■ By Kyle Selby Reporter
Parents were fuming Tuesday night during the San Jacinto City Council meeting, and they each had bones to pick with the administration at Megan Cope Elementary School.
Megan Cope, an elementary school within San Jacinto Unified School District (SJUSD), highly regarded for its dual language immersion program (classrooms consisting of half English speakers and half Spanish speakers), recently came under fire when the district allegedly placed two of its esteemed teachers on administrative leave.
“The children were erroneously told that [the teachers] were on vacation,” said Julia Madden, whose daughter attends Megan Cope. “Us parents were told absolutely nothing until the [week] after.”
According to several parents, they were only notified that the teachers’ leaves were pending investigations that had nothing to do with child safety. Furthermore, the parents’ concern lay with the substitute teachers in their place, who were engaging the students in English only. This only scratched the surface of the complaints, however.
Other parents, many longtime volunteers, told horror stories of their children coming home from school, crying, wanting to switch schools because the bullying is so bad.
“My kids’ rights are being put on the floor,” sobbed Elizabeth Castellanos, whose second grade daughter came home one day, crying, saying that she wanted to kill herself. “Who do I go to? Who do I tell?”
While the complaints varied far and wide, the general consensus is that Megan Cope became problematic when Bridget Heeren stepped into the role as school principal in 2016.
“It brings into question the competency of the staff of the school, specifically the principal who has yet to return any of our phone calls on these matters, and didn’t address these issues at all,” said Darla Clark. “She will not even meet with us face-to-face. The echo around the campus from parents is that ever since Principal Heeren took over the school a few years ago, the place has taken a negative turn.”
Heeren’s husband, Seth Heeren, currently sits as Assistant Superintendent of Business Services at SJUSD. Many of the parents alleged nepotism as they addressed the council, attesting that he played a key-role in his wife’s acquisition of the job.
“We don’t want the school district to be as corrupt as San Jacinto was at one time,” said another mother, Bertha Rodriguez. “[City Council] has gotten their name back to where it was, and we want the school district to be the same way. Not be run through the mud.”
Some of these parents recently created a website, savemegancope.com, that details these concerns, proclaiming “to protect the safe and positive learning environment that our students deserve.” The website also contains a public petition demanding that the district be investigated for unethical practices as it relates to the hiring, evaluation and investigation of staff performance and disciplinary action.
“In case you’re wondering if we’ve gone to the San Jacinto board about this, we have on a couple of different occasions,” said another parent and district employee Carla Adame. “But we don’t feel we’ve been heard.”
Another parent whose child told her he wanted to kill himself, said a classmate threatened to stab him.
“One day, nobody was in the school office,” said Esmeralda Chavez. “I walked in, I signed in like I’m supposed to, I went inside the school, pulled my son out, and walked out of the front office with nobody knowing. That’s how bad it is.”
Riverside Unified School District parent liaison Claudia Verdugo had heard the stories of the Megan Cope parents and decided to speak to the council on their behalf. “My job has always been to create trust,” said Verdugo. “[These parents] don’t trust the school, they don’t trust the staff, and they don’t trust the district.”
After the 14th and final speaker concluded their public comments, Mayor Crystal Ruiz allowed the council to address the overwhelming turnout, an unusual occurrence during a regular city council meeting.
“Clearly something is going on that possibly needs to be addressed,” replied City Councilman Andrew Kotyuk. “Even though we’re not the school board and not the school principal, we are community leaders, and we do have the capability to and be involved in certain ways that others can’t.”
Kotyuk wasn’t the only person that sympathized with the parents’ cry for help. City Councilmen Alonso Ledezma and Scott Miller also promised to reach out to their colleagues at SJUSD.
“I know that this community is a good community, so please don’t give up your hope,” urged Miller. “Megan Cope was a good friend of mine, and she had a heart of gold; she championed the cause of our young people. I think in the spirit of that, that’s what that school was intended to be about. You’re telling us what’s really going on with your kids on a daily basis and the fact that you can’t go to work and feel like your kids are safe and being taken care of should not be the case.”
Mayor Ruiz clarified that the discussion was truly a jurisdictional issue, meaning that city council does not control the school board. However, she also offered a show of support.
“We don’t believe this is acceptable behavior in any of our schools, in any of our communities,” said Ruiz, who sympathized with the parents. “A couple of years ago, my oldest child refused to go to school when she literally started throwing a fit on the floor, we couldn’t get her in the car, and for two weeks this went on.” Ruiz explained that neither she nor her husband knew why their daughter was so opposed to going to school, until she got a phone call from her husband one day while she was in a meeting.
Ruiz discovered that her own daughter was being bullied by a boy, who had been physically abusing her, which resulted in a “baseball sized lump” on the back of her head.
“I don’t believe in bullying, and when I hear a child say that they want to kill themselves, as a mom I want to tell that child that we don’t take a permanent solution to something that’s temporary, and we can solve this,” said Ruiz. “We are 100 percent behind what you do, we understand what you’re going through, and I will not tolerate that. I will make my phone calls.”
Wednesday morning, SJUSD issued the following response to The Valley Chronicle:
“San Jacinto Unified will be meeting with Megan Cope Elementary parents in the immediate future to listen to their concerns and address them as appropriate. We appreciate the feedback from our parents, as we are equally focused on maintaining a positive, collaborative campus culture at all of our schools.
The district is not legally allowed to comment on personnel matters, including teachers and administrators. With regard to administrative leave, if used, it is to protect all parties during an investigation and does not necessarily indicate wrongful doing by employee.
District administrators that process letters of resignation are not aware of anyone being ‘forced to resign’ in any capacity, at any time at SJUSD.
“San Jacinto Unified takes any and all instances of bullying very seriously. We work with all schools to provide bullying prevention training, tools to mitigate student conflicts, and student counseling services. Specifically, each school site at SJUSD staffs a minimum of a half-time school counselor; however, Megan Cope Elementary has a full-time counselor, a position that supports anti-bullying along with the school site administrators on campus. Besides the principal, Megan Cope Elementary has two assistant principals making a total of three site administrators.
In compliance with AB 2246, the district has a suicide prevention protocol and is committed to preventing suicide. Part of the protocol includes working with mental health and law enforcement. The district’s lead school counselor, Dr. Vanessa Gomez shares, “Our elementary school counseling program includes bully-prevention lessons for all students and the school counselors implement ‘second step,’ which is a violence prevention social-emotional curriculum.”