Jeff Pack
Staff Writer

During the Thursday, Aug. 27, special meeting of the Murrieta Valley Unified School District Board of Education, investigators shared the results of their investigation into a racist group chat involving students at Vista Murrieta High School in 2015. 

According to the investigators, the allegations were found to be unsubstantiated, though they heard many complaints about alleged discrimination, bullying and intimidation, they said those claims were outside the scope of their investigation. 

The screenshots in question from 2015, which none of the parties involved dispute and were shared on social media in early June 2020, showed at least four boys involved in a conversation that includes several images and statements that are racist in nature. 

The investigation by the law firm, Best Best & Krieger LLC, inquired into whether VMHS staff or MVUSD employees had knowledge of the group chat and whether a student had reported the group chat to a staff member as she alleged. 

In her post on social media, along with the screenshots, the young woman said that at the time she brought her concerns to school officials but got nowhere.

“I showed these messages to people as I didn’t know what to do and immediately received threats from the people in the group chat and their parents,” she said. “I got called crazy and eventually had to switch to online school. 

The young woman accused the district of a cover-up and said the school silenced her and that the Bronco Bleacher Creatures adviser and football coaches at Vista Murrieta High School played a part in covering up the issue as well.

 “VMHS itself is disgusting for how they handled this. I know exactly all the people who supported them through this. And don’t think I’m afraid to name names,” she said.

She said she was “torn to shreds” for trying to bring the issue to light. Her claims led to the investigation that was closed with the final report presented to the board, Aug. 27.

During that teleconferenced school board meeting, Jack B. Clarke Jr. and Dina Harris, who are both investigators with Best Best & Krieger LLC, described the scope of the investigation as well as their findings on the issue of whether there were other allegations of racial discrimination, harassment, intimidation and bullying over the past five years at the school. 

In their summary conclusion on the first issue, they said, “The allegation that VMHS or any other district personnel saw the group chat screen shots in 2015 or had specific knowledge of their contents was not substantiated by evidence gathered during the investigation.”

Regarding the climate and culture reports from subjects interviewed by the investigators said while they “received many anecdotal reports of alleged discrimination, harassment, intimidation or bullying at VMHS over the past five years and how those incidents were handled,” it was “beyond the scope of the investigation.”

Clarke said he wanted to make clear that just because investigators could not substantiate the allegations, it didn’t mean that they didn’t believe the young woman who made the claims. 

“I want to make this very clear to the (board) and the community, we looked to try to determine whether the fact was present or not,” Clarke said. “By not being able to substantiate a fact, is not to suggest that the claimant was stating a falsehood. We, in our investigation, simply could not substantiate it. I want that to be made very clear.”

Valley News requested an interview with the young woman who made the allegation, and she has committed to doing so when she can make time available. 

Patrick Kelley, superintendent of MVUSD, read what appeared to be a prepared statement during the meeting, which was emailed to district stakeholders later that evening. 

“I realize these findings may not provide closure for some people and still leave unanswered questions for some of our families,” Kelley said. “While no specific actionable conduct was uncovered, we have engaged in a lot of soul searching about whether we have done enough to ensure that every student feels safe and supported at school.” 

Kelley said the investigation confirmed that there is a perceived and, for some, a very real culture of insensitivity at VMHS, where inclusivity is not universally practiced or respected. 

“Consistently, those interviewed said they felt marginalized and that their concerns about questionable behaviors or comments were too easily dismissed by school staff,” he said, adding that he regretted that “any student or staff member, past or present,” had felt their legitimate concerns were minimized, disrespected or ignored. 

“You have my commitment that we are taking bold and decisive steps to change the culture at the school,” he said adding that he takes responsibility for not being more aware of the situation and the “implicit bias” displayed to students and staff. 

Kelley said that he recognized that nothing he could say would instantly restore trust. 

“We need to earn trust by the actions we take moving forward,” he said. “As a district we must be consistent, transparent and receptive to feedback.”

While Kelley’s statement acknowledged a need for a change in culture at the school and a districtwide commitment to erasing implicit bias, there was no announcement of any disciplinary actions being taken toward any district or school staff members.

During the course of the investigation, however, two administrative staff members were moved away from the school, one to another school within the district and another to the district office. 

