Summerville High bully talk gets heated

By Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat April 11, 2013 08:50 am

More than 15 people addressed Summerville High School trustees Wednesday about a complaint against the school by Sonora resident Al Dieste, who said other students bullied his son Beto to the brink of suicide.

Some commenters spoke in support of Dieste and Beto, a 15-year-old freshman, while others said the family’s complaints were “false” and damaging the community. 

 

The contentious meeting was attended by at least 80 parents, school staffers and students. The public comment period occasionally devolved into protest against the school’s rules for commenting and argument between audience members. 

Dieste’s public dispute with Summerville High began in December, when he told the school’s Board of Education that Beto had been severely bullied on campus for months. He said other students had even formed a “Hate Beto Club.” 

Beto’s sister Isabel Dieste, a Summerville High senior, said Wednesday he was called a variety of obscene names, his locker was smeared with mud and he was shoved into a chain-link fence during baseball practice. 

“He felt alone, invisible, and forgotten,” Isabel Dieste said. “And hated.” 

According to the Diestes, the alleged bullying culminated March 11 in Beto saying he was going for a jog but not coming home. The California Highway Patrol found him on the Highway 108 Mono Way overpass, Dieste said, “leaning over the railing, and looking down at the passing cars.”

Dieste, a former Columbia Elementary School principal and teacher, filed his first complaint with the Summerville board on Beto’s behalf at the December meeting.  

His later complaints named the Summerville High administration for allegedly failing to stop the bullying and Superintendent John Keiter for taking too long to investigate the first complaint.

Keiter interviewed more than 40 people during his investigation, which produced a 22-page memo last month in which he said school administrators had reacted appropriately and there was no evidence of a “Hate Beto Club.”

He offered to arrange counseling for Beto at Summerville High’s expense.

“I’ve bent over backwards for months trying to help this family,” Keiter said in a March Union Democrat interview. 

Dieste’s complaints are disputed by some parents, several of whom spoke at Wednesday’s meeting.

“My concern … is that since the issue didn’t turn out the way the family filing the complaint had liked, the backlash is still lingering in our school,” said parent Julie Day.

Isabel Dieste voiced anger at those who called her family’s complaints a fiction.

“My brother has been bullied to the brink of suicide, yet people have the audacity to say that (Beto) made it up … it was an act for attention,” she said. “Really? My brother almost took his own life. 

 “All of this could have been prevented. If it wasn’t for our incompetent administration and their legal counsel, we wouldn’t be standing here,” Isabel Dieste said, later sobbing on her friends’ shoulders after the public comment period finished. 

 Parent Kasey Fulkerson said she had faith in the Summerville High staff and school board. 

“Al Dieste has been obscenely vocal at Summerville High School board meetings, through his writings and personal letters to family and friends, and through his contact with the media,” Fulkerson said. “His approach is caustic and his claims are grossly inaccurate.”

Fulkerson and a few others suggested Dieste’s allegations were part of a “pattern,” referring to his earlier complaints against Columbia Union School District and Curtis Creek School District.

In a 2003 complaint against Columbia Union School District, Dieste said Columbia Superintendent John Pendley had unfairly changed his teaching assignment and that the district violated the teachers’ union contract, also breaking federal laws in its handling of the issue.  

Dieste’s series of grievances against Columbia Elementary resulted in a settlement that he estimated in a Union Democrat interview last year at roughly $200,000. 

Later, in 2008, the Diestes alleged Isabel Dieste had been sexually harassed at Curtis Creek Elementary School. 

Dieste declined to comment Wednesday on either instance or say whether the Curtis Creek complaint resulted in litigation, beyond noting it was public record. He attended the Summerville meeting but made no remarks to the board.

A few students spoke about their own experiences being bullied and said they were concerned for Beto, who has not attended school since March.

“I’m not here to point fingers,” said Summerville health and P.E. teacher Paige Garcia. “… I’m just here directly in support of a student who’s going through a very difficult time. 

“I can assure you for him, it’s not over,” Garcia said. 

Board of Education President Randy Richter allowed about an hour and 20 minutes of public comment Wednesday, then said more comments would be permitted at the school’s April 24 meeting. 

After most of the audience had left, Keiter and staff members described anti-bullying measures at Summerville, which is introducing a character education program called “Character Counts.” 

Trustees adopted a new anti-discrimination policy Wednesday and will consider adding another bullying policy at the April 24 meeting. 

In January 2012, Summerville High administrators faced allegations from parent Peggy Blue that her daughter, who is half African-American, had been subject to “hate-motivated” actions. 

At that time, district administrators said they were taking the issue seriously and were willing to meet with students and staff on a diversity committee.