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Supporters show up en masse to protest D’Emilio’s dismissal (updated)

If there was any doubt that Sumner Principal Frank D’Emilio is beloved by the community, it was dispelled when a standing-room-only crowd packed into the Thursday, May 17 school board meeting to express dismay and outrage at his recent dismissal.

The crowd, which ultimately reached about 165, began gathering outside the Richard S. Kirkendall Education Center in advance of the meeting, circulating blue cards to reserve public comment spots as well as a petition to have Mr. D’Emilio reinstated with the district. Many took a moment to offer a hug and words of encouragement to the administrator’s tearful wife, Catherine, who was there without her husband.

“I’m a bit overwhelmed at this point. We’re just so thankful for the support,” she said. “I didn’t think it would come to this.”

After the meeting was called to order, CUSD board president Jeff Stark noted the large number of blue cards, prefacing the public comment session with a statement about the board’s decision to remove Mr. D’Emilio. “This has been extremely difficult for us. It’s the hardest decision I personally have ever made. In the end, it’s a [matter] of judgment and honesty.”

The board’s decision is the result of a judgment call Mr. D’Emilio made last year after 2 female students, ages 7 and 8, allegedly participated in acts of a sexual nature while on campus. The 8-year-old’s mother contacted the child abuse hotline at the Department of Family and Child Services (DCFS) to report the occurrences and was told to notify the school principal Mr. D’Emilio. Once notified about a case of abuse, it’s a school administrator’s sworn duty to report the incident to the DCFS.

But as Mr. D’Emilio explained in a 7-page written defense, he did not view the matter as abuse, given the young ages of the children involved. He opted instead to handle the situation internally, speaking to both children’s parents and teachers, and putting measures in place like added playground and restroom supervision and the presentation of a “Talking and Touching” program to educate students about appropriate and inappropriate interactions.  

The mother of the 8-year-old continued to press the issue, spurring the district to contact Mr. D’Emilio to see if he had reported the incidents. Initially, he responded he had done so, but he later called the district to admit he had not reported the matter to the DCFS. In his written defense, he apologized to members of the board for his lack of forthrightness, tendering his resignation as Sumner principal. At the May 3 board meeting, the school board voted 5-0 to remove Mr. D’Emilio as principal and 4-1 to remove him from the district entirely, with the sole dissenting vote coming from Steven Llanusa.

In his written defense, Mr. D’Emilio disagreed with his removal from the district on the basis of immoral or unprofessional conduct and unfitness for service, and asked to be allowed to continue with the district as a classroom teacher in the 2012-2013 school year.

Lending support to Mr. D’Emilio’s request was a slew of friends, fellow teachers, former students and the parents of children who have benefited from his 24 years as a CUSD administrator and teacher. Their testimonies and entreaties filled both public comment sessions, which went well beyond the typical 20-minute time allottment. Many acknowledged, however, that Mr. D’Emilio made a mistake by not being forthright with the district about his decision not to contact the DCFS. Nonetheless, they said, Mr. D’Emilio should, at the very least, be allowed to return to the district as a classroom teacher.

Many speakers said they agreed with Mr. D’Emilio’s decision to manage the situation at an intra-school level, applauding his efforts to address the root of a problem. All of them said he is a remarkable educator who has touched countless lives.

Claremont High School student Sara Battersby, who had Mr. D’Emilio for first grade when he was a teacher at Sycamore Elementary School, felt compelled to take to the podium in his defense. She feels the way he dealt with the alleged sexual misconduct is representative of an overwhelmingly positive teaching and administrative style.

“He dealt with this issue as a human being, not as a cog of the bureaucratic machine,” she said.

Sara asked the board to reverse its position, cautioning them that, “It’s important to remember that you are dismantling something great.”

CHS senior Cooper Weissman was another speaker who added a student perspective, calling the board’s decision “sickening.”

“There’s nothing harder than [seeing] a hero of yours be wronged in any way,” he said, asking the board to “Please have a backbone.”

Joining those testifying to Mr. D’Emilio’s strengths were speakers questioning the validity of the DCFS investigation, citing several possible problems with the DCFS investigation and the board’s decision.

Was the DCFS report written by someone familiar with educational issues or by a sub-contractor bent on prosecuting a flawed case? Were Sumner teachers intimidated and asked leading questions during the investigation? And did the CUSD board jump too quickly to dismiss Mr. D’Emilio, responding to over-cautious legal counsel instead of what CUSD Faculty Association president Joe Tonan called “that still small voice deep inside each one of you.”

In Mr. Tonan’s address, in which he asserted that Mr. D’Emilio has been wronged, he applauded the one board member who voted against the principal’s complete dismissal.

“Steven Llanusa, you may have been right in joining the other 4 in removing Mr. D’Emilio as principal, but I am sure you were right in casting the lone vote against the complete termination of Mr. D’Emilio from the district.”

Mr. Llanusa received a standing ovation at the conclusion of Mr. Tonan’s comments.

After the comment period finished, the board adjourned for a closed session. When the meeting reconvened, board president Jeff Stark reported the board had not discussed any personnel issues due to lack of time.

The conversation about Mr. D’Emilio resumed during a second comment session, and the principal received more accolades when the board honored Sumner Elementary School for receiving a California Distinguished School award.

That same conversation is being continued in a vigorous social networking campaign that was launched by supporters of the ousted principal. As of Friday morning, a Facebook group called “We Stand With Frank D’Emilio” (which was set up the day before) had garnered a membership of 669 people listed as having been invited to or having been “added” to the group.

Along with posts chastising the board and praising Mr. D’Emilio, there is a post created by board member Hilary LaConte shortly after 9 a.m. on Friday morning, a move she acknowledges is risky on her part. She writes that she is “glad that civil dialog is alive and well in Claremont” and assures readers that she is “mulling, considering and listening” with regards to the case in advance of the next school board meeting on Thursday, June 7.

—Sarah Torribio

storribio@claremont-courier.com

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