In Partnership with 74

Vergara witnesses recall teacher intimidation, incompetence

Mark Harris | February 10, 2014

Your donation will help us produce journalism like this. Please give today.

Brandon DeBose, student in Oakland

Brandon DeBose, student in Oakland

After weeks of testimony from administrators, teachers and academics, Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu today finally heard from witnesses directly involved in challenging the state laws at the heart of the Vergara vs. California lawsuit.

Jose Macias, whose 13-year-old daughter, Julia, is one of the nine student-plaintiffs in the case, told the court he noticed significant changes in her behavior in second grade, which he attributed to a “grossly ineffective” math teacher she had in a Woodland Hills elementary school. He testified that his daughter, who had always loved school, grew frightened to go to class and became intimidated by the teacher.

Julia and the other students are claiming that laws on teacher tenure, dismissal and seniority protect ineffective teachers, violating their fundamental constitutional right to an effective education.

As defendants, the California Teachers Association (CTA), the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) and the state say the laws at issue guarantee teachers due process protections and without them, school districts would find it harder to attract and retain quality teachers.

When asked by the students’ attorney Marcellus McRae what happened when he spoke with Julia’s teacher, Macias testified that the teacher said his daughter didn’t have an aptitude for math.

“She said Julia had a learning disability,” he said.

Macias said he and his wife spoke with his daughter’s principal, who agreed to observe Julia and the teacher. Two weeks later, he said, the principal reported back: “Julia is not the problem; the problem is the teacher.”

Julia transferred to another classroom, where she began to thrive, her father said, and this year she attends a gifted magnet school.

But it wasn’t until later in the day that the first student-plaintiff finally took the stand.

Brandon DeBose, Jr., a high school senior in Oakland, a member of his school’s baseball team, football team and jazz band. He recalled two teachers he viewed as ineffective, including one in fifth grade, who told him he wouldn’t amount to anything.

“Coming from someone who’s supposed to teach you and has authority over you at the time, it feels like the truth, something you have to live with at the time,” he said.

He also testified that a 10th grade geometry teacher made no attempt to help students, leaving him so discouraged that he stopped going to class. He explained he didn’t want to fall behind his peers, and all he wanted was a fair chance.

In his class, DuBose said, each student had to “try to learn on your own and not everybody could do it.”

Defense attorney Eileen Goldsmith attempted to undercut DuBose’s claim that there’s a substantial risk of being assigned grossly ineffective teachers. When she asked him whether two new teachers he has this semester were good or bad, he said it was too early to tell. He also said he has passed his California exit exams and is on schedule to graduate this Spring.

Earlier in the day, Maggie Pulley, an elementary school teacher, took the stand, offering her personal observations on teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District. She testified she saw teachers who were disorganized and made outrageous errors, like misspelling the word truth as ‘thruth’ on third-grade posters.

Pulley, who now works for the Virtual Academy Charter School, an independent study school, recalled how one colleague, a kindergarten teacher, often intimidated students by yelling at them. After one of those students transferred into Ms. Pulley’s class, and later blossomed, she said it “broke my heart” to think that students could ever think school is a scary place.

“She slowly started coming out of her shell,” Pulley said. “That little girl was saved from a year of hell, a year of not learning, maybe checking out completely.”

The defense had other successes on the day. In his cross-examination testimony, postponed from last week, William Kappenhagen, principal of Burton Academy High School in San Francisco, conceded that even with ineffective teachers at his school, the state laws in question did not impede academic gains at his school nor his ability to raise the quality of the teaching staff.


Read Next