Principal To A Fault
Armed with high ideals, Joseph Pawlick enforces a mandate for change at Salinas High--whether teachers, students and parents want it or not.
Thursday, September 27, 2001
The Nerve of Minerva: When Minerva Herrera (L), now a freshman at Hartnell College, took issue with Pawlick''s censorship of the yearbook, she joined the staff of the student-run newspaper, the Flashlight.
To Sir, Without Love: "There needs to be a point where the administration rights their wrongs," says Ashley Guzman (R), one of last year''s yearbook editors.
I''ve been warned that Joseph Pawlick either doesn''t show up for meetings or else is chronically late. But when I arrive in the Salinas High School main office, I wait no more than 10 minutes under a surveillance monitor that shifts from Camera One (a view of a hallway) to Camera Two (a different hallway) on down the line to Camera Nine before being ushered into Pawlick''s office.
The principal''s room contains a stately mahogany desk with matching shelves and round table. The chairs, also mahogany, have red seat and back cushions. Three jewel-toned paintings of American Indians hang on one wall, and on the other a window looks out onto the school''s center courtyard.
"Tell me about your paper," Pawlick says.
"Coast Weekly?" I say.
"I''ve never heard of it." He says this with an unblinking stare. His eyes are icy blue and his hair is bottle-blond and grazes the tops of his ears and the collar of his blue Oxford shirt. His piercing eyes and uneasy smile make him look like a rounder, ruddy-complected Anthony Hopkins.
He won''t allow me to tape record our interview. He won''t allow his picture to be taken. He makes no exceptions. Ever.
Pawlick has been teaching in California since 1972. He graduated from Rutgers University with a B.S. in physical education and spent his first nine years teaching in the Pasadena Unified School District. After several tours of duty at schools throughout California, including one in Big Sur, he wound up at Salinas High in the fall of 2000.
Along the way, he picked up a Masters degree in educational policy and planning from the University of Southern California in 1981 and completed his doctorate in Instructional Leadership at USC in 1999.
He says while at Westlake High, a suburban school in Ventura County, he realized he wanted to be at a high school with an agriculture education component. He also wanted to return to Monterey County, which he called home while working as an assistant principal at Big Sur. So when the Salinas High recruitment committee came down to Westlake to visit him, he felt like it was a perfect fit.
What Pawlick heard from the interview committee that hired him, he says, was that they wanted strong leadership--someone who would motivate parents to get involved, someone who valued academics as well as athletics, and someone who was willing to make tough decisions.
School Site Council chair Susan Brown, a Salinas High parent who was on the interview committee, says Pawlick was the perfect choice.
"We felt that he was the right person to come and transform Salinas High School and give it the leadership that we thought had been lacking in the last couple of years," Brown says.
Pawlick says he knows nothing about why the previous Salinas High principal, Nina Russo, left her job.
According to court documents in a lawsuit that several students are bringing against Pawlick and the Salinas Union High School District, Russo quit after she was repeatedly instructed by District Superintendent Fernando Elizando to harass teacher Cynthia Hess. Hess claims that Pawlick has since made himself the instrument of that harassment. (See sidebar, pg. 17). Several students, teachers and parents charge that Pawlick''s crusade against Hess has hurt them and damaged Salinas High.
During an hour-long interview, Pawlick would refer only obliquely to the troubles at his school.
"Leadership is visible, so it''s important to recognize the instructional leadership of our staff and support them in fulfilling our very noble mission," Pawlick says. "And then sometimes, in the job, you have to seize the high ground and hold onto it. When it comes down to making the hard decision, it''s the principal who decides."
Several teachers, parents and students interviewed for this article say that Pawlick relishes the role of the hardliner, and that his willingness to make "hard decisions" is hurting his school. He is charged with bullying teachers, changing rules arbitrarily, and picking on students who don''t fit his idea of what Salinas High ought to be.
He refuses to reply to any of the charges.
Faced with what he interpreted at the time of his hiring as a clear mandate to take charge, Pawlick did so. His first step was to announce to the staff that Salinas High''s "shared school site vision" was to become a California Distinguished School, a titled earned by the top 5 percent of the state''s high schools through a competitive judging process.
The effort to achieve this vision started with a new policy on tardiness that cut the time between classes from 10 minutes to seven minutes and required that teachers keep their doors locked for 10 minutes after the bell rang to begin classes. Late students were required to report to the cafeteria.
Several teachers resented the fact that this particular policy had been instituted with no warning, and that Pawlick had not asked for their input before producing his "shared" vision for the school.
