alternative proficiency test required for the position at the time. He also lacked CPR and first aid certification.
In a September 2011 letter to parents, Columbia Elementary claimed that several qualifications had been copied to the position description for after-school aides by "clerical error."
The superintendent's council, which examined school board policies in October 2011, recommended changing the job title for after-school aides to clarify which required an associate's degree or paraprofessional test.
It also recommended that employees be given no more than 15 days to pass a CPR and first aid certification.
A probation report prepared for Brennan Pendley's July 2011 sentencing said he was "under minimal supervision in the after school program, and it appears he had no training concerning inappropriate teacher-student behavior."
The superintendent's council found nothing wrong with the written policy on the evaluation and supervision of after-school aides, but recommended that after-school program supervisors be trained on proper employee evaluation.
Rodefer said she had "no knowledge" of noncompliance with the policies and procedures.
"I can say that the staff seems to go out of their way to make sure students are safe," she said. "Staff has been drug through this mess also and deserves credit where credit is due.
She took issue with a recent comment made by Paul Girard, a Pendley critic, regarding board approval of new hires for the after-school program.
Girard told The Union Democrat he was concerned by the speed with which trustees finalize John Pendley's hiring recommendations at board meetings.
Rodefer said she and other board members individually review applications and ask questions of Pendley before the board meetings.
"The inference in (a Feb. 13) Union Democrat article that this board takes lightly anything that has to do with the welfare of the children at this school is unfounded and inaccurate," Rodefer said in a prepared statement. "We disagree on some issues but I can tell you that we are in 100 percent agreement on this one.
"As human beings," she said, "and, frankly, because of the mess over the past couple years, we are most acutely aware of all issues regarding student safety."
Rodefer said the two other trustees new to Columbia Elementary's board, Danese Pimentel and Jenny David, were "extremely dedicated."
She also said she is reviewing hundreds of pages of school board policy.
"Whatever recommendations I think might be in order will be brought to the board and will also be available to the public," Rodefer said.
She told the Union Democrat Tuesday that she believes it's "time to move on" from the aftermath of the crimes.
Neither the other trustees nor members of the public made comments Tuesday on the topic of student safety and sexual misconduct.
Pendley did not respond to a request for comment after the meeting, which also included a budget report and a summary by Principal Ed Pelfrey of upcoming activities.