Santa Clara County education trustee faces censure for gender harassment
The Santa Clara County Board of Education is pictured in this file photo. Photo by David Alexander.

    The Santa Clara County Board of Education will vote Wednesday night on whether to censure trustee Joseph Di Salvo after an investigation substantiated allegations of gender discrimination against him.

    Two board members and two employees accused Di Salvo of engaging in “gender and racial harassment” in January, according to the resolution summarizing the investigation. The resolution did not name the complainants. County Superintendent of Schools Mary Ann Dewan hired an independent investigator to look into the claims after receiving the allegations verbally, the summary says.

    The investigation report wasn’t included in the meeting packet or released to board members, trustees said. But the resolution says the probe found credible evidence that Di Salvo’s comments and behavior toward women who challenged him at board meetings was “negative, critical, disrespectful, dismissive, demeaning and heated.” He does not, the summary says, display such characteristics when communicating with a man.

    Di Salvo has served on the 7-member board since 2008 and has been a vocal charter school backer.

    “Board Member Di Salvo’s communication style became more ‘heated’ and ‘unprofessional’ when the person who disagreed with him was a woman,” the resolution says. “The (investigator) found this is stereotypical behavior indicative of gender bias, and further determined that Board Member Di Salvo’s conduct ‘appeared to have been undertaken for other reasons, including to undermine or to intimidate a woman into changing her opinion.’”

    Di Salvo told the investigator that his behavior stemmed from “his passion for his role as trustee and advocating for his constituents,” according to the resolution.

    “Throughout my 12-year service on the Board of Education, I have always sought to treat staff and fellow board members with respect and sincere admiration for the work they do,” Di Salvo said in a statement to San José Spotlight. “The Board faces many contentious decisions and I have engaged in heated debates, apologizing if comments were worded too harshly. 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. All cited interactions in the investigation were policy disagreements.”

    Di Salvo said Tuesday the investigation report provided no evidence of wrongdoing, and said he’s working to delay Wednesday’s discussion until August.

    “I have had a family crisis all last week, and when I found out about (the resolution), I was shocked,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday, explaining the censuring item was added to the agenda without his knowledge. “This feels like a gotcha. It is a gotcha.”

    According to the documents, the investigation found Di Salvo’s manner “goes beyond professional discourse, and instead represents a subtle bias against women who disagree with or challenge him,” as his behavior “goes above and beyond what is necessary to communicate one’s point of view.”

    However, the investigation found no evidence of racial harassment, which he was also accused of.

    “I don’t know if the board will get to see the investigation,” Trustee Kathleen King said. “But I can’t comment on the actual resolution; I want to go into the meeting with an open mind.”

    The board appears to be divided on the issue of censuring one of their colleagues.

    Trustee Peter Ortiz, the only other man on the board, said Di Salvo has a “short temper.”

    “When he communicates, he can be quick to be argumentative,” Ortiz said. “And that has made our colleagues feel uncomfortable.”

    Ortiz adds that he has not decided on his position before Wednesday’s meeting, but plans to ask more questions about the investigation.

    But Trustee Grace Mah said Monday she supports Di Salvo and she’s concerned with the lack of due process in the resolution.

    “For over 12 years, I have watched Joseph Di Salvo serve alongside me on the board with integrity and respect for all staff and board members, including women,” Mah said in a statement to San José Spotlight. “The accusations lack clear evidence and appear to be politically driven as this is arising four months before a major election.”

    Di Salvo, who is up for reelection this year, joined the board in 2008. He served as board president from 2010 to 2011 and has won reelection in 2012 and 2016.

    Board President Claudia Rossi said the resolution to censure a board member is a first for the county school board. Placing the resolution on Wednesday meeting’s agenda is significant, especially during the pandemic, as school boards have been directed by the state to only tend to “essential business” right now, Rossi said.

    “Generally, when we have a credible investigation of harassment to employees, it’s essential that we address that behavior,” Rossi said.

    If adopted, the resolution would be “a strong statement” of public discipline from the board, Rossi said. It would require Di Salvo to participate in gender bias training and treat his colleagues and county staff with respect and dignity.

    The resolution doesn’t describe the alleged incidents, but Rossi said Di Salvo’s behavior escalated occasionally during their tenure together. Most notably was during a board meeting on Promise Academy’s petition to open a charter school in 2017, Rossi said, where Di Salvo launched into an argument with then-vice president Rosemary Kamei for picking Rossi to be first to ask questions on the issue.

    The video of the meeting shows the board had spent more than two hours on the issue, and as Rossi continued her line of questions, Kamei reminded her of timing. Di Salvo then interjected: “I’d like you, as a trustee, to be respectful of our time. We have people to speak too on this side.”

    When Kamei told Di Salvo that Rossi can finish her questions and that trustees can speak as long as they want, Di Salvo started checking his watch and stopped making eye contact with Kamei.

    “Not since I have been on the board,” Di Salvo said, interrupting Kamei, “(and) I have been on the board longer than you.”

    As Kamei responded, “This is an important issue…” Di Salvo interrupted again and raised his voice: “Why did she get to speak first? Why would you pick her first?”

    Trustee Anna Song placed her hand on his arm, suggesting him to calm down.

    “Excuse me, don’t touch me,” he said as he flung her hand off. “Don’t touch me.”

    Di Salvo ended up apologizing via a statement read by his wife at the following board meeting.

    “First, let me thank my wife, Christine, for agreeing to come to this podium and read this statement on my behalf,” the letter reads. “I wish I was there in person, however, we are dealing with very serious family issues in San Diego, where I have been since last Thursday. Christine flew home this morning to resume her work life and be here tonight to express my words.”

    “Secondly, I want to sincerely apologize to my colleagues, Trustees Rossi, Kamai (sic) and Song whom I offended in an unfortunate and angry few minutes at our September 6 meeting,” it continues.

    “It was rather uncomfortable,” Rossi said an interview Monday. “And for it to happen in such a public forum, that was noteworthy.”

    Trustees Song and Kamei didn’t respond to San José Spotlight’s inquiries. The meeting Wednesday begins at 5 p.m. and can be viewed here.

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

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