Attorney for Bullard trustee says FUSD has been ‘politically motivated’ in dealing with Slatic

Video shows altercation between Bullard High School student and Fresno Unified trustee

Video footage obtained by The Fresno Bee on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019, after a public-records request shows a physical scuffle between a Bullard High School student and Fresno Unified Area 7 trustee Terry Slatic.
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Video footage obtained by The Fresno Bee on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019, after a public-records request shows a physical scuffle between a Bullard High School student and Fresno Unified Area 7 trustee Terry Slatic.

An attorney for the trustee involved in a physical altercation with a student at Bullard High said that Fresno Unified mishandled the official reaction to the incident, including the release of a video before an investigation was conducted, as well as the revelation of a letter from Superintendent Bob Nelson addressed to Trustee Terry Slatic.

Attorney Charles Manock said in an interview that the district’s actions have been politically motivated and orchestrated by insiders who don’t like Slatic’s management style.

“It was clear that that letter was designed to put Terry in his place and manage this, and not on behalf of Fresno Unified, because it actually put Fresno Unified in legal peril,” Manock said. “It’s not that much of a jump to say, a guy who’s making waves, an incident occurs, this letter gets leaked – somebody would have to explain to me that it’s all coincidental.”

Manock said he is keeping all legal options on the table, including bringing an open-meetings law complaint to the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office, which Manock said has warned the district in the past about leaking information. The DA did not return a request for comment.

The video was released by the district in response to a public records request from The Bee. It shows Slatic walk past a student, then turn around and grab the straps of the student’s backpack as the minor attempts to walk away, pulling him in the opposite direction. Slatic and his attorney declined to describe the incident during an interview with The Bee on Friday, citing the ongoing investigation involving a minor and noting that any description could reveal information about the student.

“That being said, I think that if you put audio to the video, and you were able to look at all the versions of the statements including the minor’s, that my client would be totally exonerated,” Manock said.

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

The Bee filed another records request that covered a letter sent by Nelson to Slatic and other board members, but received the letter ahead of the request being filled from a source the week after it is dated.

Nelson’s letter accuses Slatic of a series of oversteps that happened prior to the confrontation at Bullard, including violating board bylaws by dictating orders to staff and other behavior deemed “demanding, demeaning, abusive and unnecessarily confrontational.”

Manock said that apart from being an unfair characterization, the letter is actually a liability for the district as it raises the question of why Slatic was allowed on campuses to begin with if Nelson found his behavior “disturbing.”

Manock also suggested that his client may be open to apologizing for using coarse language with district staff, but Slatic said he would not apologize for his work as a trustee. He did not specifically address the Bullard incident.

“Am I ruffling feathers by making every single department give me, down to the supervisory level, an org chart? If you don’t think that’s ruffling people in a $1.3 billion corporation who haven’t had that level of accountability,” Slatic said. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

The end goal, Slatic said, is safety, which he said could be improved by diverting resources that are currently being spent elsewhere.

“We do not have a safe environment at FUSD,” Slatic said. “Everybody wants to talk about we need to get this GPA up, or we need third-grade math scores up. I’ve been in the worst places in the world. And we can give them food, and we can give the books, and we can build them a windmill, but unless they were safe, it was all for naught.”

District and others respond

Nelson said Monday that he would not comment on the statements from Manock and Slatic. A district investigation is ongoing.

Trustee Veva Islas said in an interview with The Bee that a deeper investigation is pending, but that she hopes that the incident serves as a learning opportunity to be judicious as adults interacting with minors.

“We as professionals know that safety in schools is paramount for learning,” Islas said. Slatic “may not have understood the unintended harm of his actions.”

Fellow trustee Keshia Thomas said that she has personally seen that culturally responsive training as well as spending more time with students can help teach adults how better to de-escalate situations.

The Fresno Teachers Association released a statement on social media that said its members have “diverse professional opinions on how to best educate and support students.”

Erin Davis, a Bullard-area resident, said she is planning to file a recall notice against Slatic once he has been in office for the requisite 90 days. As an elected trustee, the only consequences Slatic can face are recall by voters or censure by his fellow board members.

Other public response to the incident has been muted, with just a handful of speakers at each board meeting since Jan. 11 voicing their opinions.

Student’s attorney responds

Roger Bonakdar, the attorney for the student seen in the video, has also critiqued the district for its handling of the incident. A letter sent by his office to Nelson says that any questions about Slatic’s leadership or the confrontation at Bullard should have been addressed in an open meeting. Trustees discussed the incident in a closed session with counsel on Jan. 15, but reported no action.

“’Conference with legal counsel’ is not a magical incantation that allows the district to discuss whatever embarrassing incidents or problems it chooses in closed session,” Bonakdar’s letter says. “The Brown Act’s requirements for published agendas and open meetings are broad, and the exceptions to them are specific and narrowly-interpreted by courts.”

But Bonakdar said Monday that he disagrees with Manock’s assessment that the leak of Nelson’s letter also constitutes a Brown Act violation. He said also that he finds it convenient that Slatic is now critiquing the district’s release of information shortly after Bonakdar sent a cease-and-desist letter to the district asking for more transparency.

“Ultimately the district wasn’t there when he put his hands on a kid,” Bonakdar said.

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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.