Union Democrat staff

It took nearly a year, but Columbia Elementary School District has finally addressed after-school aide Brennan Pendley's arrest for sexual misconduct with a 15-year-old student on campus.

In a letter sent home with students Tuesday, Columbia officials say: "Everyone is now very well aware of the horrific crime committed in our After School Program … and the travesty perpetrated on one of our students. (We) cannot tell you … how sorry we are that one of our student's safety was so severely compromised."

The letter is a departure from the district's hitherto secretive and defiant posture. But it is less an apology to the community and parents than a painfully defensive rewrite of history.

It's also hypocritical, given the pre-sentencing letters written by staffers to Judge James Boscoe, urging leniency on Brennan Pendley. Those letters showed no sympathy for the victim.

The bulk of the Columbia letter attempts to discredit reporting by The Union Democrat or otherwise spin the facts, and also claims "legal issues" are the reason for the district's lack of candor.

Readers should note that, while district officials have complained about our stories, Columbia has never asked The Union Democrat to correct any facts we've presented.

We set out here to address some of the false and misleading statements from their letter, shown in bold face:

"The administration and the board first learned of the allegation when Tuolumne County Sheriff's (deputies) arrived on campus the afternoon of May 10, 2010 and began their investigation."

This district assertion was reported earlier in The Democrat.

However, the letter fails to acknowledge at least one school employee, teacher Pam Kubasek, knew before investigators arrived when a parent called and reported it to her. The parent, Renee Naves, says Kubasek told her school employees had already heard the rumor.

Later the same day, Naves called sheriff's deputies and made the first and only report to law enforcement officials about possible misconduct on the Columbia campus.

"John Pendley voluntarily and immediately removed himself from any involvement in the matter" after the sheriff's investigation started in May 2010.

John Pendley's fingerprints are all over the place.

In addition to moving his son to a janitorial job at Belleview School, shortly after the investigation began, John Pendley also helped orchestrate a flimsy campus "internal investigation" launched May 11.

A May 12 e-mail from Pendley to counselor Tina Cruz and Principal Don Foster starts:

"Thank you for the work thus far on the investigation. I know this took a great deal of time out of your day and it is much appreciated. I would ask that you speak with (name redacted by district) and (name redacted) and get their statements as well. Possibly they could be asked to write something."

Cruz replied: "How are you doing?????? Of course I will talk to them. Do I give statements to (name redacted)?"

Cruz later that day, May 12, e-mailed Samantha White to tell her she asked the two people for their statements. Their names have still not been released.

However, two after-school aides did write letters to the Sheriff's Office defending Brennan Pendley, court records show. They were Alana Larson, on May 13, and Jill Morris, May 12. Both said Brennan was a nice guy and that the girls in his class were flirtatious and misbehaved frequently.

"John Pendley did not interview his son and was not a decision maker in the selection process."

Former after-school program director Samantha White told us John Pendley was part of a two-person interview team that recommended hiring Brennan Pendley.

Past hiring practices at the district as described to us, plus documents released under the Public Records Act, reinforce her statement.

One document is a hiring recommendation signed by John Pendley.

"The district has a policy on the employment of relatives which provides that an employee shall not be appointed to a position where a member of his/her immediate family maintains supervisory or evaluation responsibilities for the position. John Pendley never served as Brennan Pendley's immediate supervisor."

Did anyone ever say he did?

What the district fails to mention is that John Pendley participated in hiring his son and, while Brennan was overseen by Samantha White, she told us John Pendley has hiring and firing authority for the program. Other district employees we talked to confirmed this hierarchy.

This would seem to constitute "supervisory and evaluation responsibilities" over an "immediate family member."

"The District has fully complied with all Public Records Act requests in this matter in a timely manner."

Large gaps in the e-mail correspondence we obtained, plus past experience (Columbia's attorney failing to reveal the district had conducted an internal investigation, until we brought it up), leave us wondering if we were given all documents we requested.

The district also fails to acknowledge that much of the information was released to us reluctantly - only after our attorney got involved.

Some documents were heavily censored. Others have never been released.

Also, "timely" is in the eye of the beholder. We waited months for some records to be released, and we even granted Columbia's attorney additional time to respond to one request so he could get familiar with the law.

"When the Board employed Brennan Pendley as an ASP Assistant in December of 2009, he had neither an AA degree nor prior passage of the Paraprofessional examination. We were informed by the organization that oversees our ASP program that there is a 90-day grace period for an employee to pass the Paraprofessional exam. Brennan took and passed the Paraprofessional examination within thirty work days of commencing his position as an ASP Assistant."

District records show Brennan started his job Dec. 14. He took a proficiency test soon thereafter and received the results Jan. 27. The district has declined to release the results.

But records do show he retook an equivalent proficiency test, and on March 26 got a passing score.

That's about 60 school days after he started. Unless he passed it the first time and just decided to take it again for good measure.

As far as 90-day grace periods, Columbia should double-check with their advisor.

The state's Education Code says no one can start a paraprofessional job unless they have demonstrated proficiency or the academic equivalent, said Dana Fritz, the Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Office's human resources director.

"There is no exception to the rule," said Fritz, this county's authority on credentialing and certification, adding she has never heard of a 90-day grace period.

"If your paraprofessional position is funded by federal funds, then they have to have it when they're hired."

"The Board did not lower the standards for the Aide job description. In addition to the ASP Site Coordinator, there are two other classifications. An Aide is the entry level position and requires a high school diploma. An Assistant requires an AA degree or a passing score on a Paraprofessional Exam. We have always understood those as the requirements for the ASP positions. However, as part of our review of the After School Program, the District's legal counsel discovered that several of the qualification requirements for the ASP Assistant position had been inadvertently copied into the ASP Aide job description. The Board action of August 9, 2011 merely corrected that clerical error and did not lower the standard."

The statement above employs a bit of verbal dexterity. It is a convoluted way of saying the district lowered its standards, yet, it didn't.

The fact is, the district did require a proficiency test or degree, plus CPR/first-aid training, for aides. Now it does not.

The district is dropping standards it previously held itself to.

The district says this year it offered CPR/first-aid training to all staffers.

Great. But will it be the case in the future? The job description says: not necessarily.

"Our biggest concern continues to be the safety of our students and ensuring protection for all of our children. We accept the responsibility and are committed to ensure this does not happen again on our campus."

The process of accepting responsibility, first, involves being honest.

Columbia's letter is full of half-truths, spin and posturing.

As far as accepting responsibility and ensuring it won't happen again, good. We hope so.

The district's letter also calls for a process of "healing."

This cannot occur without real change at Columbia. And we don't mean a barely registrable change of heart.

Change needs to start at the top, with the resignation or removal of John Pendley as superintendent.