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District finds claims against former Bird Rock principal ‘unfounded’: Dr. Amanda Hale cleared of misconduct charges

The San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) has completed its investigation into allegations made in February 2018 against former Bird Rock Elementary School (BRE) principal Dr. Amanda Hale, clearing her of the charges levied against her.

The 58-page report (several pages of which contained redacted information) was conducted on behalf of the SDUSD Human Resources Department by private investigator Cynthia Smith, and includes interviews with parents, teachers and former principals, document reviews, and a resulting independent analysis.

Dr. Hale arrived as principal of Bird Rock Elementary in July 2016. In the subsequent months, a group of parents filed complaints against her, calling her leadership and conduct into question. Soon after, she took a leave of absence and interim principals stepped in to head the school.

In June 2018, Dr. Hale was transferred to the SDUSD Office of Leadership & Learning, and the search began for a new Bird Rock principal. Andrea Frost was appointed to the position in August 2018.

The investigator’s report centered on three issues: 1) a petition that circulated indicating parents had “lost confidence” in Hale with more than 100 signatures; 2) a teacher evaluation survey process in which Hale was in the room while teachers filled out the evaluations, causing some to feel uncomfortable; and 3) a parent survey for which Hale reportedly promised a $5 Starbucks gift card to teachers who could get 70 percent of parents to return the non-anonymous evaluations of teacher and principal performances.

Of the final report, Dr. Hale told La Jolla Light she was: “thankful that this matter came to the conclusion, as it should have, with the truth. Complete exoneration of all allegations — that was consistent with my actions and integrity.”

Of the petition (issue 1), investigator Smith wrote: “The complaint is not an allegation, but appears to be a preamble (to the subsequent complaints). ... Parents request the removal of Dr. Amanda Hale as principal, the placement of a qualified interim principal, and the search and recruitment for an exemplary principal commence in a timely manner.”

However, Smith found most of the printed names and signatures were illegible, and the creation of the petition may have stemmed from a field trip, aka “Elf Party,” that Dr. Hale refused to authorize in December 2016. The Elf Party, in past years, was typically hosted by a teacher at her home for the students in her class, and approved by prior BRE principals.

The application to have the 2016 Elf Party, Smith learned, was filed eight days before the event, where six weeks prior is District policy. Further, Dr. Hale contacted the District’s legal department, which advised against the party for liability reasons.

“However, the parents informed Dr. Hale that BRE was ‘special’ and had autonomy from the District, and the District rules do not apply to BRE,” Smith’s report states.

A few days later, Dr. Hale received a letter from some of the parents stating their disappointment with her decision to deny the party, which read in part: “At this point, we do not believe that you are the right leader to lead Bird Rock Elementary. … Show us you stand with us and not with the District. We are a mighty group of parents. … It would be extremely advantageous for you to approve this field trip.”

Because Dr. Hale would not authorize the party, 20 of the 24 students in the subject class were kept home from school on the day it was planned.

Throughout 2017, additional complaints were filed by parents about Hale’s conduct, which Hale said she believes stemmed from the Elf Party complaint. In addition to parent concerns, in December 2017, Hale was tasked with distributing an evaluation to teachers, which led to issue 2.

Hale gave teachers an evaluation form to fill out and promised them a gift card drawing if they wrote their name on it, and she remained in the room while teachers filled out the evaluation. However, the purpose of the evaluation may have led to some confusion.

“From Dr. Hale’s perspective,” Smith wrote, “the survey was to gather data for the La Jolla Cluster Association regarding safe and collaborative culture,” so there would not have been an issue with her being present. However, some teachers were of the impression the evaluation was to review Hale’s performance, and her presence may have “had an impact on the validity of the survey results since some teachers stated they could not be honest or as candid with their feedback.”

As to whether Hale was trying to influence the teachers with the gift card, Smith determined that was “unfounded.”

There was also a question (issue 3) as to whether Hale was trying to influence teachers by also offering them a gift card for signing their names on the evaluations (and thereby producing more positive reviews).

In January 2018, parent surveys were distributed. “Dr. Hale confirmed that an incentive ($5 Starbucks gift card) was offered to all teachers who received 70 percent of the forms back. No evidence was provided to establish that the gift card incentive was used as a means of impacting the results of the survey. However, the evidence did establish that some parents were concerned the form may not have been anonymous,” Smith wrote. “Dr. Hale was concerned that there would be users who would submit multiple bad surveys.”

Several pages about the parent evaluations were redacted from the report.

Of the experience, Hale told La Jolla Light: “False allegations of any kind — at any time, from any person — are always disturbing and defer the focus of a principal’s role to ensure students are safe and focused on learning ... I feel fortunate to have worked closely with the La Jolla Cluster members and principal team on creating thoughtfully planned learning experiences where all students could work collaboratively, problem-solve together, take risks, and creatively apply their knowledge in meaningful ways. We learned together to provide the most cohesive, supportive and engaging learning opportunities so our elementary students would be well prepared for middle and high school.”

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