Those of you old enough to remember the old “Dragnet” TV show will remember that memorable “facts” line delivered frequently by Sgt. Joe Friday, played by Jack Webb. So, here are the facts surrounding the recent news story of a death at TeWinkle Middle School:

1. Sept. 7: I received a tip that a district classified employee died in an accident involving a ladder at TeWinkle Middle School in Costa Mesa.

2. Sept. 7: I emailed Alex Chan at the Daily Pilot to relay this information and recommended that she follow up with the district.

3. Sept. 16: not having seen anything in the paper, I contacted the district myself, asked about the death and received the following response: “Yes, one of our custodians passed away a few weeks ago.  Below is the communication that we sent out to staff and the school community regarding this incident.  We do not have any further information at this time.”

4. Sept. 16: I sent a follow-up e-mail with two questions:

  1. Did [he] die due to an accident at school?
  1. How many custodians have died at TeWinkle in the last four years?

5. Sept. 22: I received the following response: In the interest of privacy to the parties involved we are not able to provide any further information.

6. Sept. 22: I replied: Question number 2 does not involve names. I am requesting a statistic and would appreciate a reply.

7. Sept. 22: I received the following reply: I have forwarded your inquiry to Human Resources.

8. Sept. 21: I was informed that the story of the custodian’s death appears in the Daily Pilot.

9. On Sept. 22: I e-mailed the Daily Pilot reporter and asked whether the story ran because the district had notified them or because the reporter was following up to the lead I’d sent two weeks earlier. As of today, no reply.

Sept. 24: No reply yet to my inquiry about the number of deaths at TeWinkle in the past four years.

 

Here’s what: On Sept. 16 I was told by the district that they could not tell me whether the custodian died as a result of an accident at the school “in the interest of privacy.” But the Daily Pilot story reads, “The 26-year employee of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District died of blunt-force injuries to his head that were the result of a fall, according to the Orange County coroner’s office.”

The coroner’s report is a public record. So on the one hand the district is telling me that they can’t tell me whether the death was due to an accident, on the other hand the coroner’s report answers the question. In other words, they could have told me what was already a public records notice and not violated anyone’s privacy.

About that privacy… It was so private that the notice sent out by the district mentions his name.

So did the story run two weeks after the custodian’s death because the district was afraid a blogger would report it first, or did it run because the Daily Pilot investigated it, or did the district suddenly realize that it would be fitting and proper to report it to the newspaper?

Either way, it looks bad: Two weeks later and the story finally hits the newspaper.

The notice sent out by the district makes an attempt to minimize the circumstances of the death by referring to it as “passing away” and mentions his “passing.” My late wife passed away from brain cancer four years ago, this 26-year employee died in a fall. I have been reading newspapers – and wrote for two of them over an 18-year period – and listening to the news on TV and radio and have NEVER heard of a death due to an accident described as “passing away.”

But wait, there’s more!

Hold on to your hats.

Ladders are dangerous and account for a large amount of serious accidents and even deaths each year. From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, April, 2016:

  • Falls remain a leading cause of unintentional injury [deaths] nationwide, and 43 percent of fatal falls in the last decade have involved a ladder.

But here’s the part that gets my blood boiling – the bold font is mine:

  • Most falls from ladders occur in construction, mining, maintenance and repair activities. Victims are predominantly male, older and Hispanic.

The custodian was the perfect candidate for a serious ladder accident: male, older, and Hispanic. I found this information online in less than a minute. So why was a perfect candidate for a ladder fall allowed to be on a ladder?

Good question.

The larger issue here is one of proper communication. In this case, an announcement should have been made immediately – not by a subordinate but by the superintendent. 26 years as a “beloved” district employee and all you get for your effort is a brief statement.

  • Why was there no recognition of this man at the last school board meeting – no moment of silence in his memory?
  • Why hasn’t the district posted a fitting tribute on their website?
  • Why haven’t they reached out to the community for donations to a fund they could have created to help his family with funeral expenses?

This is a good example to anyone who works in the district. Put this in the same pile as 10-year exemplary HR director John Caldecott being fired via e-mail and former stellar employees Laura Boss and Ann Huntington, who quit and retired and are now suing the district for creating a hostile working environment: Talk is cheap, image is everything.

Steve Smith

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