Marek Warszawski

Slatic can be a huge asset for Fresno Unified, or a big liability. Up to him

Safety for the students, teachers and staff of Fresno Unified is a major issue.

School board trustees should not, under any circumstance, appoint themselves as safety enforcers.

Both of these statements can be true. Accepting one does not automatically mean rejecting the other. The human brain is wired to process multiple, competing thoughts. You don’t have to pick a side and dig in.

Likewise, it’s possible to respect Fresno Unified Trustee Terry Slatic’s commitment to school safety, as well as holding district officials accountable, and still think his actions at Bullard High on the afternoon of Jan. 11 were out of line.

Unfortunately, in 2019, that’s not the way these things go. The video footage of Slatic scuffling with an unidentified student quickly cleaved the community into predictable groups.

In the words of some, Slatic’s actions were “entirely appropriate” because the student in question “showed no respect for his elders.”

In the words of others, Slatic is “a bully” who was “spoiling for a fight” and should be “immediately suspended” and “recalled from his position on the board.”

The binary-thinking trap just snared a new set of victims. Except it isn’t that simple.

I believe Slatic is genuine in his desire to make Fresno Unified’s campuses safer. During his school board campaign, Slatic said a Bullard student got expelled for making a death threat against his son – and I believe that, too.

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

Goodness knows our schools need a strong safety advocate. Since 2013 there have been 390 incidents of gunfire on school grounds across the U.S., according to One of those took place in Fresno (when an Edison High teacher was shot multiple times, after hours, by four gang members in 2013), but let’s not forget the wave of violence and bullying that engulfed Fort Miller Middle School in 2015.

A retired Marine Corps major who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Slatic is well-suited to champion safe schools.

However, I don’t believe Slatic’s claim that the Bullard student threatened to kill him, or the implication that Slatic feared the teenager had a gun in his backpack.

If Slatic truly thought his life was in danger, as well as the life of district liaison Michelle Asadoorian (who was with Slatic on campus that day), then why did he allow the student to pick his backpack off the ground and walk away without inspecting its contents?

That just doesn’t compute.

Another thing: Slatic has only made that statement to GV Wire, a media source that has given him favorable coverage. Why wouldn’t he repeat that claim to any other outlet?

One reason could be that Slatic’s lawyer instructed him to hush up. Another could be that he didn’t want to repeat a lie.

At the same time, I don’t believe the claim by Roger Bonakdar, the student’s attorney, that his client didn’t say anything that set Slatic off.

The kid clearly got mouthy. (Probably along the lines of “What are you looking at, a-hole?”) Otherwise, Slatic wouldn’t have turned around and confronted him. I don’t think Slatic went to campus that day “spoiling for a fight.” I think he’s just easily triggered.

Provoked or not, school board trustees cannot place their hands on students – especially if those hands are as large and meaty as Slatic’s. Not unless they want to see the district they’re supposed to help lead be on the hook for legal fees and damages.

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

I appreciate that Slatic wants to be an active participant in district affairs, as opposed to a desk jockey.

For instance, if Slatic wants to visit campuses and climb ladders to inspect roofs for dry rot, go right ahead. Knock himself out.

However, he can’t be barging into meetings where he wasn’t invited, demanding sensitive student information or making angry accusations toward district officials, as alleged by Superintendent Bob Nelson.

There’s no place for that sort of behavior. Slatic is a civilian. School campuses are not a military base.

(I also find it a little curious that Slatic, unlike fellow newly elected trustees Veva Islas and Keshia Thomas, has a protected Twitter account. A tough guy like him can’t handle a few trolls?)

Fresno Unified needs committed, dedicated people like Slatic. The district can certainly use his real-world, operational experience. Someone who asks tough questions and doesn’t accept excuses for failure. What the district doesn’t need is a rogue board member with little regard for rules or understanding of his responsibilities.

As a school board trustee, Slatic is partially responsible for ensuring the district “is responsive to the values, beliefs and priorities of the community.” (That’s straight from the California School Boards Association website.) By “partially responsible,” I mean he is just one of seven votes.

In other words, Slatic does not have ultimate authority over anyone. He’s compelled to be a team player. Without three other votes, his views and directives hold no sway.

Let’s hope Slatic understands this. (He did not respond to my text for a sit-down.) Because if he allows himself to become the district’s latest lightning rod, a la Brooke Ashjian, he’ll be ostracized by fellow board members and rendered ineffective.

Which would serve absolutely no one, Fresno Unified students least of all.

Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.