These teachers say Salinas High should focus on the more basic building blocks of students achievement--improving test scores, unburdening overcrowded classrooms, updating science labs and the like--before pursuing the title of Distinguished School.
"We don''t need any new programs," says Biology chair Evelyn Hansen. "We need to get our act together, work the kinks out and focus on students learning. This [California Distinguished School award] would just be a feather in his cap."
Next, Pawlick took a hardline approach to the District''s dress code, which prohibits bare midriffs, bare feet, strapless tops, torn or ragged clothing, hats and sunglasses. According to some female students, thong panties were unofficially banned, too.
Spearheaded by then-senior Jody Lasda, several Salinas High students made national news on Sept. 22, 2000 when they picketed the school carrying signs that read, "Pay attention to my mind, not my panties" and "First Amendments rights do not stop at the school-house gate."
Protesters also collected more than 170 signatures on a petition protesting the school''s dress code and the new tardiness policy.
Pawlick told the Californian it was all a nasty rumor perpetrated by the media. He maintains he never banned thongs. "You can''t believe everything you read," he says.
Lasda insists that at least one girl was given a dress-code violation note for wearing thong underwear.
After sending out a press release denying the thong incident ever happened, Pawlick called Rochelle Cole, the student allegedly given a note for wearing a thong, along with student protesters Lindsey Vowell and Lasda down to this office.
"He was really rude, trying to badger us into saying nothing ever happened," says Lasda, who was given a note when another faculty member found her skirt inappropriate, and was told by Pawlick to cover her spaghetti-strap tank top (an item of clothing that is not banned in the District''s dress code).
Lasda says the thong incident, the tardy policy and the unofficial dress code rules are only a symptom of a larger problem centering around Pawlick, including ongoing harassment, intimidation and a lack of respect for students'' rights.
"Dr. Pawlick censored what we could and couldn''t print in student publications," she says. "He tried to impose a dress code on the prom. With senior yearbook quotes, he would call people out of class, call them down to his office individually and try to intimidate them into changing their quotes. I think he thinks we''re in 1952."
On Aug. 13, eight Salinas High students and their guardians filed a lawsuit against Pawlick, Superintendent Fernando Elizando and Activities Director Darrin Herschberger, charging them with censoring the Salinas High yearbook. The lawsuit seeks damages of $51,000 to pay for reprinting the yearbook, with material reinstated that they say Pawlick censored. They want guarantees that future student publications won''t be censored.
The lawsuit argues that administrators have no jurisdiction over the contents of yearbooks under section 48907 of the California Education Code, which provides student editors protection from official censorship except in the case of obscenity, libel or slander, or incitement to violence. Yearbook proofs, showing the pages that were cut prior to publication, don''t seem to fit in any of those categories.
The administration objected to words like "''cause," "funner," "gonna" and "Girlz," insisted "SHS" was spelled "S.H.S.," and removed photos of Jennifer Lopez in her barely-there Grammy dress, Britney Spears in the sheer, studded getup she wore at the MTV Video awards, and Mary J. Blige showing some cleavage. A total of seven photos were pulled, though a shot of Britney Spears did fall through the cracks. It landed in the published book with a black square covering all but her head and was plastered with a sign that said: "CENSORED by SHS Administration: Bare midriff, inappropriate content."
Former yearbook teacher Cynthia Hess and attorney Steven Andre have the California First Amendment Coalition''s Terry Francke on their side.
"I feel safe in saying that no court--certainly not the California Court of Appeal--would find [the words and images] obscene, libelous, slanderous or incitement to lawlessness," Francke says.
Pawlick gives a non-reply to the charge.
"Did I censor the yearbook? I don''t know what that means," he says. "As long as I''m principal at Salinas High School, there will be no obscenity, no profanity, no sexually explicit photographs or sexually explicit innuendoes in the yearbook. And don''t forget incorrect grammar, spelling and punctuation. It''s not going to happen. Not under my watch."
On Sept. 28, the students case will go to court.
"There needs to be a point where the administration rights their wrongs," says 17-year-old senior Ashley Guzman, a student editor of both the 2001 and 2002 El Gabilan. "The main reason we are doing this is not monetary. The purpose here is not to humiliate anybody, but rather bring them in to the light. And obviously, we don''t want to see this ever happen again."
Students and faculty weren''t the only ones to notice Pawlick''s behavior. Lasda''s father Sheldon says he saw Pawlick in action first during the thong controversy. Shortly after that incident, Jody was elected to serve on the School Site Counsel and invited her father to attend a meeting. Sheldon says he wanted to tape record the meeting. For that, he says, Pawlick threw him out.
