FILE — Yakima School District Superintendent Trevor Greene greets Jennifer Baird as he walks into to his office Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019, at Yakima School District Central Services, in Yakima, Wash.

Yakima School District leaders intend to request a more extensive independent survey of employee culture and civility.

The decision comes after the May release of a report conducted by the state Labor Department, which found reports of autocratic leadership and threats to employment through in-depth interviews with 23 district employees.

The intent is to get a better understanding of how widespread the issue is in the roughly 2,000-employee district and to work to eradicate it, said Superintendent Trevor Greene.

“It’s about doing the best that we can together, and only together can we really improve outcomes for our students,” he said. This collaboration isn’t possible “if people are feeling disenfranchised, not valued.”

The story

In May, a study conducted by the state Labor Department’s Safety and Health Assessment and Research for Prevention program revealed employee reports of a top-down environment of disrespect and unprofessional behavior in the district.

The study was requested by district counselor Michael Rhine, a Yakima Education Association executive board member.

It was based on detailed interviews with 23 district employees during the 2018-19 school year and was published shortly before former superintendent Jack Irion retired at the end of June.

The anonymized results detailed school administrators yelling, threatening people’s jobs and using staff relocation as a retaliatory measure.

Reports by those interviewed included anecdotes of principals micromanaging staff, ignoring staff concerns, pounding their fists during meetings and yelling, as well as allowing parents to yell at or put down teachers in front of students.

Study participants also reported school and district leaders targeting and intimidating “individuals in protected categories,” putting the district at risk of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission-related lawsuits, the study said.

Those interviewed said the behavior disrupted classrooms and interfered with learning. It also led some staff to think about leaving education, and others to consider self-harm.

The study was paid for by the Safety and Health Assessment and Research for Prevention program, which examines how work environments influence occupational safety, retention and turnover, as well as worker health and well-being.

This was the first time SHARP conducted a civility report in a school district in Washington. The organization previously studied civility among state librarians.

What happened?

Rhine, of the YEA executive board, said he had seen an “immediate improvement across the district” in work culture in the wake of the survey.

For one thing, school board President Raymond Navarro put out a call to current and former employees to share further concerns related to the study, he said.

“That was an immediately positive impact that that report had,” Rhine said.

Greene said he collaborated with the board to address concerns raised by each respondent to Navarro’s call.

Rhine also noted that Greene highlighted civility work in the district as one of his top three priorities when he joined the district in July.

“I’ve seen the immediate positive steps in acknowledgment, so this isn’t just something that’s going away,” he said.

Rhine said the report had created a “rippling effect,” with lawmakers and other school districts striking up conversations about work culture in schools statewide.

Moving forward, Rhine said he hoped to see the Yakima School District undergo a more expansive survey, as well as receive staff training around civility, self-care, communication styles and conflict management.

Greene said last week that he planned to request a more widespread survey of district staff from the state Labor Department. He hoped the follow-up would reveal how widespread the issue is and serve as a baseline for improvement.

The request would likely be made in January, Greene said, around his six-month mark in the position. This was intended to allow more time for him to build trust and relationship with school and district staff, Greene said.

YEA President Steve McKenna said the union had already reached out to Nanette Yragui, the occupational health research psychologist from SHARP who led the initial survey. She is putting together a proposal for a survey “much wider in scope,” McKenna said. He added that this survey would again be conducted independently and anonymized to allow candid responses by district staff.

Yragui could not be reached for comment.

Separately, Greene said he hoped to collaborate with YEA to conduct a joint school climate survey — something suggested in the original report. Ideally, he said, this would take place in April if YEA agreed on the survey and timing.

McKenna said more trust needs to be built before employees would feel safe responding honestly to an administration-led survey.

“We want to make sure that people’s identities are protected so that supervisors aren’t going to go after them, which has happened multiple times in multiple buildings in the past,” said McKenna. “So I think we need to establish more trust before we get to that point.

“The fact that we’re able to discuss these things directly and recognize that there’s a problem is a huge step forward, and so I think that we believe we’re moving in the right direction,” he said.

Progress made

Greene echoed McKenna’s belief that things are improving. A significant step, he noted, was new or revived lines of communication between administrators and employees.

“I think that has shown in some of the comments regarding some uncivil behavior,” he said. “There were things that could have been addressed better that I know we’re being much more intentional about in these past few months and that will continue to happen.”

Before bringing on new assistant superintendent of human resources Anthony Murrietta this school year, the role had been unfilled. Murrietta has started meeting regularly with representatives of each of the district’s 13 bargaining units to address concerns more proactively, Greene said.

Greene has been participating in the monthly meetings with YEA, the district’s largest bargaining unit.

“We want to make sure that we’re addressing the issues that they saw” that provoked the survey request initially, he said.

Parents, community members and business leaders in Yakima have also been brought into conversation in English and Spanish about the district’s direction as a new five- to seven-year strategic plan is being developed, Greene said.

“I feel that there’s been a culture shift, and that (information) is coming in through more quality conversations and feedback,” he said. “It does take time to turn that ship around, and I do think we’re making that turn.”

Reach Janelle Retka at jretka@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @janelleretka