What's Behind the MAD Academy Mess
In an emotional and explosive public statement, two parents told Santa Barbara’s school board Tuesday night that nothing was done after their son presented evidence of sexual “predation” to his teacher at the Multimedia Arts and Design Academy more than a year ago.
They pleaded for “action in the case,” which has stirred community controversy over Santa Barbara High School’s celebrated MAD Academy.
“We stand before you today to implore you to take further action in the case concerning unfitting behavior by the MAD Academy leadership,” testified Mark Sherman, father of two students from the program, one of whom graduated last year.
“Unfortunately, we are…intimately aware of the inappropriate relationships and the reprehensible and dangerous actions and inactions that define the culture of the MAD Academy, as exhibited by their current leadership,” said Sherman, as his wife, Tami, stood with him, fighting tears.
Sherman said it was January of last year when their older son showed academy Director Dan Williams inappropriate electronic messages he told him came from another adult who worked for the program, but who was not a school district employee.
Williams downplayed the student’s complaint, the father said, allegedly telling the boy the messages may have come to him because of cell service disruptions caused by the Montecito flash flood and mudslide.
“Our son reported these texts to Dan Williams in January of 2018,” Sherman told the board. “Mr. Williams took no action on the matter. In fact he downplayed the accusations and told our son that the texts were an error caused by crossed wires associated with the debris flow. An insult to any intelligent individual…a dangerous incident of non-reporting by a Mandated Reporter.”
There were only a handful of people in the meeting room at Santa Barbara Unified School District headquarters when the Shermans walked to the microphone at 5:30 p.m., the first of dozens of community speakers to address the board on a host of issues during a marathon meeting that eventually drew well over 100 people before it ended not long before midnight.
The impact of their words, however, lingered through the long evening. How the district responds to their allegations – or doesn’t – is likely to reverberate for a long time in Santa Barbara schools.
The Academy. Founded in 1996, MAD has become one of the more successful of a large number of specialty learning programs, known as academies, in Santa Barbara’s three public high schools. Its academic success is grounded in part on substantial financial support that parents and other backers deliver to it, through a non-profit foundation.
The academy’s web site describes it as a “four year ‘school within a school’” where students take “an integrated curriculum” comprised of pre-college requirements, advanced placement studies and classes in “graphic design, film, photography, social media and web design.”
The web site also includes a “Donate” button, linked to a page that promotes an annual gala fundraiser and describes the purposes for which contributions are used. It also directs those wishing to give by “check, cash or credit card” to contact "Pablo Sweeney" at the MAD Academy office. He is the second man named by Sherman on Tuesday night. (Update: as of the afternoon of May 16, about 16 hours after this post published, Sweeney's name has been removed from the page).
Email shocker. Williams is the longtime director of the popular program, which enrolls about 350 students in four grade levels. It was an email sent by SBHS principal Elise Simmons to parents in mid-April that triggered the controversy.
In it, Simmons announced that Williams had been placed on paid administrative leave, for unspecified reasons, pending a district investigation. In a telephone interview at the time, Simmons declined to discuss reasons for the move, citing the confidentiality of personnel matters and saying she was focused on ensuring stability for academy students.
The email did not mention Sweeney, who worked on campus as the academy's operations director, and who traveled with Williams and students on academy spring service trips to help build houses in Mexico. Sources familiar with the situation say that he was escorted off campus, resigned his position and has not returned.
On May 1, Simmons announced to parents and students an “amicable agreement” with Williams, who was reportedly represented by a teacher’s union attorney. Under the confidential agreement, he has been allowed to return to campus to finish the school year, but is to “retire” as of June 30; still in his 40s, Williams has made no public comment during the controversy and efforts to reach him were unsuccessful.
Breaking the silence. The “amicable agreement” angered some parents, several of whom asserted on social media their opinions that Williams and/or Sweeney behaved improperly.
This week, several parents came forward publicly with information that broke the shroud of secrecy, whispers and rumors surrounding the affair.
The official silence about the MAD scandal traces to the fact that it involves children, as well as confidential personnel records and discipline of a pubic employee.
Notwithstanding, SBUSD’s lack of official communications has fueled anger, confusion and frustration in the local schools community about a scarcity of information that might explain what exactly is going on.
It appears there are three basic questions underlying the matter:
Did Williams party with students at times and places that involved underage drinking and/or drug use, as suggested by the video?
Did Sweeney make inappropriate advances to a male student or students, as alleged by the Shermans?
Did district officials, and do they still, have a legal responsibility to report information about the controversy to law enforcement or government child welfare agencies, as some parents have urged?
Here is a look at what is known about the three issues, gleaned from interviews, documents and the public record.
Party on. On Monday night, attorney Justin Tuttle, also the father of two academy students, provided an Instagram video to reporters of Williams apparently partying with students, as first reported by Tracy Lehr on KEYT.
Newsmakers later spoke with Tuttle about the recording:
“I’m very uncomfortable with Mr. Williams being around the children,” Tuttle told Newsmakers in a telephone interview we did shortly after Tracy’s report, adding that he has two kids in the popular program.
“He has no business being on campus,” Tuttle told us. “Every day that goes by that he’s there represents a huge liability for the district.”
