After years of complaints, Tomales High counselor transferred

05/15/2014

A Tomales High School counselor with a troubled history of narrowing students’ horizons for college will be reassigned to the elementary school next year. 

After Latino mothers voiced concerns to the Shoreline Unified School District trustees nearly a year ago in June and again in mid-April, Superintendent Tom Stubbs and Principal Adam Jennings informed Steffan O’Neill that the counseling program would be taken “in a different direction,” Mr. O’Neill wrote in an email last week announcing the change. 

The transfer was the first major personnel shakeup at the high school, which has been burdened by its reputation of lackluster academics and an unresponsive administration, during the first—and possibly only—year of Mr. Stubbs’s time as superintendent. 

The reorganization also marked one of the first instances of the school board recommending a personnel change at the prompting of the Spanish-speaking community, which has grown to more than half the district’s population.

“There had been a series of complaints of dissatisfaction with the counselor that has gone back to before I came here,” Mr. Stubbs said, adding that the majority has come from the Hispanic community. “We are also in need of a qualified, credentialed person to deal with more serious counseling situations that we’ve encountered of late… for some of the socio-emotional concerns for students.”

A job opening for a new counselor, preferably with credentials in crisis counseling and family therapy, will be posted this week. A hire is expected by early August.

“I am very proud of the work we have accomplished together over the past seventeen years,” Mr. O’Neill wrote in the email to his colleagues. “I am extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to assist hundreds of students socially, emotionally and academically to reach the next stage of their lives.”

While some students would emphatically agree—Mr. O’Neill allegedly had a pattern of selecting a few students to shepherd along from each class, particularly from prominent families—the majority felt they received little or no assistance from him in the complicated process of applying to colleges and scholarships, parents and former students said. 

Recent graduates interviewed for this article said Mr. O’Neill rarely welcomed students into his office; he discouraged some from pursuing their goals of four-year colleges after graduation; and he failed to complete paperwork students requested, leading to rejections for much-needed financial aid.

Mr. O’Neill did not respond to requests for a response, and Mr. Jennings declined to comment.

Recent graduates said Mr. O’Neill discouraged students from reaching their full potential. He allegedly told the high school students they were not “college material” or that all they were good for was junior college. Even if he did try to help, Mr. O’Neill had not invested the time to keep up-to-date on the latest developments, particularly with changes to the SAT and the 2011 California DREAM Act, multiple former students said. 

“O’Neill, in most of the student’s eyes, isn’t even a counselor. He does not give good advice or even guide us in the right direction,” said Adriana Lopez, a 2011 graduate. “If he sees that you are not above average, he will not give you the time of day.”

Those lacking resources to pay for outside advice or first-generation students encountering a new system were put at a significant disadvantage, said Laurel Ann Riley, a student who matriculated to University of California, Berkeley, last year. Providing support should have been very doable, particularly at such a small school, she added.

Some found Mr. O’Neill’s approach beneficial: the children learned independence and self-sufficiency, valuable skills they would profit from after high school, said Imelda Macias, the president of West Marin School’s English Language Advisory Council. But Mr. O’Neill’s failures also harmed some students directly. Not completing required paperwork led to financial aid applications being rejected as incomplete, said a former student. Last year, a few students who submitted forms for financial aid later found out their applications were rejected because the counselor did not submit the required G.P.A. verification forms, creating a difficult financial situation at a school where 52 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches due to their family’s economic circumstances.

“He doesn’t really follow up very well,” Ms. Riley said. “You would go see him to sign off on a lot of parts of the application process. He would say, ‘Come back at this time,’ and then not be there.”

Students said they also encountered difficulties scheduling classes. Every year seemed to begin with the crisis of required classes overlapping; Mr. O’Neill hesitated to change the schedule unless there was a public outcry, Ms. Riley said. 

One former student argued with Mr. O’Neill to fit Advanced Placement Spanish into his schedule in 2011. “Learning Spanish is stupid,” Mr. O’Neill allegedly told him. “All you need is street Spanish, and you got plenty of that.”

