Kern High School District officials are exploring the possibility of shuttering access to a police information database system, or even doing away with its independent police force, following allegations that top-level administrators misused the system, board President Mike Williams said Thursday.
Those allegations surfaced this past week when KBAK Eyewitness News reporter and Californian columnist Jose Gaspar obtained an explosive Kern County Sheriff’s Office investigative report. It quoted high school district Police Chief Joe Lopeteguy as saying administrators and employees improperly used the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (CLETS) to run background checks on students.
Officials are only supposed to use the database for law enforcement purposes.
The report has district trustees questioning whether there are deficiencies in the KHSD Police Department’s chain of command and whether the district needs access to CLETS. Some are even questioning whether the district needs its own police force, Williams said.
“I’d say everything is on the table,” he said. “It would be my opinion that we’re better off having our own, but we’ve got to do a much better job. It’s hard for a school district to also be a police department. The police department has got to have some strong leadership in there and some strong systems and we’ve taken some steps to look at that, too.”
Williams has talked to Superintendent Bryon Schaefer about the matter, he said. What there hasn’t been, however, is any full board meeting to address it.
At least one trustee, Jeff Flores, has requested such a meeting. Williams said one was going to be called for Thursday morning, but Schaefer postponed it. (Note: board trustees are the bosses of the superintendent and can call meetings on their own.)
“I don’t know the reason for it, but I trusted Dr. Schaefer has a very good reason for it. He’s earned that trust,” Williams said.
Some trustees say that in general there’s been a lack of communication between board members and administrators over the entire matter.
In addition to not hearing back on his call for a meeting, Flores said that when trustees were informed two months ago about a potential misuse of CLETS, administrators told him it was a personnel matter under investigation and they couldn’t elaborate.
“I think we’re having some communications issues internally,” Trustee Phillip Peters said. “I get the sensitivity of some of it being a personnel matter, but I don’t feel we’ve gotten as much information on the issue as we’d like to have.”
He also commended Lopeteguy, who’d been put on administrative leave after making his accusations, for blowing the whistle.
District officials issued a statement to The Californian Thursday continuing to say they couldn’t comment.
“The issue has been discussed with the Board of Trustees and will continue to be addressed with the board as information becomes available. The KHSD is unable to comment further due to an ongoing investigation,” district spokeswoman Lisa Krch said in an emailed statement.
Williams said he has been privy to more information from and discussions with Schaefer because he is the board president, something Flores took issue with.
“We should be briefed about it collectively, not any one board member. No one should be excluded. The collective board should weigh in on this,” Flores said.
The Sheriff’s Office reports quoted KHSD staff as saying Athletics Director Stan Greene asked for some license plates to be run to keep tabs on student athletes. When Lopeteguy protested because it was illegal, Greene complained to his boss, Director of Pupil Personnel Otis Jennings, who reportedly said it had never been an issue for former district Chief Mike Collier.
The Sheriff’s Office recommended criminal misdemeanor charges against Collier and Jennings for allegedly furnishing information obtained from CLETS to a person not authorized to receive it. But the District Attorney’s office declined to prosecute due to lack of evidence.
Williams said one possible way to address the problem is to revoke KHSD Police Department access to the database.
“Maybe we should only have access through the sheriff, or the Bakersfield police,” Williams said. “I do believe that our police do need access to it, but maybe we need another layer between so that it doesn’t get misused in the future. People need to understand that when they make mistakes there’s a price.”
This isn’t the first time administrators have dabbled in district police matters. KHSD Officer Keith Powers testified during a trial this summer that it isn’t unusual for administrators to fill out district police department witness reports and suggest whether they pursue criminal charges.
The statement called into question the autonomy of the police force, and whether officers answered to a chief, or an administrator.
Williams said that there’s “definitely improvements” that need to be made within the department, and potentially with the chain of command.
Lopeteguy currently answers to a civilian — a staffer who works for Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Brenda Lewis, Williams said.
“Someone in her department is the acting commissioner who he reports to, who then reports to Brenda [Lewis],” Williams said. “I don’t know if that’s the problem but I think there’s going to be changes in that.”