When Valley News requested information regarding one of the transfers in question, Tom DeLapp, the district’s representative from Communication Resources for Schools, gave no indication that the transfer was disciplinary in nature. 

“At the end of each school year, the superintendent has an obligation to evaluate the district and individual school needs,” DeLapp said. “This process involves matching administrators with specific skill sets to fill the needs and goals of the district. Once assignments are determined, announcements are made every summer, notifying staff and the community of these changes.”

Another change made at the district level included the creation of a new position within the district: coordinator of student support: equity, diversity, inclusion. Tamara Dewey, school counselor of Rail Ranch Elementary School, was hired to fill the role. 

“Her primary responsibility will be to support and advance a district wide culture of diversity, equity and inclusion,” DeLapp said. 

During Thursday’s meeting, each of the board members made statements expressing disappointment at some of the results of the report, and while some mentioned “actions being taken,” there was no request for any disciplinary action. 

At Murrieta Valley Unified School District’s June 18 board meeting, the African American Parent Advisory Council for the district called for the resignation of Darren Daniel, assistant superintendent of human resources for MVUSD, in the wake of the allegations. 

“We are not asking for discipline to be handed down due to the shameful behaviors of the children involved,” APAAC representative Natalee Hartwell said. “The administrators and staff members involved were complicit in the cover-up of said behavior. And it is for that reason that we ask that they resign.

“How can a key personnel member oversee human resources where policy, practices, hiring and firing of employees takes place? If he wasn’t made aware and his subordinates covered up something without his knowledge, that speaks to his lack of leadership. If he did know, he was complicit in the cover-up and needs to resign. We in no way believe that he did not know his son was capable of such hatred. He learned it at home. We also don’t believe that he was not made aware of the posts, his son’s views reflect his father’s. These are taught behaviors and views. You were not born a racist. It is learned behavior,” Hartwell said. 

Daniel’s son, Taylor Daniel, a former student at VMHS, was identified as one of the people involved in the group chat by MVUSD in the email distributed to district parents in early June. 

“I am in absolute disbelief about this post,” Darren Daniel said in the email. “Apparently, this was done while he was in high school and my wife and I just learned of this today. My heart is broken. We are ashamed as a family and sad about the destructive and dehumanizing message by our son. The emotion elicited by these images is overwhelming and I am so sorry you and others were subjected to this by him. This behavior is inexcusable, and I am at a loss for words as we do not condone these ideals. I am ashamed, embarrassed and confused about this. There are no words to even attempt to minimize the enormity of racially charged communication and I sincerely apologize.”

Despite the call for Daniel’s resignation, according to the district’s website and reports from district personnel in contact with Valley News, who did not wish to be identified for fear of retribution, Daniel is still in his current position. 

On Friday, Aug. 28, Valley News was denied a request to interview key members of the school district and school board by DeLapp. 

“The district leaders you asked to interview are not available for comment on this issue,” he said in an email. 

Valley News sent follow-up questions to the district and DeLapp as requested Friday morning and DeLapp responded Monday, Aug. 31. 

Valley News has omitted questions and answers that deal with district personnel by name. 

Valley News repeatedly reached out to MVUSD’s Board of Education for comments and interviews, but the requests were either ignored or denied. DeLapp was asked whether it was appropriate for a board responsible for oversight of the district to refuse to speak with the press. 

“The Board of Education fully supported the investigation, but consciously remained silent during the investigation so as not to influence the process,” he said. “Each board member responded publicly at the board meeting when they heard the report findings and recommendations.”

When asked directly whether any more personnel changes would be made, DeLapp answered, “Reassignments for the 2020-2021 school year have already been made districtwide, some of which affected VMHS. There are no further staffing adjustments planned at this time.”

Valley News asked if the request by AAPAC for the resignation of Daniel and others involved in the alleged cover-up, was that ever a consideration at the district level, DeLapp’s answer was vague. 

“The AAPAC has been kept fully informed about the investigation,” he said. “They are a highly valued district partner and are committed to continuing to collaborate with the district in addressing issues related to implicit bias, racism, institutional insensitivity and indifference. They have an integral role in executing the Murrieta Valley USD Equity Plans in the months ahead.”

Valley News reached out to Raquel Anthony and Marguerite Rucker, co-chairs of the district’s AAPAC group, but they refused comment at this time. 

