Clovis Unified School District officials know they have a perception problem over student discipline. Athletes and those with wealthy or influential parents play by one set of rules. Everyone else plays by another.
Superintendent Eimear O'Farrell says it's a false perception that doesn't reflect reality. She insists administrators at the district office and school sites work diligently to ensure punishment is metered out as equally and fairly as possible.
"We are constantly cognizant of the fact that all our students are watching," O'Farrell said during a meeting with The Bee's editorial board. "How we respond to every situation dictates how they see (us) and determines how we will act in the future. So it's not in our interest at all to not be consistent."
I called that consistency into question this year after some of Clovis Unified's dirty laundry got hung out on a public clothesline. Two members of the 2016 national champion Buchanan High baseball team, including the star pitcher, played the season while facing sexual assault charges in juvenile court. Which sure seems to run contrary to the district's code of conduct for students involved in co-curricular activities like sports.
To anyone in the Buchanan community or with ears attuned to the prep baseball scene, none of this was a secret. The story of what happened that July night in 2015 and the names of the accused had long been in circulation. But now everything was in the open.
I wrote two columns highly critical of the district's double-standards and the subsequent attempt by administrators to both play dumb and sweep the matter under the rug, and the response was overwhelming.
Readers inundated me with their own stories, dozens of them. Parents told me how their children were forced to transfer to the district's continuation school for seemingly minor transgressions – at least when compared to sexual assault. Former students told me how they were subjected to demeaning and accusatory conduct code reviews for the tiniest of infractions, in one case an innocent slip of the tongue. Tipsters sent emails and left voice messages encouraging me to keep digging.
"I want to say how proud I am of you for stepping up and taking on the most corrupt school district around," one email read.
"From my experience, you have chipped at the tip of an enormous iceberg," read another. "There must be scores of victims and coverups to protect the students who make the district look good in the way they want/think is their ideal good."
Clearly, I'd struck a nerve.
Clearly, Clovis Unified has an image problem when it comes to student discipline and double standards.
And clearly, the district has heard those accusations.
"We have to be able to put our hands on our hearts at the end of the day knowing we've been consistent and fair," O'Farrell said. "The perception you're talking about, Marek, we hate that perception. It's very frustrating to us that is the perception."
That perception didn't just appear out of thin air. It exists based on a collective experience and stories that have been passed around the community campfire. And when that happens often enough, and long enough, perception becomes truth.
So why did Clovis Unified allow those two baseball players to remain on the squad? That's a question you and I are not going to get direct answers to. Why not? Confidentiality laws.
"The challenge is because it's all confidential," deputy superintendent Don Ulrich said. "When a parent has that perception we can't accurately correct them or provide them with information. We wholly accept that responsibility. That's the system we have to deal with."
Kelly Avants, the district's chief communications officer, said the situation involving Hunter Reinke and Blake Wells (she did not use their names) was as complex as she's seen in 20 years on the job. The civil case was recently settled when both parties agreed to an undisclosed sum.
"It was a very challenging situation to investigate," Avants said. "But did we investigate it repeatedly and with great aggression? Absolutely."
There are several theories as to why Reinke and Wells were allowed to remain on the team. Most of them revolve around good lawyers, influential families and the fact that both were minors at the time of the alleged assault.
The end result was more championship banners for Buchanan baseball – as well as a black eye for Clovis Unified over accusations of double standards.
"No championship is so important to us, regardless of the perception that exists, that we would ever make a decision that is contrary to our philosophy," O'Farrell said. "I'll also say that for every decision like this that fits the perception that's out there, there are a host of decisions every week made in code of ethics hearings where we pull kids from championships.
"We pull kids from multiple championships where our star players weren't playing because we adhered to that. This situation has more nuances to it than we can actually discuss."
Since we're not permitted to peek behind the curtain, it's then left up to each of us to make up our own minds. Which is why the common perception of Clovis Unified won't go away anytime soon.