Westchester has weathered a vast amount of upheaval from an educational standpoint in recent years. An aborted autonomy effort from the Los Angeles Unified School District, a dip in student enrollment and a controversial change from a traditional high school to a fulltime magnet.
But the demotion of Dr. Kenneth Pride, the former principal at Orville Wright Middle School, seems to have garnered the most sustained discourse of all the controversies. A raucous community meeting followed by a student led walkout in November stoked the passions of community members, parents and students at the middle school who have made it known that they want Pride reinstated.
Pride was demoted last year after an alleged sexual assault on a school bus between two students triggered an internal investigation at LAUSD. District officials determined that he had not complied with its policies regarding student safety and removed him from the school.
In an exclusive interview with The Argonaut, the ex-principal mentioned that he was currently negotiating a settlement with LAUSD. Asked if the agreement contained a provision of his possible return to Orville Wright, Pride responded, “I have seen nothing in any of the negotiations indicating a return to Wright.”
Currently assigned as a “pool” teacher to Washington Preparatory High School, Pride also has the indignity of having a notice of an “unsatisfactory act” in his file. “It’s something that follows you around,” he explained. “I feel like it’s a double whammy – the demotion and the ‘unsat act.’
“I question whether anyone else in the district has ever been treated like this,” the former principal added. “I didn’t want that in my file but I don’t hold the cards. I’m just a player.”
Pride said he believes that he followed all regulations pertaining to the alleged incident, but district officials claimed that he should have placed a call immediately to Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family after learning of an action that rises to the level of child abuse.
A part of the policy bulletin states that if administrators have a reasonable suspicion that child abuse has occurred, they are to notify the county department or a local law enforcement agency.
“I had not had a reasonable suspicion at that time, and I was told by the district that I should have made the call no matter what,” Pride said. “What happened to the subjective part of reasonable suspicion?”
Pride said he believed that he needed more information about the situation. “I don’t feel that I’ve done anything wrong,” he reiterated. “But again, I’m just a player in the game.”
Support for the former principal comes from a variety of diverse sources.
The Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa sent a letter backing him earlier this month to LAUSD.
“This community was actively involved in the selection of Dr. Pride. We bought into his vision and have actively supported his efforts, which have led to a steady improvement at Orville Wright,” said Cheryl Burnett, the vice chair of the council’s education committee.
Kelly Kane, a Westchester mother who is one of the community’s most well-known education activists, remains upset that Pride was demoted.
“Everyone is in agreement that this is the guy that should be at Orville Wright,” Kane said. “He was loved by everybody: parents, faculty and especially the students.”
LAUSD Board Member Steve Zimmer, who represents Westchester, said what happened with Pride is regrettable.
“The situation at Orville is one of the most difficult things that we’ve had to do as a district,” Zimmer, who attended the Nov. 7 meeting, lamented in an earlier interview. “There are no winners and there’s a lot of loss.
“I supported the selection of Ken Pride and up until the moment that that disciplinary action was taken, I was very supportive of Ken Pride’s leadership.”
LAUSD officials have been reluctant to comment on Pride’s case.
“Due to legal constraints regarding confidential personnel matters, we are not at liberty to discuss specific details of his reassignment,” Local District 3 Superintendent Brenda Manuel wrote to Orville Wright families Nov. 3.
Zimmer said he understands the public outcry in support of a popular school leader, but he said LAUSD has a rigid set of rules that it must abide by.
“This was not just an issue of paperwork. The outrage from the community was absolutely understood, heard and warranted,” he said. “And the role of the school district is to make sure that the rules, guidelines and policies are enforced and are followed and to take action when they’re not.”
Burnett feels that mindset could cost the district funding and students in the future.
“LAUSD should not be surprised that parents abandon local schools when the community’s fervent and consistent participation and support is returned with disregard and indifference,” she cautioned.
Kane was even more forceful, laying much of the blame with Zimmer. “I think that Steve Zimmer has become a part of the downtown bureaucracy and has lost sight of what’s important to our community,” she asserted.
Pride took issue with Zimmer’s remark about student safety.
“I have always considered students’ safety during my tenure at Wright. From the moment I stepped on the school site to the day I was directed not to return,” he said. “Obviously, the district has a different opinion and since they hold all the cards, some may say that their opinion outweighs mine.
“I will say that if I were not concerned about the safety of all children, then most assuredly I would not be so admired by the staff, faculty, parents and the students. Here, reasonable minds clearly differ regarding how this matter was handled”.
Pride is on stress leave due to his demotion. “It’s really taken a toll on me and on my family,” he said. “There are a lot of sleepless nights.
The former principal says he has never been subjected to any disciplinary action in his career, but says he does not blame LAUSD. “It’s not the district’s fault and it’s not my fault,” he said. “It’s something that exists and has to be dealt with.
“They have their view and I have mine.”
Pride is gratified at the level of encouragement that the Westchester community has shown him. “I was at Local District 3 when I began receiving text messages that a number of students had walked out of their classrooms,” he recalled. “I was somewhat taken aback because middle school kids don’t do that.
“It brought tears to my eyes and it deeply touched my heart,” Pride continued. “No one had thought it worthy of them to speak to them to explain what was going on, and it greatly upset them.”
Westchester resident Denny Schneider and the Westchester Neighborhood Association have begun raising money for a defense fund for Pride, in the event that he were to seek legal action against LAUSD.
“I am appalled to see someone who is making a difference to improve our schools get dragged through the muck for having the initiative for making things better,” asserted Schneider, a member of the Westchester-Playa council.
LAUSD representatives rescheduled Pride’s settlement discussions for Friday, Jan. 27.
Pride remains steadfast that he does not feel that he has been treated fairly and takes a great deal of solace in the community’s embrace. And now, he awaits a decision on his future as an educator in LAUSD.
“I feel that the district has not looked at the totality of the circumstance and all of the facts in the case to make a logical decision,” he concluded. “I lived and breathed Orville Wright.
“Based on this experience, I will never, ever apply for a principal position in LAUSD – but I would go back to Orville Wright.”