“APAC will not be doing any interviews at this time,” Anthony said. “We are still reviewing the report and receiving feedback from our stakeholders. Thank you again for wanting to include us in your report.”

Asked what kind of message a perceived inaction sends to the student body, staff and parents, DeLapp pushed back. 

“This question disregards the facts by making a false assumption that there was ‘inaction’ by the district,” he said. “The district has a comprehensive equity plan that contains many elements addressing the concerns of students, staff and parents for positive steps to improve the culture at the school.”

Valley News asked whether the dual roles performed by school administrators who also coach in the school’s athletic program could create a conflict of interest in matters such as reporting. 

“The district is examining all of its procedures and protocols for reporting and handling student or staff allegations or concerns; which includes the review of each staff member’s role on campus,” DeLapp said. 

When asked about key figures discussed to have been involved in the alleged cover-up, DeLapp said as stated in the report, “32 current or former district employees were interviewed. 

“The vast majority of whom were administrators, teachers, and/or coaches at the school in December of 2015,” DeLapp said. “Most respondents to interviews requested anonymity and were forthcoming about their direct knowledge of any allegations of misconduct by staff or students. We are respecting that confidentiality and cannot disclose the identities of those interviewed.”

In the report, several staff members and students interviewed said they believed staff members “had to know” about the group chat. Valley News characterized the scope of the investigation to be “limited.”

“The ‘they had to know’ perception was something we looked at very carefully and the scope of this investigation was not ‘limited’ as this question implies,” DeLapp said. “Rather, even though the investigators could not substantiate that the social media post was presented to district personnel as alleged, they were given latitude by the district superintendent to broaden their conversations to help examine the criticism of the school’s culture in general.”

DeLapp would not say whether some of the key figures involved in the allegations had retained lawyers and whether they were present or not for interviews with investigators. 

“All staff members who were interviewed had the opportunity to have an employee representative or support person present during interviews,” he said. “Several staff members did opt to have a representative or support person present. To avoid the possibility of disclosing information that can be attributed to one or more particular interviewee, the investigative team does not believe it is appropriate to answer whether some interviewees were represented by legal counsel during interviews.”

There were also reports of some of the people interviewed being asked not to record their interviews with investigators. 

“Since this was not a legal proceeding, the investigator felt that recordings would stifle the discussion and be counterproductive to an open, uninhibited dialogue,” DeLapp said. 

DeLapp also defended the district’s choice of using BBK for the investigation. 

“In this case, the district knew that the chosen investigative team had significant experience in investigating and advising in matters relating to student rights and discipline, racial discrimination, bullying, free speech and privacy,” he said. “The district did not direct the investigation in any way, other than to define the scope. The district was committed to finding out the truth through an investigation and was open to any outcome and recommendations that resulted.”

DeLapp said the investigation included a review of documentation relevant to the investigation and said the district is reviewing staff assignments to avoid conflicting personal relationships that might hinder the school’s reporting system. 

When asked whether the district was taking staff members at their word that they had no knowledge of the report being made in 2015, DeLapp said, “Many interviews were conducted and records were reviewed to verify or corroborate statements when possible. All information was considered and weighed to reach the findings and conclusions reflected in the report. The investigators had no reason to believe that interviewees were not honest in recalling their version of events.”

According to the report, players on the school’s football team had knowledge of the group chat and Valley News asked if it was plausible that coaches may have known something about it at the time. 

“The district is confident that a thorough investigation was conducted by the investigative team,” he said. “It would be inappropriate for the district to reach a conclusion based on speculation, rather than verified evidence or corroborated comments. As written in the report, the investigation found insufficient evidence to substantiate the allegation.”

Valley News asked what the district would say to the young woman who made the allegations in the wake of the report’s release.

“We realize this report may not bring closure to (omitted),” De Lapp said. “We appreciate her actions that have added momentum to the national open discussion of racism, implicit bias, institutional insensitivity, inclusivity and its role in local school culture.”

When asked, DeLapp said the district did not yet have a final total for the cost to the district and taxpayers associated with hiring himself and BBK for the investigation. 

Editor’s note: The full report by BBK is available to view at https://www.murrieta.k12.ca.us/cms/lib/CA01000508/Centricity/Domain/1/8.27.20%20BBK%20Investigative%20Report.pdf.

Jeff Pack can be reached by email at jpack@reedermedia.com