Rotten to the core

Did the school district ignore teachers' charges during its investigation of a controversial West Seattle principal?

IT'S NO SURPRISE to find Dan Barton at the center of a controversy. The Gatewood Elementary School principal is facing a lawsuit filed by three of his former teachers. If not settled, it will come before a King County Superior Court jury in June 2002. This is only the latest in a series of problems to plague the troubled educator since he was hired before the 1993-94 school year. Barton arrived at the West Seattle elementary school eager to implement the educational theories he learned during doctoral studies at the University of Oregon. Although many of the changes he implemented were structural (for example, organizing children into two-grade classes taught by a team of teachers), his first major reform was to overhaul his staff. This resulted in the departure of several older teachers; Barton says that he refused to turn a blind eye to incompetent and unqualified staff members. While teachers and parents allege unprofessional, even threatening, behavior, Barton's aggressive approach earned him fans in the district's central administration, which blames much of his unpopularity on resistance to his innovative educational program (see "Principal problem," Seattle Weekly, 6/29/00).

The district's support continues, even though in the fall of 1999, Barton received a formal reprimand from the central administration based on evidence of inappropriate behavior toward two young female teachers.

Those two teachers—Laurie Decker and Jennifer Rosenstein—don't feel the reprimand went far enough. They filed suit against Barton and the Seattle School District in January, alleging the district failed to respond adequately to their sexual harassment complaints. A third teacher, 49-year-old veteran substitute Victoria Withrow, has joined the suit, claiming the principal unfairly passed her up for a permanent teaching job in favor of younger, less qualified applicants.

And the three teachers have a ton of courtroom ammunition—courtesy of the district's own investigative files. Their attorney, Judith Lonnquist, obtained the case file resulting from the original Decker and Rosenstein complaints and shared them with Seattle Weekly. In interviews with investigators, more than a dozen staff members claim Barton engaged in a variety of outrageous behaviors, including hitting on female teachers, writing fake job evaluations, and engaging in frequent sexual patter.

Much of the new information directly or indirectly supports the allegations made by Decker and Rosenstein. Moreover, interviews with Gatewood teachers bring up new and potentially more serious examples of Barton's failings as a principal than those addressed in the formal reprimand. And while criticism of the controversial educator has long been characterized by the administration as the work of a handful of malcontents, the investigative interviews might best be characterized as an informal "no confidence" vote on Barton from his own staff.

This casts doubt on Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Joseph Olchefske's stated commitment to demand accountability from his principals. In recent years, more power has been turned over to individual principals, who are characterized as the CEOs of their schools. In return, the district demands results. Last spring, Olchefske demoted four principals for failing to reach the standards expected of them, the first such demotions in more than a decade. Why didn't the allegations of the Barton investigation raise serious questions as to whether he is maintaining standards of excellence? The district may need to answer this in front of a jury next June.

Bring it on, says district spokesperson Lynn Steinberg. "We are going to vigorously defend this lawsuit," she says. "We believe the district acted appropriately in this matter."

"Dan Barton made a mistake," she continues. "He apologized for it to both his staff and to parents, he was reprimanded for it, and now it's time to move on."

A FAR CRY FROM the archetype of the kindly elementary school principal, Barton was hired to the Gatewood post at just 38 years of age. He had an impressive r鳵m鮠After teaching at a Catholic high school in California (he was Bishop Montgomery High's "Teacher of the Year" in 1983), Barton earned his administrative credential and moved on to posts as assistant principal and principal in two California public school districts. In Seattle, Barton quickly proved uninhibited in his pursuit of teachers he considered underachievers. One of his early targets obtained an anti-harassment order against her then-boss (the case was dismissed). Barton's brusque style also didn't wear well with some parents.

Since Barton's arrival, the exodus of both students and teachers to other schools has been significant and constant. Yet recent years have shown improvements in student test scores, and his progressive educational program continues to draw young teachers and parents to the West Seattle school. Last year's Seattle Weekly investigation found a hard-core group of Barton backers at Gatewood. When an earlier article addressing Barton's troubles appeared in the West Seattle Herald, it touched off a two-month-long flurry of letters, alternately defending and excoriating Barton.

Lois Schipper, co-president of the Gatewood PTA, hopes the continuing criticism of Barton doesn't sink his educational program. The sexual harassment investigation (1999), the West Seattle Herald article (2000), and the three teachers' lawsuit (2001) each came to light in early February, giving Gatewood bad press during the school choice process, she says. "Any press—positive or negative—affects how parents choose [their children's schools]," she says. "People are eager for something to help sway them one way or another." Her message to potential Gatewood parents is simple: The educational program at the school works. "We've got a strong school going right now—we have a very committed staff that is working very hard," she adds.

