CAPTAIN COURAGEOUS?

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Posted March 19, 2009 in Feature Story

Noreen Considine may well be the most misunderstood elected official in the Inland Empire. Or she may be one of the craziest.  

 

Whatever she is, the 64-year-old retired Navy reserve officer and trustee for the Jurupa Unified School District Board of Education just can’t seem to catch a break. 

 

Over the past two months, she’s been savaged in newspapers and on the Web for reportedly threatening to sue the district if fellow board members didn’t address her by her military title: Captain Considine. Just last week, she was sued by the very same school district she serves for allegedly failing to return confidential student documents to district officials. 

 

It’s all been great fun for the press, which has run numerous articles on Considine’s controversies. It’s been an even bigger blast for the blogosphere, where comments have run the gamut from comparing the trustee with Captain Queeg to calling the decorated 30-year Navy veteran a bitch. 

 

Not such a good time for Considine, who’s filed her own lawsuit against the district over the student records flap. To hear her tell it, you might actually think she has her own story to tell in all this. And—now get a load of this—you might actually find her side to all that bad ink rather compelling. 

 

Considine was elected as the district’s Area 4 trustee last year, ousting incumbent Carl Harris with more than 51% of the vote. Her time on the panel has been marked by repeated clashes with board president Dawn Brewer and other trustees on various issues, including student expulsion procedures and how best to manage the district’s money problems. Like all California school districts, Jurupa Unified is facing potentially catastrophic budget cuts from the state: Last month, the board voted to send out more than 200 layoff notices to teachers and counselors and to charge families for busing students. Considine voted against the layoff notices, but for the busing fees.

 

Tensions between Considine and her political opponents spilled into the public eye at a Jan. 5 board meeting, when she repeatedly corrected Brewer for referring to her as “Trustee Considine” and not “Captain Considine.” Three days later, Jurupa Superintendent Elliott Duchon stated in a letter that his duties required him “to address and refer to people in their school district role.” At a Jan. 20 meeting, Considine read a prepared statement in which she accused Jurupa Superintendent Elliott Duchon of “rude and abusive conduct” in directing others to refer to her as “Trustee Considine.”  

 

“One has a protected interest in one’s name, title and reputation,” the statement read. “That interest is protected by law.”

 

The statement was a colossal blunder on Considine’s part. It emboldened her opponents—Brewer publicly called the remarks “despicable.” To reporters, it played like a child throwing an embarrassing tantrum.

 

“A retired U.S. Navy officer and recently elected school board member is threatening to sue her colleagues if they do not use the title ‘Captain’ when addressing her at meetings,” wrote Riverside Press-Enterprise reporter Sandra Stokley. 

 

In the days and weeks that followed, blog posters and newspaper letter writers crucified Considine for what they saw as staggeringly petty behavior at a time when the district was in financial straits.

 

“This ain’t Prussia, babe,” wrote one poster, summing up the general reaction among observers. “This is America, and your ass is on the beach and retired. Get used to it.”

 

In letters to the Navy Times and Air Force Times, which reported on the “captain” dust-up, readers declared Considine had embarrassed the military with her comments. In his weekly IE Weekly column, “The Rundown,” writer Allen David described the trustee as a “pier queen.”

 

But a couple of things were missing in nearly every article written about the “Captain Considine” controversy, the first being that Considine is not your average beached Naval officer. 

 

Her military service, stretching back to 1973, earned her dozens of military and civilian honors, including two Navy commendations and the Alaska Humanitarian Services Medal. She answered the call to active duty more than 12 times, including stints in the Gulf War. Her career in the Navy was so distinguished that her accomplishments were read into the congressional record on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives when she retired from the service in 2004. 

 

But the biggest thing missing in the stories may be fairness. A closer look at Considine’s own Jan. 20 statement shows Considine wasn’t upset that her colleagues failed to address her as captain. She said she was upset that some of her colleagues—particularly board President Brewer and Superintendent Duchon—had told people not to address her as captain. 

 

“The superintendent, in an attempt to justify his instructing others not to address me as CAPT Considine, explains in a letter to me ‘ . . . It is important for the public to recognize you as a trustee,’” Considine stated. “In the 160 board meetings preceding my election, and in the agendas, and minutes of those meetings, members of this board were not addressed as trustee and no members of the public suffered debilitating confusion.”

 

Failing to address a retired military officer with a long and distinguished record is one thing. But telling others not to show the courtesy is something entirely else, particularly when the officer in question made her military career a big part of her school-board election campaign. Considine identified herself as ‘Captain Considine” in hundreds of campaign flyers, mailers and signs.  

 

That, she says, is the real reason behind Duchon and Brewer’s insistence on “Trustee Considine.” She says both the board president and the superintendent supported Harris in the November election, and view Considine’s use of her military title as a major reason why she defeated Harris so soundly. Now, she says, Duchon and Brewer hope to eliminate the “Captain Considine” brand to improve Harris’s chances in a future rematch.

