Keep the Community Alive in Community College
- A Blog about Fullerton College -

Friday, April 17, 2009

Trust Betrayed

Emilio Perez Fired
Tuesday night the district board of trustees came out of closed session and, with a unanimous block vote and no public discussion, approved several items on their agenda, one of which was the termination of Emilio Perez, director of public safety at Fullerton College.

Why? Who Knows.
Rumors both licentious and larcenous had been kindled by the sud
den removal of Perez, who was put on administrative leave last January pending the outcome of a district investigation. Investigation of what? Who knows? Reporters at the Hornet tried doggedly to unearth a source who would speak on the record, to no avail.

One reason given f
or keeping quiet was to protect Perez’ privacy. That’s a sticky issue, but I would argue that campus administration should consider the possibility that public disclosure would be a healthy response.

The California Public Records Act makes most records held by public agencies, including community colleges, open to public inspection, but
Government Code 6254 (c) exempts: “Personnel, medical, or similar files, the disclosure of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

Privacy No Excuse
How do you interpret that word “unwarranted?” An unwarranted invasion of privacy is forbidden, but are there cases in which a violation of an employee’s privacy is warranted? What would those cases be?

The First Amendment Coalition, a non-profit organization formed to protect the people’s right to know, says here that California courts have found that if an investigation of a public employee results in discipline or termination, then the contents of that investigation should be open to the public.

We Should Be Told
A reasonable person might ask whether there’s any purpose to be served by airing dirty laundry when Perez is gone. Whatever he did is over and done. Why raise a ruckus over a dead issue?

But just what is the real issue, and is it dead or simply voiceless? Was Perez the problem, or was he a symptom of a problem not yet resolved and now shuffled under the rug? How will we ever know?

"No one's gonna help you"
Here’s the basis of my concern: Late last September, a student came into the offices of the Hornet with a complaint. (See the Hornet's story
here.) She’d been using a restroom in the school library when someone thrust a camera-phone under the divider separating her stall from the next one over.

She was stunned into inaction briefly, but then she rushed out after the perpetrator. She saw no one, but she found a campus staff member who said she’d seen the likely suspects and might be able to identify them. The student also noticed cameras installed in the library that might have taped the fleeing peeping Toms.

She went to campus safety, numerous times, but felt like she was being brushed off. She went to the vice president of Student Services, which oversees campus safety.

“I told her honestly that, more than the incident itself, the way that it was handled, the things that I was hearing from the director [Emilio Perez], actually made it a lot worse than the incident itself.

"And she said, ‘I understand that. Let me talk to him.’”

The vice president was polite and prompt, but didn’t really help. Campus safety had told the student that they’d reviewed the tapes from the library, but, according the student, the v.p. said she’d been told the library cameras weren’t working.

As a last resort the student came to the Hornet to tell her story.

Why the Hornet? She said that students should be given a heads up so that if they're ever in a similar situation they will quickly grab the offending phone, thus taking matters, literally, into their own hands. Here’s how she put it.

“Students come here to better themselves. And I strongly believe that they should provide an environment where it's safe for us to freely educate ourselves, but things like this happen and you're just lied to, and I feel like I've just been jerked around. That's why I want everyone to know that they should grab the phone if that were to happen to them. I want them to know that that's what they should do because after that it's too late. No one's gonna help you.”

That’s a hell of a way for a student to feel about her campus. Maybe hushing things up, moving things along, and shutting students out of issues that directly affect them isn't the best way to foster trust.