Barton also has fans among district administrators. In his 1998 evaluation, supervisor Joanne Franey praises him lavishly, calling Barton "a true change agent." Superintendent Olchefske personally defended Barton during last year's media coverage.

THE STORIES OF Decker and Rosenstein, backed up by the district's own report, paint a different picture. Both probationary teachers in their early 20s, they arrived at Gatewood in the fall of 1997. Both claim that in the space of several months, they attracted the unwanted attention of Barton, whose marriage was foundering (he and his wife separated in July 1998 and she filed for divorce that October). Although Lonnquist allowed Seattle Weekly to review the district's investigative file, which she obtained through a public disclosure action, the three teachers didn't respond to interview requests relayed through their attorney.

Decker's narrative, assembled from both her statements to investigators and her handwritten chronology included in the file, starts at the end of a school day in March 1998, when Barton suggested they drive to the University Bookstore to purchase a book for school. Once this task was completed, she claims, the principal invited her to dinner. Decker suggested either Cucina! Cucina! or T.G.I. Friday's, both bustling South Lake Union eateries; Barton instead took her to Serafina, a dimly lit Italian restaurant on Eastlake Avenue, Decker asserts.

According to Decker's account, Barton announced to the server they were in no hurry, then ordered a bottle of red wine, telling Decker he "was going to make a red wine drinker" out of her. He alternated between flattery (talk of Decker's great potential as an educator, compliments on her personal appearance) and psychobabble (he asked probing questions about her personality, at one point telling the teacher she was too much of a follower), she claims. Barton discussed his failing marriage and intimated that he could help her career if he wanted to, she continues, and managed to include a number of personal questions in his monologue. At one point, she says, he inquired if Decker had a boyfriend, then he asked her to describe her ideal man.

Next, Barton secretly ordered dessert, in order to "surprise" her. A further surprise turned out to be two more glasses of wine, according to Decker. She declined to drink hers, she says, and the principal had both glasses of wine, plus two additional drinks.

When they finally departed Serafina, Barton allegedly insisted they walk a block north to Rory's, an Eastlake bar Decker had pointed out to Barton on the drive down. While at Rory's, Decker claims, the principal became loud and rude, asking her more personal questions (including if she'd ever played strip poker and the last time she'd had sex) and requesting that she dance with him to a song on the bar's jukebox. When she refused, Decker says, Barton threatened to downgrade her teacher evaluation. Finally, when she managed to end the meeting, she claims Barton asked her not to discuss their evening out with others.

When asked by district investigators why she didn't report Barton's conduct immediately, Decker said she was embarrassed by the incident "and didn't know what to do."

Jennifer Rosenstein also had dinner with Barton in March of 1998. According to her statement, she says Barton made it clear early on in the school year that he saw himself not just as a boss but as a mentor to his teachers. She admits she was initially flattered by the principal's attentions. During that first dinner at a downtown restaurant, she says, the principal talked animatedly of school and his plan to someday sail around the world. As they were leaving the restaurant, she says, they stopped to look at a map of the world and he casually invited her to accompany him on his around-the-world sailing trip, a remark she took as a harmless flirtation.

The two had dinner a second time later in the month, and the conversation again turned personal, she says.

The following month, Rosenstein accepted an invitation to spend the day on Barton's 44-foot sailboat. At one point, she says, he asked her when she was going to leave Gatewood so they could date.

"Dan, I think you have crossed the line," she recalls telling him.

She remembers his response as, "I think I crossed it a long time ago."

This exchange cooled things between them, she says, although Rosenstein was back on the sailboat for a meeting with Barton and the two other members of her instructional team that June. This was uncomfortable, she claims, because Barton had asked her to pretend she had never been on the boat so the others wouldn't know about their sailing trip. Despite the tension, Rosenstein says Barton asked her privately to come back later that day and go for a sail; she declined. Later that summer, she recalls telling Barton she didn't want any more one-on-one meetings with him.

After Decker and Rosenstein compared notes on their experiences with Barton at a teacher's conference (and after another teacher sent an anonymous letter to Superintendent Joseph Olchefske outlining the problems at Gatewood), the two filed harassment complaints against Barton with the district in early 1999.

In interviews with investigators included in the file, Barton acknowledges accompanying Decker to Serafina for dinner and admits that he did discuss the precarious state of his marriage. But he denies most of the teacher's account of their conversation, saying that Decker gave no indication she was uncomfortable, and denies that they went to Rory's after dinner. He also admits to having dinner twice with Rosenstein, although he disputes her accounts of their conversations and also flatly denies that she ever was a solo guest on his sailboat.

He further disputes Rosenstein's claim that she asked to stop having one-on-one meetings; instead, he recalls that he dropped the practice during his divorce proceedings because he considered it unwise to have unsupervised meetings with female staff members. Barton declined interview requests for this story.

