MVUSD expects investigation results near Aug. 14, introduces new equity coordinator

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The Murrieta Valley Unified School District Board of Education heard a presentation from Tamara Dewey – the coordinator of student support: equity, diversity, inclusion – a new position at the district level that was created in the past month. Valley News/Courtesy photo

Murrieta Valley Unified School District responded recently to questions from Valley News and officially introduced the coordinator of a new equity-focused position at the district level during a special board of education meeting.

First, the district responded to questions regarding the status of an investigation into an alleged cover-up of a racist group chat involving Vista Murrieta High School students back in 2015.

Former student Tori Paller, who was a high school junior at the time, said she took screenshots of a racist group chat titled “Superior” that she discovered involving boys she knew.

When she shared the screen shots she found with friends and administrators, she said it led to her being bullied and eventually forced her to leave the school for online learning.

Along with screenshots showing graphic and threatening language, Paller shared her story in a social media post in early June, sparking a firestorm on social media.

“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 in her online post. “I got called crazy and eventually had to switch to online school.

“And when I tried to out them, they covered it up and silenced me. The BBC (Bronco Bleacher Creatures) adviser and football coaches at Vista Murrieta High School played a part in covering it up when it began to spread,” she said.

Shortly after the posts hit social media, MVUSD announced they were launching an investigation into Paller’s allegations of a cover-up and hired Best, Best & Krieger to investigate.

The district’s hired representative Tom DeLapp of Communication Resources for Schools responded to Valley News questions about when the investigation would be completed, if during the investigation that other issues were brought to light, and whether the results of the investigation will be made public.

“We are still trying to gather responses from a few people, but should have the investigation completed prior to the first day of school on Aug. 14,” DeLapp said via email. “The results will be made available to the public to the extent that any specifics do not violate student or employee privacy rights. A summary will be shared with the board of education, NAACP Southwest Riverside County president Willie Oliver, county superintendent of schools Judy White and other district advisory councils and stakeholder groups.

“It is premature to discuss any of the specifics of the ongoing investigation. If any issues or evidence of misconduct arise from the effort the district will take appropriate disciplinary action,” DeLapp said.

During a special board meeting Wednesday, July 29, the board of education heard a presentation regarding the newly created district position of coordinator of student support: equity, diversity, inclusion, which will be led by Tamara Dewey.

“As you know, these are topics that are so critically important,” Patrick Kelley, superintendent of MVUSD, told the board. “Our goals as a board and as a district are very clear. We want to remove all barriers for all students so that they can perform to their maximum abilities.”

Mary Walters, assistant superintendent of educational services, introduced the short and term goals of the program and Dewey.

“Over the last few years, our (educational) services department developed our mission statement,” Walters said. “Which is to embrace the diversity of students, families and staff by fostering intentional, equitable learning experiences, focused on the whole student, which leads to personalize the achievement and career and or college readiness culminating in lifelong learners who make positive contributions to society.”

“I am very excited to take on this new role and bring a lens of equity, diversity and inclusion to everything we do as a district in order to close the achievement gap and ensure success for all of our students,” Dewey said during the virtual meeting. “As we saw from the previous slides, we have made strides in closing the achievement gap, but the work is not done. Our first short term equity goal is the (Local Control and Accountability Plan) … Our upcoming training for staff before school starts will be focused on how to implement equitable practices during virtual learning.”

Dewey talked about PTSS or Parents for Thriving Students, a group that formed in 2019.

“It encompasses stakeholders from all of our parent groups,” Dewey said. “The mission of PTSS is to serve as a collaborative unit of parents and community voices to ensure equity and inclusion for all Murrieta Valley Unified School District students. I look forward to working alongside PTSS as well as all of our student intern advisories, especially as we navigate our current model of virtual life.”

Dewey talked about the importance of reestablishing trust with some of the students and parents within MVUSD in the short term.

“It is our job to come alongside and support all of our student groups, families and staff to help establish trust within our system,” she said. “We will also be working on an incident reporting app that students and parents will have access to this app that will allow us to document and track incidents of discrimination so that we can use the data to help focus our efforts on making our district safe and inclusive for all students.

“I’ll also be working closely with HR to begin the process of examining our hiring practices so that we can do a better job, having our staff more closely mirror our student body. We are still working on currently expanding the male mentoring program that was initiated at Murrieta Mesa high school last year.

“Last but not least. We will have our equity institute groups meet with the administration to begin the implementation of site-specific plans. These plans are supported by board policy and will be a dynamic document that responds to the needs of individual sites,” she said.

Dewey said long-term goals include looking at the kindergarten through 12th-grade curriculum and literature to ensure students are taught in an equitable manner, which she referred to as “mirrors and windows.”

“A mirror so that students can see themselves and windows so that they may see people different from themselves,” Dewey said. “The district also intends to offer an ethnic studies course with updated and relevant curriculum, to all of our MVUSD students. We will continue to implement systematic professional development focused on empowering teachers with the knowledge and skills of how to ensure equitable practices in their classrooms. We will continue to perceive diversity by partnering with the county and examining and redesigning our hiring practices so that more of our students can see themselves better reflected in our school site, as well as district staff.”

Judy White, the Riverside County superintendent of schools, sat in on the meeting and congratulated the district for its approach to tackling the issue.

“It takes courage to be able to say we are going to make a difference,” White said. “And I think the word that you chose for your presentation was journey. When we think about equity fairness, it is a continuous journey. We actually never arrived there. We just get better and better and better and stay mindful of the markers on the journey. I would like to commend Murrieta Valley Unified School District for their decisiveness to take the journey and also for having a measurable target.

“As I commend you, I also would like to recommend to you that you continue to put accountability metrics in place, that you continue to focus also on your low socioeconomic groups and continue your responsiveness,” White said.

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