 

“The district has never before addressed a member of the governing board as a trustee,” Considine says in an email to the Weekly. “This is an attempt to demean and diminish me to the level of the incumbent whom I defeated handily in the November 2008 election.”

 

The email was in reply to one sent to her husband, John McLaurin: Considine declined a Weekly request for a direct interview. McLaurin says that unfair treatment of his wife by P-E reporter Stokley has soured his wife toward the press. 

 

“Before she was Trustee Considine, she was Captain Considine,” McLaurin says in a phone interview. “It’s not like she started calling herself that when she got on the board. Her military career attracted a lot of attention when she was campaigning.” 

 

Neither Brewer nor Duchon could be reached for comment in time for this article. Duchon was quoted in a P–E article as saying it was “critical” for him to “address and refer to people according to their school board role,” while Brewer was quoted that addressing Considine as captain would be “unfair to the four other board members.”

 

But for all its juiciness, the captain flap was a sideshow compared to the student-records controversy that led to the district and Considine suing one another. 

 

According to the district’s lawsuit, filed March 3 in Riverside Superior Court, the problem began at a Dec. 8 board meeting, when the trustees were presented with binders containing confidential student-disciplinary records for review. Considine asked for permission to take the documents home with her “to review the cases in greater detail and better understand the process.” Considine “was allowed to do so, in part, because she was new to the board”—it’s not clear in the lawsuit who with the district did the allowing—but was told to return the records before the Christmas recess. She didn’t, and subsequently ignored numerous demands for their return before finally doing so Feb. 19—after district officials very publicly moved to take legal action against her. But, the lawsuit claims, Considine had “during the course of at least one board meeting” indicated that she’d made copies of the documents. 

 

The district is suing for the return of those alleged copies, and wants Considine to pay for the legal costs of the suit.

 

All of this was reported, with apparent accuracy, by the P-E. McLaurin doesn’t deny that Considine took the records home with her and held on to them for nearly two and a half months. Nor does he deny that copies were made, suggesting that Considine “may” have included copies of the documents in complaints she filed with the Riverside County District Attorney’s office and federal education officials. But he does accuse the P-E of slanted journalism for failing to present Considine’s stated motives for holding onto the documents. 

 

“The reason it’s taken more time [to review the documents] than before is Noreen will not vote on disciplinary packets as a whole,” McLaurin says. “They [district officials] would say, ‘Here’s 35 student cases: Should we vote on them as a whole?’ Noreen says, ‘No—we’re going to take them one at a time.’“

 

McLaurin says trustees are routinely asked to approve district disciplinary actions taken against students—including expulsions—in batches. Trustees are given little time to read the documents, let along debate whether the students were afforded protections given them under the law, he says. Moreover, he says, the documents themselves—like the records Considine is accused of copying—show that Jurupa Unified students frequently are not afforded those rights.

 

“These documents are not what the district says they are—they are not what the board says they are,” says McLaurin, adding that he has served on numerous occasions as a non-attorney advisor to students at disciplinary hearings. “These are type-written allegations and summaries and conclusions, all written by staff in the district administrative services office. They will make assertions that a certain student confessed that he had done a certain act. There is no documentation given to board members that would indicate this is true, except someone typing out that it’s true. There’s only an allegation, and that’s what board members are confronted with.”

 

McLaurin says the documents Considine took home with her clearly showed that district officials were violating students’ rights—and that is why district officials wanted them, and copies of them, back so desperately. It’s an allegation the district’s attorney categorically denies.

 

“The lawsuit is motivated only to ensure that the district undertakes its responsibility under state and federal law with respect to the confidentiality of student records,” says Steven DeBaun, a partner with the Riverside law firm of Best Best & Krieger.

 

Considine’s own lawsuit against the district, filed the same day the district sued her, accuses district officials of violating federal confidential-records law by dropping off student disciplinary records in places where non-district employees might see them—such as on the front porches of trustees’ homes. It also outlines numerous alleged improprieties by district officials related to the disciplinary files, including: claims by officials to trustees that the files contained admissions of guilt from students when no such admissions were included; students being suspended without due process; parents being made to sign away their rights in disciplinary hearings without being advised of those rights; and files containing no copies of evidence of wrongdoing by the students, or copies of witness statements of the alleged wrongdoing. 

 

“Once Noreen got on the school board, one of the first things she did was serve as an advocate for students,” says Considine’s attorney, Richard Ackerman. “She asked to review 15 cases of disciplinary actions, and was provided with packet that doesn’t tell her what the students did. Noreen’s a very sharp person—she knows how records are supposed to be kept. She knows how to run a ship.”

 

Whether Considine has courageously acted as “an advocate for students,” or whether she really is the bizarre egoist as she’s been portrayed in the media, is hardly clear. What is certainly clear is she has her own story to tell on the “captain” and student-records controversies—a story that’s not only compelling, but also decidedly newsworthy. But for reasons unknown, and despite dozens of news articles, blog posts and reader commentary on the controversies, her version of events went largely untold.

 

That’s unfortunate, because if Considine’s three decades of service to her country has earned her anything, it at least earned her the right to defend her name.    


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