IN SEPTEMBER 1999, the principal was issued a formal reprimand for unprofessional and inappropriate behavior. It focused on incidents involving inappropriate language and Barton's failure to maintain proper professional "boundaries" with staff members. He was scolded for repeatedly using the word "bitch" to refer to women (a charge made by four of the interviewees in the district's investigation) and for a comment he made to a group of teachers that he envied his infant son because "he gets breast all the time."

"We received complaints in this case, we investigated those complaints thoroughly, and we issued a reprimand on what we found to be true," says district spokesperson Steinberg.

However, several teachers cited numerous sexual jokes and comments by Barton that weren't referenced in the document. As teachers were promised anonymity during the investigation, Seattle Weekly is withholding their names. However, the district, perhaps unwittingly, included a document identifying the teachers in its disclosure response to attorney Lonnquist, so every statement referenced here is just a subpoena away.

The file also reveals that the district appears to have ignored a serious allegation of educational misconduct. Barton admitted to investigators that he sometimes guarantees a good evaluation to young teachers so they won't feel inhibited about trying new teaching techniques. The district appears to have ignored one young teacher's claim that he wrote her a positive evaluation two months into the school year, and that he reportedly gave a second novice educator a clean bill of teaching health during just the second week of classes.

The interviews also reveal a great deal of hostility toward the principal: One teacher who had transferred out of Gatewood submitted a detailed seven-page typed record of Barton's alleged misdeeds, complete with the date of each incident. She claims, like many others, that Barton has a fondness for off-color remarks and charges that the principal drank excessively during the staff's trips to out-of-town educational training sessions. She also recounts an alleged incident in her classroom in which an unruly second-grader being held after class was shoved into his seat by the angry principal, who then yelled in his face until the boy was in tears. "After seeing this, I thought to myself that I would never send a child to Dan's office again," the teacher wrote.

Another teacher claims a pattern of harassment by Barton against Decker after the sexual harassment complaints were filed with the district. "It's been really rough for Laurie because Dan's on her constantly," the teacher stated, saying that Barton had belittled and humiliated Decker in front of other teachers.

Even a teacher otherwise supportive of Barton said that the principal unleashed an angry tirade at Rosenstein during a staff meeting. After learning Rosenstein had been nominated as the school's union representative, the teacher claims, Barton said she wasn't up to the job and was biased against him. Rosenstein was elected to the post.

Despite this testimony, the school district's final recommendation in the case stated that, since the incidents involving Decker and Rosenstein took place when they were alone with the principal, it was their word against his and their claims could not be proven.

SEXUAL HARASSEMENTin schools has been a major issue in recent years, although the focus has been mostly on student-to-student incidents (a series of court rulings have increased school districts' liability for failing to intervene in such cases) and teachers who become sexually intimate with students. In Seattle, Garfield High School principal Al Jones was dismissed in November 1999 based on allegations of an inappropriate relationship with a female student.

Two Western Washington school districts have also gone to their checkbook to settle lawsuits over administrator misconduct. A Bethel School District vice principal recently received $260,000 to drop a suit over alleged harassment by the principal of her elementary school. In Snohomish, three high school staff members were paid a total of $300,000 in 1997 to drop their suit charging an administrator with sexual harassment.

Jerry Painter, general counsel for the Washington Education Association, says there's a good reason these sorts of cases are good bets for pretrial settlements. Just bringing the case to court can make a school district look insensitive, he says. "No matter what you do, you're forcing people to come in and testify against a person—they're reliving something they considered to be terribly traumatic."

Painter adds that while there's no law prohibiting a principal from romantic relationships with teachers under his or her supervision, he considers such behavior to be ill-advised. "In my training [sessions], I say you can do it, but you're stupid if you do, because you're setting yourself up for allegations of impropriety," he says.

While the district insists that it plans to fight this suit to the end, the facts in this case are certainly problematic for the defense. "Failing marriage" or not, Barton's dinner dates took place while the principal was still hitched and his wife was seven months pregnant (they separated shortly after the birth of their son and his wife filed for divorce later that year).

And although the district investigation didn't specifically address claims by Withrow (the third defendant in the civil suit) of age discrimination, the investigative file provides two damning statements likely to make their way into court. One teacher participating on an interview team says Barton encouraged them to hire an applicant because she was "cute." (Ironically, that successful applicant was Jennifer Rosenstein.) Another recalls Barton telling her interview team "I like them young and good-looking—hire them." Adds the teacher: "I was embarrassed by this—I know others were too, but nobody said anything and we all wonder why he's still here."

Or, as one teacher asked investigators: "Who do you turn to if your superior is the one causing the problems?"

Not, apparently, the Seattle School District.

jbush@seattleweekly.com

 
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