Complaints about Mr. O’Neill are not new. Years ago, Latino parents circulated a petition asking for a change, but nothing was done. During the National Equity Project’s Listening Campaign between October 2011 and January 2012, the counseling program was consistently mentioned in interviews. “We have a lot of kids with a variety of needs, social-emotional,” one person said. “Kids have a difficult time assimilating in school, friendships. And we didn’t have an adequate counseling program.” Another said, “Divorced parents, parents have died, sexual and physical abuse. Many haven’t found a spot with the counselor.”

Ana Gonzalez and Lourdes Martinez, two Tomales High School parents who each have three children, have brought their complaints about the counselor to multiple administrators during the last few years’ turnover in principals and superintendents. When Mr. Jennings was appointed two years ago, they went to see him together.

“We wanted to give him some time because he had just arrived and didn’t know how everything worked and what was going on,” Ms. Gonzalez said in Spanish during an April interview. “But two school years have gone by. We’ve brought up this topic several times during ELAC meetings and told [Mr. Jennings] that we don’t see any change.”

On June 20, 2013, at the board’s last regular meeting of the school year, Ms. Gonzalez rose during the public comment period at Tomales High School to address the trustees, feeling she had exhausted all other options. None of her complaints were recorded in the minutes, but those in attendance remember the visceral tension in the auditorium.

As she began to speak about her daughter’s experiences with Mr. O’Neill, the interim superintendent Nancy Neu motioned to the interpreter, Nuria Pont, to stop translating because she was concerned Ms. Gonzalez was disclosing a confidential personnel issue. But Ms. Gonzalez kept speaking.

“You could tell that she was shaking and on the verge of crying,” trustee Kegan Stedwell remembered. “It was an incredibly difficult and emotional statement that she was making to the board. She was coming to us as a last resort.”

Since the board cannot legally address items not on the agenda, the trustees could only nod and say, ‘Thank you.” Ms. Gonzalez left halfway through the meeting, and Ms. Stedwell followed her out of the room. “Please know that we hear what you are saying. It’s not falling on deaf ears,” she told Ms. Gonzalez as she gripped her hand. “We know that there have been problems with this counselor. Please keep pursuing it. Don’t lose hope.”

When Ms. Gonzalez returned to the board last month, she projected her voice confidently as she read a statement. “Unfortunately I find myself here again today having to return to address the same issue. My daughter is about to graduate, and she hasn’t received the necessary support to know which scholarships she can apply for. She still feels lost regarding where she can go next year for college. My freshman son is not being supported in developing a good plan for which classes he should take,” she said. “The principal seems unable to resolve the situation.”

Mr. Jennings set up a meeting with both parents. “Sometimes resolutions come quickly, others take more time,” he wrote in a late April email. “That doesn’t mean we don’t continue to work to make sure that everything we do is in the best interest of our students.”

Both parents requested that Mr. Stubbs and two family advocates also attend the meeting to translate and take notes. They met after school on the same day that the trustees held a special meeting to move forward with the search for a new superintendent. 

Within a week, Mr. O’Neill’s reassignment was announced.

After hearing about the change, Ms. Gonzalez questioned why a school employee with such a tumultuous history was being transferred rather than dismissed. 

As a tenured teacher, Mr. O’Neill is guarded by strong protections won by the state’s teachers unions. A permanent employee can only be dismissed for specific causes—“unsatisfactory performance,” “willful refusal to perform regular assignments,” incompetency due to mental condition, immoral conduct, a felony conviction, membership in the Communist Party, alcoholism or a drug addiction—which must be carefully documented and delivered as formal charges. The removal process can take years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Often, the proceedings are
unsuccessful.

“They don’t know how the system works,” Mr. O’Neill allegedly commented about the Latino parents who called the high school to complain. A former student who graduated in 2012 and went to Santa Rosa Junior College confronted him with a goal of changing the school for the better. “Tough luck,” Mr. O’Neill allegedly said. “If they don’t like something about me, it doesn’t matter. I have a contract, so they’re screwed.”