Grand jury examines Columbia hiring

By Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat July 01, 2013 12:30 pm

The Tuolumne County grand jury has found that Columbia Elementary School and Belleview Elementary School failed to follow regulations and best practices in hiring Brennan Pendley, who later pleaded guilty to having sex with a student in a Columbia classroom. 

The 2013 grand jury report, released Friday, faulted Belleview Elementary trustees for employing Pendley — son of Columbia and Belleview superintendent John Pendley — shortly after the investigation into his crimes at Columbia began. 

Other criticisms in the report’s 19 pages on Columbia Elementary focus on employee training, the exam required for Brennan Pendley’s position, the public perception that nepotism played a role in his hiring, letters of support written by school employees before his sentencing, and extra payments to school staff. 

However, the report supported the school in its investigation of the sexual abuse crimes and its handling of subsequent public information.

The Columbia investigation marks the first time since 2010 that the Tuolumne County grand jury has reviewed a school district. 

Jurors chose to investigate Columbia Elementary “in the hopes that misinformation and perceptions can be clarified and closure for the district and community can occur,” the report said. 

Brennan Pendley was an assistant in Columbia Elementary’s federally funded after-school program in 2010. He was 23 years old at the time.

He pleaded guilty to two counts of unlawful sex with an eighth-grader in the program and one count of sending her harmful matter, having exchanged sexually explicit text messages with her. 

The crimes occurred in spring 2010. Yet Brennan Pendley secured a summer job at Belleview Elementary School, which his father also oversees, within a short time of resigning at Columbia and being investigated by the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office. 

The elder Pendley approached Belleview’s Board of Trustees and asked it to employ Brennan Pendley for a demolition project on campus, according to the grand jury report. 

The jury concluded that John Pendley showed a “conflict of interest” when recommending his son for the job. 

“The nature of the allegations and environment of a school were not compatible,” the jury report said. 

Belleview Elementary trustees said they considered Brennan Pendley’s situation and noted that there were only allegations of wrongdoing at that point, according to the jury report. 

Trustees also said there were no children present during the demolition project. 

But the grand jury has recommended that Columbia and Belleview develop policies “to ensure that ongoing criminal investigations … be resolved before a job offer is made or an individual is allowed to return to work.” 

Furthermore, Brennan Pendley hadn’t been subject to a criminal history check at Columbia Elementary School before he was hired there, though he’d undergone one before doing custodial work at Belleview in 2009.  

Columbia Elementary and Belleview now have a formal agreement to share information from criminal history checks, the jury report said. 

It also noted that a criminal history check wouldn’t have turned up anything on Brennan Pendley before 2010. 

Immediately prior to Brennan Pendley’s hiring, he had been volunteering and job-shadowing in Columbia Elementary’s physical education department, according to the report.

But when he started working in Columbia’s after-school program in charge of sixth, seventh and eighth-graders, he hadn’t passed the academic proficiency test or undergone the CPR training required for his job. 

Columbia Elementary has since started requiring new employees to undergo CPR and first aid training within 15 days of starting work, the report said. 

It also noted that Columbia’s entire staff, including its after-school assistants, received additional training in fall 2011 on “appropriate interaction with students,” the “appropriateness” of providing staff cell numbers to students, the “use of social networking sites” to communicate with students and parents, and “common sense practices such as not being alone in a classroom with a student.” 

A shortage of qualified applicants for after-school assistant positions at Columbia — combined with limited times to take the proficiency test — led to quick hires, the jury report said. 

While the jury found no evidence that the district had deviated from its prior practices in hiring Brennan Pendley, it acknowledged that the public perception of nepotism remains.

“The mere perception of a conflict of interest should be scrupulously avoided, especially by upper level leadership positions,” the jury report read. 

Jurors analyzed letters written by school staff in support of Brennan Pendley before his sentencing. Some were written at the request of John Pendley, and some partially blamed the victim for the crimes. 

In response to the letters, jurors recommended that Columbia require review and approval for employee participation in “activities that have potential to negatively affect the district directly or indirectly.” 

In a more recent misstep, Columbia failed to follow the requirements of state law in handing out more than $100,000 in extra payments for employees last November, according to the jury report. 

A public disclosure form for the payments had not been on file with the Tuolumne County Office of Education before the money was handed out, an oversight blamed on the district’s new chief business official. 

On other counts involving Columbia, however, the grand jury found no problems. Its report said Columbia trustees had made an effort to communicate with the public about Brennan Pendley’s crimes before an October 2011 tort claim prevented them from doing so. 

It also said Columbia trustees had upheld the Brown Act at public meetings, that the district’s internal investigation into Brennan Pendley followed “standard practice,” and that the jury had found “no evidence of mistreatment of the victim by the school.” 

The latter statement conflicts with the tort claim filed on the victim’s behalf, which said Columbia Elementary staff breached her confidentiality and caused her “extreme” distress. The claim resulted in a settlement of $100,000, paid by Columbia Elementary’s insurer. 

Brennan Pendley served eight months of a one-year sentence in Tuolumne County Jail, with credit given for good behavior. 

The grand jury requested responses to its report from John Pendley and Belleview and Columbia trustees. They have until October 2013 to reply. 

Neither John Pendley nor Columbia School Board President Laura Phelan could be reached for comment this morning.

Among the other agencies the grand jury reviewed this year were the Tuolumne County Behavioral Health Department and the Columbia Fire Protection District, which took hits for what the report described as a “significant lack of business practices and operational controls.”

The full grand jury report is available on Tuolumne County’s website at www.tuolumnecounty.ca.gov.