State researchers found autocratic leadership, threats to employment and intimidation in the Yakima School District.
A study released in May by the Washington Department of Labor and Industries included in-depth interviews with 23 district staff members ranging from principals to teachers and paraprofessionals who were kept anonymous. The district employs roughly 2,000 people.
It was conducted by the state Labor Department’s Safety and Health Assessment and Research for Prevention program at the request of district counselor Michael Rhine, a Yakima Education Association executive board member.
“I’m trying to create the ideal learning environment for the kids, and if I’m doing that but the adults are having these conflicts and not being able to resolve these in healthy ways, how is that going to affect the kids?” Rhine asked. “Kids feel it. Kids feel and see what’s going on.”
Researchers discovered a top-down environment of disrespect and unprofessional behavior in the district, the study said. Study participants reported school administrators yelling, threatening people’s jobs and using staff relocation as a retaliatory measure.
Some principals micromanaged staff and ignored their concerns, pounded their fists and yelled during meetings, allowed parents to yell at teachers and put down teachers in front of students, according to study participants.
Participants also reported intimidation by school and district leaders directed at “individuals in protected categories, a behavior that places the school district at risk for (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) related lawsuits.”
The study pointed out these behaviors violate a district policy on civility.
“Incivility is a social stressor that contributes to disruptions to organizational functioning and that contributes to individual strains such as sleep disruption, increased psychological distress, distrust, low morale, burnout, job dissatisfaction, and intentions to quit the job,” the study stated.
Participants reported these stressors and effects, as well as a disruption in the classroom, with student learning being impacted by a hostile environment or the abrupt transfer of teachers, for example.
One participant reportedly considered leaving education because of the hostile environment, while another considered suicide.
“We need to turn this around … Kids deserve healthy learning environments. Teachers deserve healthy working environments,” one staff member is reported as saying.
External pressures including standardized testing expectations and funding constraints were likely contributing to the “autocratic leadership style” of administrators, researchers noted, but school staff “have a responsibility to follow standards of professionalism and the school civility policy.”
While the study said staff acknowledged positive experiences, reports of incivility outweighed them — something the study said was likely because negative experiences are generally more memorable than positive experiences.
“The (Yakima School District) should focus not only on reducing incivility negative events, but also on increasing civility positive events,” the report concluded.
Recommendations for improvement included hiring staff based on positive and inclusive attitudes, refocusing the district leadership style to be inclusive and positive, having central administration examine and improve adherence to the district civility policy, planning events to create camaraderie within the district, and conducting wellness workshops, among other things.
“I’m very, very hopeful that the result of this report brings positive changes,” said Rhine. “That was my whole intention all along was, ‘hey, let’s talk about this and let’s think of solutions.’ ”
He said YEA hoped to work with the district to survey all district staff to create a baseline to assess future progress.
Yakima School Board President Raymond Navarro welcomed the study’s findings.
Navarro said the board understands that state and federal expectations are changing, “and that puts pressure on not only teachers but the entire school system,” he said.
“But I guess the board hadn’t realized the extent of that pressure and stress — that some of our staff are contemplating suicide or harming themselves.”
Navarro said that this inhibits the quality of education students are receiving and must be remedied.
“We just want everybody to be again in a situation where they can utilize their talents and their gifts, their education, their experience, and work at their full potential so that they can educate students in our district, which is really our focus,” he said. “We really do appreciate our faculty and staff reaching out and having this study completed.”
In a June 10 email, Navarro requested that administrators, faculty and staff share additional experiences with him or incoming Superintendent Trevor Greene, who starts July 1.
Jack Irion retired as superintendent at the end of the school year. He was appointed to the job in 2015.
The district has already received emails from staff, Navarro said. Soon, he said, the board plans to review the feedback in depth and develop a plan to improve the district’s work environment.
He said he also hopes to see civility efforts included in a district strategic plan, which will be further developed in August.
The Safety and Health Assessment and Research for Prevention, or SHARP, program paid for the study. SHARP, which was created by the Legislature in 1990, researches 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 school district civility report. The organization previously studied civility among librarians in the state, Rhine said.