"Dr. Pawlick, in my opinion, is volatile to the point of being unstable," Sheldon Lasda says. "He''s totalitarian in management style. He does not respect the students as persons or as American citizens. It''s Pawlick''s way or the highway. He has no concern for students'' rights--nada."
Pawlick''s not without supporters, however.
Salinas High parent Steven Schmiess says he welcomes the discipline Pawlick has brought to the school, affectionately dubbed "The Jewel of Main Street."
"[Dr. Pawlick] expects the kids to be improving, and he is committed to that, not just in words but in what he is doing. He''s brought a whole new discipline to the school, enforcing timeliness to class. Overall, with the parents I hear very few complaints."
Jean Schott says she first met Pawlick at a parent coffee before her son, now a sophomore, started attending Salinas High.
"I had never met such an open, candid administrator," she says. "And safety was his No. 1 concern. We''ve got a great guy here. Is he perfect? No, but none of us are."
And, in fact, Salinas High is shaping up, at least on paper. Test scores are up, more students are choosing to attend Salinas High, and it''s lost the gang-infested, safe-as-an-unlit-parking-lot bad rap it had in the past. What parent could argue with higher test scores, safer campus, greater Salinas High name recognition and a school building straight out of Beverly Hills 90210?
"There are some things he does that are good, but I don''t see a comprehensive vision for the school, and he can''t do it alone," says biology teacher Linda Perkins. "He gets input from students and I value that. I would appreciate it if he would extend the same courtesy to the teachers. New teachers will come up to me and say, ''Why doesn''t he talk to us?'' It''s very disconcerting. There''s no team building here."
Several teachers refused to be interviewed for this story, for fear of retaliation. Some say it has already begun, as teachers who were interviewed by the Weekly say Pawlick has recently warned them that he has "a bone to pick" with them.
Every year, under the advisorship of Cynthia Hess, Salinas High''s math club works in the community--for example, at the California Rodeo--raises thousands of dollars (that''s the math part), and travels to exotic destinations.
Prior to the 2000-2001 school year, the club raised enough money to send 17 students to Paris over winter break. According to Hess, the administration repeatedly lost the math club''s field trip request forms and stalled the approval process to the point where travel prices increased, causing the students to come up $3,000 short for the December trip.
At about this point, Gary Bacon got involved. He''s a Salinas High parent of junior twins, a boy and a girl, and a local insurance salesman, but his kids weren''t part of the math club. He says he didn''t want students to be left behind because of a lack of funds.
"I just felt that it was unfair," Bacon says. "We don''t punish the kids because of the mistakes made by adults."
Ultimately, all 17 students were allowed to go to Paris, but upon returning, they were informed by the administration that they needed to raise an additional $3,000 to pay off their debt. Bacon protested and proposed a simple solution. "I said, ''OK, who do I make the check out to?'' and I pulled out the checkbook, pen in hand. The kids had already raised the money--why should they fundraise twice for money they had already earned?"
Elizando and Pawlick suggested brainstorming fundraising ideas rather than accepting Bacon''s money.
A month passed and Bacon offered to foot the bill again. He didn''t get a response. But he did learn that all 17 students had been placed on the school''s "ineligibility list," meaning they couldn''t attend prom, couldn''t walk at graduation, and couldn''t attend the Disneyland grad-night party.
Ultimately, the students raised the $3,000 themselves.
"They were led to believe the matter was resolved," Bacon says, "but when it came down to it--and apparently it wasn''t going to be resolved--they took it upon themselves to go out and do it."
Parent Dennis Murphy, whose daughter, Dale, went to Paris and is also a plaintiff in the yearbook lawsuit, says it''s indicative of a larger problem.
"In my estimation, Dr. Pawlick has a problem with being honest. He said he was going to supply the yearbook with computers. He never did.
"He assured me personally that the math club trip [and $3,000 debt] wouldn''t be a problem--almost verbatim."
Murphy says he took his concerns about Pawlick to the Board of Trustees. "I stood up, and I said I personally don''t want him as my daughter''s principal."
On Aug. 22, 2000, members of the senior class arrived at school armed with toilet paper, streamers and chalk, and decorated the school in the spirit of the traditional senior prank. The following day, Pawlick restricted all seniors from their privileges until the pranksters turned themselves in and received proper punishment.
The seniors showed up at a scheduled meeting to take the blame, but Pawlick didn''t.
At a second meeting, each senior was assigned 12 hours'' community service to be carried out during the half-hour lunch periods--a total of 24 lunches in all. The school set out trash cans, and the seniors picked up trash littering the inner court.
