Santa Clara County education leader censured for gender discrimination
The Santa Clara County Board of Education is pictured in this file photo. Photo by David Alexander.

In a split vote late Wednesday night, the Santa Clara County Board of Education censured trustee Joseph Di Salvo for alleged gender discrimination, a decision that prompted the embattled educator to abruptly cut off his camera during the virtual meeting.

As San José Spotlight first reported Tuesday, Di Salvo became the subject of an independent investigation for “racial and gender harassment” after two trustees and two staff members verbally complained about him to the county superintendent in January. Investigators interviewed Di Salvo twice before sustaining the accusations that his behavior was “motivated, in part, by gender” when he was challenged by a woman, county legal counsel Elizabeth Zamora-Mejia said during the meeting.

The investigation did not find credible evidence of racial bias, the summarizing report says.

Board President Claudia Rossi, trustees Kathleen King, Rosemary Kamei and Peter Ortiz voted to censure Di Salvo. Trustees Grace Mah, Anna Song and Di Salvo opposed.

Di Salvo, whose term is up this year, said the investigation lacked evidence and he was denied due process. He called the effort “a case against my re-election campaign in the months leading up to the election.”

“I care about our students and families deeply and that often comes across in my work on the board when I am making my case on certain policies,” he said before the vote. “I’m proud of my work on the board and I will set the record straight.”

Of the 59 comments submitted, more than two dozen parents, community members and local principals came to Di Salvo’s defense Wednesday night, praising his long record of advocacy for local charter schools and students.

“I want to say how utterly disgusted I am to hear such fabricated, unjust and blatant roadblock in attempt to derail board member Di Salvo,” a parent in Di Salvo’s district said at the meeting. “(Di Salvo) is a passionate supporter of public education in our community. He is respected by mothers, grandmothers and female students, like myself.”

Rocketship Principal Courtney English also vouched for Di Salvo, saying he’s treated students “with the utmost respect regardless of gender.”

But many others spoke in favor of the censure, calling the trustee’s behavior “no longer acceptable.”

“I heard Mr. Di Salvo many times speak to his female colleagues in a tone of aggression with aggressive words that he doesn’t use with his male colleagues,” a speaker said. “I have been so uncomfortable and disheartened. … The children are watching, and Mr. Di Salvo should have shown a much better example.”

San Jose Unified School District Superintendent Nancy Albarrán said it’s imperative that education leaders hold themselves accountable for creating a safe space for staff members and the public.

“I want to encourage you to think about the behavior you want to model for our students, staff and community members,” she said.

Di Salvo asked the board to delay the vote, saying he was denied due process because he didn’t have a lawyer present. Song also sought to move the decision to August, saying the censure “feels very sudden.”

“It’s very uneasy for me,” Song said. “We take painstaking caution with other issues, I think it would be a disservice and a change of course without notice. I just want us to be fair.”

Mah called for more evidence before the board voted. The investigation report remains confidential.

“The report doesn’t describe the evidence of harassment,” Mah said. “The report says there’s evidence found by an expert, but it doesn’t describe what it is. …I believe it’s important to address these issues, but I’m saying that we need to make sure of an efficient timeline to respond.”

The board’s attorney, Zamora-Mejia, said the investigation is “of high quality” and “appropriate.”

“(Di Salvo) articulated his reasons for his manners to the investigator,” Zamora-Mejia said, adding that Di Salvo had his attorney during both interviews.

After the resolution to censure Di Salvo passed, he walked off camera for several minutes. When he returned, he turned off his camera while Rossi was reading through the resolution censuring him.

Di Salvo told San José Spotlight in a text message that he was still participating in the meeting, but needed to eat dinner.

About twenty minutes later, Rossi informed the board that Di Salvo had signed off.

“I need to review the vote with my counsel,” Di Salvo said in a text before he logged off. “I need to be prayerful and reflective.”

As part of the censure, Di Salvo will be required to take gender bias training.

Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

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