In addition, unconfirmed assertions in social media postings by parents suggest it was an open secret that Williams partied with students; some mentioned the "rave cave," an apparent reference to the site of such parties at his home.
Within this context, Tuttle at Tuesday night’s board meeting delivered a blistering critique of Superintendent Cary Matsuoka for a “failure of leadership.”
In his public comments, Tuttle, who has said he plans to run for school board next year, also singled out John Becchio, SBUSD’s assistant superintendent of human resources; Becchio was the principal at Santa Barbara High School before he was promoted, effective July 2018.
“You were the principal when this was going down,” he said directly to Becchio who sat a few feet away and who, like Matsuoaka, said nothing in response, per district protocol. Becchio did not respond to email and phone messages seeking comment about Tuttle’s remarks.
Unwelcome communications. On Tuesday, the Shermans alleged to the school board that Sweeney “targeted” their son in electronic communications.
“We have seen videos, we have heard firsthand testimony from parents, and to us most tragically we have received screenshots, seen copied text messages, and heard recorded conversations,” Sherman said.
“Evidence gathered by our then minor son who was a victim of Pablo Sweeney’s predation. Our son believes that he was targeted by Mr. Sweeney based on his sexual orientation.”
Efforts to locate and reach Sweeney were unsuccessful.
The reporting obligation. SBUSD board policy 5145.7 prohibits “sexual harassment targeted at any student by anyone at school or at school-sponsored or school-related activities. “
The district strongly encourages any student who feels that he/she is being or has been sexually harassed on school grounds or at a school-sponsored or school-related activity by another student or an adult who has experienced off-campus sexual harassment that has a continuing effect on campus to immediately contact his/her teacher, the principal, or any other available school employee. Any employee who receives a report or observes an incident of sexual harassment shall notify the principal or a district compliance officer without delay. Once notified, the principal or compliance officer shall take the steps to investigate and address the allegation, as specified in the accompanying administrative regulation.
Equal Rights Advocates, a civil rights organization, offers this advice to students on their web site:
It is very important that you tell your parents or another adult, like a teacher or guidance counselor, about the harassment. If you want the school to do something about the harassment, you MUST tell a school official, such as the principal, that you are being sexually harassed…
…The law says the school has to stop sexual harassment of a student whether the harasser is a teacher or another student(s), but the school is only required to stop the harassment if someone in authority at the school knows what is happening to you. So it is VERY IMPORTANT to report the harassment to a school official. (Emphasis theirs).
In discussing the situation, Tuttle also has cited state Penal Code Section 11166.
The code establishes “all school/district employees, administrators, and athletic coaches” as “Mandated Reporters.” This means that they are required by law to report “all known or suspected cases of child abuse or neglect” to a law enforcement or government child welfare agency, according to the California Department of Education.
The Department’s web site lists, “The sexual abuse, assault, or exploitation of a child” in the legal definition of child abuse, which includes a number of specified activities detailed in the code. Mandated Reporters are obligated to make a report if there is a “reasonable suspicion” a minor has been victimized, according to the statute.
It is not the job of the mandated reporter to determine whether the allegations are valid. If child abuse or neglect is reasonably suspected or if pupil shares information with a mandated reporter leading him/her to believe abuse or neglect has taken place, the report must be made. No supervisor or administrator can impede or inhibit a report or subject the reporting person to any sanction.
A plea for action. That is, in part, the legal context within which Mr. and Mrs. Sherman have asked the school board to take action and accused the district of failing their duty to do so.
From their statement:
“For the six months between Dan Williams belittling my son (in January 2018) and the time that he graduated, our son did not feel safe at school. This is heartbreaking.
“In January of 2019, having given the adults over a year to take action, in the interest of preventing more vulnerable prey to become victim (sic), our son reported all of this to…the assistant principal. He handed over a file with copies of text messages and emails, a written statement, and a copy of the voice recording in which Pablo Sweeney admits to inappropriate behavior.
“All of this black and white evidence has been given to the administration. Our son has also been (recently) interviewed (in Berkeley) by a private investigator sent by the district to investigate the matter. “ (Parenthetical words ours for clarification).
Their statement added:
“Our assumption has been that the board too has seen details of this case as well as other cases involving indecorous, reckless and conceivably criminal behavior…”
School board members and district officials uniformly decline comment on the MAD academy affair, citing the advice of counsel about laws that prohibit them from publicly discussing employee personnel matters.
Craig Price, legal counsel for the district, on Tuesday night declined to respond to questions from Newsmakers.
Bottom line, The district and board now face at least two key decisions: 1) Whether the allegations made, and the documentary material cited by the Shermans, in addition to information developed in the official investigation, constitute a “reasonable suspicion” that a student, or students, was victimized; 2) Whether or not to report it.
Tami Sherman said, following the couple’s public presentation, that their son, now enrolled at Cal, is fine, but that they decided to come forward to prevent other students from facing what he went through his senior year.
“We don’t want this to happen to other kids,” said Mrs. Sherman.
Images: Mad Academy logo; Dan Williams (MAD Academy); Screenshot of Academy website, taken today, that directs donors to Pablo Sweeney; Silence (quietrev.com); John Becchio (SBUSD); Mandated Reporter (eventbrite.com); Cary Matsuoka (Paul Wellman/SB Independent).