"We chose to make the best out of our situation," wrote seniors Priscilla Cordero and Rosalina Chaidez, in a letter to the Californian. Pawlick, they say, didn''t.
"He commented that we ''are having too much fun'' picking up trash and we are therefore, restricted from talking and smiling while performing our community service hours.
"We understand that there are consequences to everything and we are more than willing to face them, However, it is ridiculous that Pawlick assumes it is in his authority to limit our freedom to express ourselves. He is trying to assume the position of a dictator and we want to know if the community is going to stand for it."
Another disgruntled group of students decided that instead of relying on the Pawlick-controlled student media, they would start an underground newspaper, the Inferno.
In an interview in her parents'' house in Salinas, days before leaving for UC Berkeley, Inferno founder Emily Patton says the paper was needed to provide an uncensored means for students to voice opinions.
"There were no bylines in the Inferno," she says. "When seniors put quotes in the yearbook, they were singled out by the administration. We felt that students might be unwilling to contribute if they felt they were going to be singled out."
In the paper, Patton, along with fellow "Inferno Angels--Pyromaniacs of Truth" Dale Murphy and Minerva Herrera, published articles criticizing the tardy policy, reporting that it actually increased the number of absences from 4.6 student per class to 5.7 students per class. Patton says these and other articles wouldn''t have been published in the school''s sanctioned paper, the Flashlight.
Paula Polk, a Salinas High English teacher, resigned in August 2000 as department chair after a clash with Pawlick. Admitting that she, too, was fearful of retaliation, she told the school board that Salinas High had a "growing atmosphere of fear," and that she wasn''t the only one who felt it.
"Anything I have asked for as department chair is totally ignored, including my teachers'' requests," says Biology Department Chair Evelyn Hansen. "We have no say in hiring new teachers, no say in the master schedule, no say in what we''re teaching."
Some of the biology teachers complain that intro-level classes are disappearing, and students with no science background are being moved from low-level science classes to college-prep biology and physics.
After repeatedly telling Pawlick that biology classes were overcrowded or didn''t have enough lab stations, and that some lacked tables or lab facilities alltogether, a group of teachers sent a letter to parents. "Due to class size overload and the resulting safety hazards, our biology classes will no longer be having lab sessions," the letter read. "This may result in your student''s denial for acceptance of this course as a prerequisite for college acceptance."
Once the administration got wind of the letter, former vice principal Jenny Hirst marched out to Hansen''s portable and told her to stop under orders from Pawlick, Hansen says.
Pawlick denies that department chairs have come to him with concerns.
"I would recommend that if department chairs have concerns, they would walk in and tell me before they voice their concerns to a reporter."
He says he''s never met with Hansen. He doesn''t remember any such letter to parents.
When shown a photocopy of a memo "to Evelyn Hansen from Principal Pawlick" on the subject of "unauthorized and/or unapproved correspondence to students and families of Salinas High School," Pawlick finally recalls the incident.
"If I recall, this memo [from the biology department] had several grammar and spelling errors in it--which is not acceptable," Pawlick said.
Hansen disagrees that Pawlick''s problems with the memo were grammatical.
"All the administration wants to do is give orders to our departments and let the department chairs take the blame," she says. "He wants us to be secretaries--as far as our positions of department chairs, that went to hell in a handbag. He''s a dictator, with an emphasis on ''dick.''"
"He''s dictatorial," agrees fellow teacher Linda Perkins. "He''s almost like the Spanish Inquisition. You better not question him. His idea of a good faculty meeting is when nobody talks. We had a meeting like that at the beginning of last year, when were going through negotiations, and he uses that as an example of a great meeting."
Perkins says Pawlick singled her out for retribution because she filed a Workers Comp complaint last year. She says she was injured running into a wall during the five-minute period between classes.
She says the administration did not assign her any classes to teach after the injury. Union pressure brought her back on campus, but Perkins was demoted from teaching college-prep biology to four intro classes, and was removed from teaching Bio TR, a biology class for students still learning the English language, although she was one of the school''s few credentialed TR teachers.
"They don''t listen to us, they don''t take any input from the departments, and people are afraid to go talk to Pawlick," Perkins says. "So how can we solve these problems in-house? Everybody wants to make this work, we want to educate the students, we want to retire here--this combative thing is not healthy. It''s not a healthy place to work. It''s a very dysfunctional family."
Pawlick denies any charges of teacher discontent. When the questions heat up, he replies, "Contact Lou Lozano," the attorney for Salinas Union High School District. But he keeps a smile on his face that begins to look more and more like a smirk.