Superintendent tells Slatic to back off, citing Bullard incident among alleged oversteps

Altercation at Bullard High involving Terry Slatic

Security camera footage captured a physical altercation between a Bullard High School student and district trustee Terry Slatic at the school snack bar Friday afternoon.
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Security camera footage captured a physical altercation between a Bullard High School student and district trustee Terry Slatic at the school snack bar Friday afternoon.

Fresno Unified Superintendent Bob Nelson warned Trustee Terry Slatic that his conduct “cannot be tolerated” in the wake of Slatic’s physical confrontation with a student on the Bullard High School campus.

In a letter to Slatic dated Jan. 15, Nelson writes that the Jan. 11 incident seen in a video released by the district “raises a serious risk of liability for the district.” He also says that Slatic overstepped his authority as a board member long before the altercation by engaging in a laundry list of behaviors prohibited by the board bylaws – including a behavior he deemed “disturbing.”

The Bee last week made a public-records request with Fresno Unified that covers the letter but received it from a source close to Fresno Unified.

Nelson writes that Slatic’s alleged oversteps have included directing staff to provide failure analysis reports, attending meetings at which his attendance “has not been requested and is not appropriate,” and “demand[ing] copies of sensitive student information, investigation reports and surveillance footage.”

“Additionally, employees have expressed their concern to me that you regularly raise your voice, make accusations and use profanity when you feel that your authority is challenged,” Nelson writes.

In an interview, Nelson said he sent the letter to help trustees better understand the rules, including Bylaw 9005, which instructs board members to “understand distinctions between Board and staff roles and refrain from performing management functions that are the responsibility of the superintendent.”

Nelson also cites Bylaw 9200 that states that individual board members have no individual authority and should not “command the services of any school employee,” but instead submit requests for information to the superintendent, a point of contention between Nelson and the new trustee, who has been personally inspecting district campuses since taking office.

“I further insist that you conform your conduct to the limits expressly set forth by law, Board Bylaw and the general policy of civility,” Nelson concludes.

Marine Maj. Terry Slatic during an assignment to Afghanistan. Slatic is now retired and serving on the Fresno Unified school board. Courtesy of Terry Slatic

On Tuesday, Slatic, a retired Marine Corps major, deferred a request from The Bee for comment until after the conclusion of the district investigation into the Bullard High incident.

In a previous interview, he said the incident at Bullard was indicative of larger safety issues plaguing the district.

In an open letter addressed to Nelson and sent to The Bee before Slatic announced his candidacy, Slatic said the district failed to adequately address a threat against his son at Bullard, as well as other threats made to staff members.

“Sadly, Mr. Nelson, this is not an isolated case in this school district. Sadly, it is not even an isolated incident in my son’s high school this school year,” Slatic wrote. “Mr. Nelson, leaders act. Bureaucrats call for committees to study the matter and hide behind circled wagons. Choose, Sir.”

Slatic said that the threats were one of his primary motivators to run for office.

Fresno Unified Superintendent Bob Nelson says he wants the district Board of Trustees to re-evaluate his job performance at their Jan. 16 meeting. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA Fresno Bee file

Nelson and Slatic

Nelson and Slatic have disagreed in the past about the atmosphere of the district and the pace of progress that it should be making.

In the letter, Nelson says Slatic has engaged in micromanaging behaviors similar to those cited by a 2007 Fresno County Grand Jury investigation as problematic for the district, including making “excessive demands on staff for information, research and justification for actions taken” as well as scheduling meetings, setting agendas and purporting to represent the district.

Nelson also writes that Slatic’s “general behavior toward staff is demanding, demeaning and abusive, and unnecessarily confrontational.”

“In an e-mail communication you sent to me on January 10, 2019, you described the District as a ‘turd,’ that it was my ‘turd’ and that you would not accept slow change. In the e-email, you describe yourself as a sheepdog, a person who you say ‘has a capacity for violence,” Nelson writes. “The email was – and is – very disturbing to me. “

Fresno Unified Area 7 trustee Terry Slatic, watches proceedings at the FUSD school board meeting Wednesday night, Jan. 16, 2019 in Fresno. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA

In a previous interview with The Bee, Slatic said he is interested in turning over every stone at the district. He said he has visited multiple campuses within Area 7 and beyond, including inspecting reports of dry rot on the roof of Fresno High.

At a recent board meeting, Slatic asked Nelson for updates on the ongoing work to replace aging portable classrooms at Starr Elementary with brick-and-mortar spaces.

The altercation at Bullard was not addressed at the Jan. 16 meeting.

Nelson told The Bee in a previous interview that he does not have the authority to bar Slatic from campuses and that any discipline would have to come from the board or the voters.

The board met in a closed session on Jan. 15 to discuss the Bullard incident, but did not report any action. The district is still conducting an internal investigation, while a police investigation has concluded and been referred to the District Attorney’s Office. Fresno County Clerk Brandi Orth said Slatic, who took his seat on Dec. 12, cannot be recalled by voters until he has been on the job for 90 days.

Attorney for Bullard student responds

The family of the student involved in the Jan. 11 incident at Bullard is still exploring legal options, according to attorney Roger Bonakdar, who said the incident left his 15-year-old client rattled.

“He didn’t know who this man was or why he confronted him, and then we find out this was a school board member,” Bonakdar said. “It has shaken his trust in the system and the school.”

Bonakdar said the student remains enrolled at Bullard.

Supporters of Slatic have said on social media that the video provided by the district does not paint a complete picture of the incident, including any verbal interaction that may have taken place before the physical altercation. The video does not include audio, as recording audio on surveillance footage would also be a violation of California law. The student’s face was blurred by the district prior to its release to protect his identity, as he is a minor.

Slatic has declined to describe the confrontation to The Bee. The other person seen in the video, district liaison and former Area 7 trustee Michelle Asadoorian, has not returned requests for comment.

But Bonakdar said that any suggestion that the student threatened Slatic’s or Asadoorian’s lives is “nonsensical.”

“The video is definitive. There are no threatening words or gestures prior to Mr. Slatic advancing. There is no interaction between the two adults and the child at all until the adults are 25 feet away. You’re saying that this kid waited until you were 25 feet away and he decided to threaten you? That doesn’t pass the smell test,” Bonakdar said. “And frankly, I wouldn’t care if the kid said anything.”

Bonakdar said Monday that he hadn’t yet spoken to district officials, but that the school failed to notify the student’s parents when the minor was questioned by a campus security officer the week following the incident.

“We tell children if someone confronts you, you use your words, you go to someone with authority to handle the situation, but you don’t resort to violence,” Bonakdar said. “If we can expect that from children, why can’t we expect it from adults?”

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Aleksandra Appleton covers schools for the Fresno Bee. She grew up in Fresno before attending UC San Diego and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.