24 MONTEREY COUNTY WEEKLY march 28-april 3, 2024 www.montereycountyweekly.com Puente resigned. The District Attorney charged Puente on Jan. 29, 2024 with failure of a mandated reporter to report child abuse or neglect. Puente entered a plea of not guilty on March 7. (Because she is charged with misdemeanor counts only, she was not required to appear in court, and she did not.) Puente’s defense attorney, Larry Biegel, believes she will be exonerated. “As soon as my client found out about these allegations, the first thing she did was call the mother of one of the girls involved and in the other case, the grandmother,” he says. “Why would an educator like Debbi Puente ever have buried this?” He calls it scapegoating, noting the district overall has long been under fire for failure to properly handle claims of sexual misconduct. (Puente is now principal of Branciforte Middle School in Santa Cruz.) Now a senior, Allen is doing well, and CUSD has agreed to pay for up to $12,500 of counseling. “When I look at things now, I am somehow more appreciative of my life,” Allen says. “When you shift your mindset, the world just looks a lot better. It takes a lot to take a bad situation and get more out of it than the negative parts.” She plans to attend Gavilan College next year to study cosmetology, and then to pursue a degree in forensics. She’s now talking about her experience publicly, she says, for the same reason other students have before her. “My grandma said, ‘This is how these things keep happening, nobody talks about them.’ “I said, ‘You’re right.’ Bringing it to light is super important.” At the start of the 2023-24 school year, CUSD began contracting services for a Title IX officer with third-party firm Grand River Solutions that now receives and handles complaints. Jackie Moran of Grand River presented to the board on March 14 to report that this school year, she had received 13 total reports (which could be multiple parties reporting the same issue) and zero formal complaints. Board President Jason Remynse asked if that was a typical number. “That’s not something I can answer with certainty. I might be able to answer that better in a couple of years once we have specific data for Carmel,” Moran said. “I can say I would be more concerned if there were zero reports. The fact that people are reporting is good.” Senior Maggie Short is president of the Our Voices Club this year, and she says the new CHS administration—Principal Libby Duethman, plus assistant principals Ernesto Pacleb and Laurel Gast, a team that came over to Carmel together from Salinas High—is committed to upholding the letter of the law. “I am so grateful the administration takes things seriously, because the old administration didn’t,” Short says. “That was really discouraging. Kids are coming in more to talk to the admin, because things are going to happen. They know action will be taken.” Many actions are unrelated to Title IX—students say things like enforcement of tardies and the number of hall passes are being implemented in the high school in a serious, consistent fashion they’ve never seen before. “Some kids might not be happy about it, but upholding all of the rules and not just some of the rules is good for the campus,” Short says. The high school may have new rules in place, but board meetings and adjacent politics can be a mean-spirited free-forall. The board sometimes bickers publicly. Members of the public—parents, teachers, retired staff—voice impassioned grievances. Most board votes are unanimous, but members have clashed on the process of appointing a superintendent. When board members first began talking about appointing Ofek, some stakeholders urged them to slow down. The board heard from teacher and staff union representatives, residents and student board representative Marcus Michie, who as Associated Student Body president gets a non-voting seat on the board. “I am disappointed in the board professing transparency and the importance of community input and now moving into closed session to appoint a superintendent, without hearing from the community,” Michie said in November. After the board voted 4-1 (Anne-Marie Rosen dissenting) to appoint Ofek, a group of constituents launched a recall attempt against the four members who voted yes, although they failed to file their petition correctly. “We have not done a good job communicating, period,” CUSD board member Karl Pallastrini says. “You have to be able to say, ‘We blew it. We didn’t get this right, blame me.’ Of all the people on the board, it’s me.” That’s because Pallastrini is the longest-serving board member. He was first elected in 2011 as a write-in candidate, and that came after a career working in the district. Pallastrini attended Carmel High, but graduated from Juvenile Hall in Salinas. He went on to Chico State, then came home to teach history, drama and English in Pacific Grove. He became an assistant principal, then principal at Carmel Middle School for 14 years, followed by eight years as principal at Carmel High School. As allegations of sexual misconduct have surfaced in the past year, some people have accused Pallastrini of being complicit. A former administrator spoke during a March 2023 board meeting about when she raised concerns about her nephew being harassed in the middle school locker room. “When I went to you, Karl, your solution was, ‘boys will be boys.’ You brushed off the bullying behavior and did nothing.” Later in the meeting, when it came time to nominate a new board president, Pallastrini spoke about his longtime relationship with Sara Hinds, his former middle school student, and made a cringe-worthy joke: “I didn’t abuse her, I want you to know that.” Pallastrini understands the frustration expressed by the public. “The biggest thing in Carmel is trust, and getting to know people,” he says. Pallastrini believes that’s what doomed Dill-Varga and Knight, who both came from out of town. “The way it works in Carmel is it’s all about trust—that’s the keyword. If they trust you, they’ll let you take a flyer and try something. If they don’t, you’re done,” he says. In some ways, Pallastrini’s explanation about relying on trust and relationships is exactly what some people say is wrong with the institutional failures at CUSD—that issues related to behavior and even sexual misconduct are left for families to sort issues among themselves, informally. “There isn’t an organized conspiracy,” says Bobby Pfeiffer, a parent who has spoken up at board meetings seeking answers. “There is, however, a culture of elitism and reputation that has to be upheld. It’s a parochial, insular community in many ways. It comes from wealth and privilege, and also fear of losing that status.” As for the school board’s status, Pallastrini acknowledges that whatever trust the community did have in them “quit when we went to the string of superintendents. Even then, it did nothing to get in the way of high performance.” By education metrics, Carmel Unified School District teachers and students are doing well, despite whatever drama or superintendent churn is happening around them. “The thing that has been our saving grace is that we do have so many high-quality faculty and staff that they are able to insulate the classrooms from whatever chaos and disarray is outside of it,” says CHS teacher Bill Schrier, who until 2023 was the teachSara Hinds served as CUSD board president starting in February 2023, when the former president abruptly resigned, until December. “Simply acknowledging that our district has work to do does not mean in any we are sweeping the problems of this district under the rug,” she said during a September 2023 board meeting. “I felt like it was my responsibility to come forward.” silence continued on page 33