The Principal Matter

Teachers said Principal Gil Cho was dictatorial. Students said he manhandled them. The school district said he was doing a good job.

"Then came Mr. Cho," Holland wrote. Staff meetings became an uncomfortable chore, Cho made unilateral and arbitrary decisions and reassignments, and new teachers were not given the support they needed. Although she isn't usually a complainer, Holland insisted, she "cannot allow this man to continue to take down the school I care about so much."

A letter from math teacher Jesse Alsip, who was new to the district in 2007, touches on Cho's discipline, resource, and retaliation issues. Alsip replaced another teacher who quit three days after the school year began. The classroom, he remembers, was completely unmanageable. In his letter, Alsip — who says Cho warned him not to join the Union Building Committee — complains of receiving no support from the principal. He was short 117 textbooks, he writes, which forced him to make 10,000 copies (the annual district limit per teacher) of course material.

Additionally, the students were "defiant, disruptive, and threatening of my health," Alsip wrote. "Students faced little or no consequences because throughout the year, the principal refused to enforce the schoolwide discipline plan passed by 80 percent of our school site through union negotiations."

Dr. Martin Luther King Academic Middle school will have a new principal next year.
Rodney Dilger
Dr. Martin Luther King Academic Middle school will have a new principal next year.

Several months after Alsip started, an unruly group of students took control of the classroom and seized his laptop. According to Alsip, six students told the principal they discovered inappropriate content on the computer (Alsip didn't say what the students claimed to have found), and Cho put Alsip on unpaid leave for more than three weeks. At the end of an investigation, Alsip was cleared of the charge, he says.

But teaching a rowdy class didn't get any easier for Alsip, and Cho gave Alsip a "needs improvement" on his evaluation and recommended to the Board of Education that his contract not be renewed. It was not. Alsip — who said he collects disability checks for the emotional instability brought on by Cho — plans to file a grievance with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH).

He won't be the first.

In 2006, math teacher Michael McCacchren filed a grievance accusing Cho of discrimination and giving him negative evaluations based on a disability. The DFEH investigation took more than a year and included more than 900 pages of documentation. Although the district disputed McCacchren's claim, the DFEH issued him a right to sue and the district wound up settling. It agreed to remove three of Cho's evaluations from McCacchren's file, and he withdrew his complaint.

Another kind of complaint has come from two students, one in 2007 and one in 2008, who both accused the principal of patting their behinds. Both times, teachers quickly reported Cho to Child Protective Services. The district investigated the incidents and determined that the claims were unfounded, but will not release documents.

SF Weekly has obtained the more recent of those two reports. The school site harassment/discrimination resolution form states that although Cho did touch the male student on the behind, it was not done for sexual gratification or to "negatively impact the student's academic performance."

That was news to the kid's mother. After the incident, she went to see Cho, who she says denied the incident ever occurred. Meanwhile, her son's classmates began teasing him and calling him gay. "It really broke his spirit," she says. She then brings up the other incident that has had the school abuzz.

In January, several students and teachers say they saw Cho put a headlock on a sixth-grade girl and punch another in the arm.

Had Cho finally crossed the line?

Near the top of Bacon Street in the Portola District sits a four-tier stack of brown apartments that resembles a wedding cake. Marquesha McClendon, the sixth grader who says she was punched by her principal, has been living in the second layer since 2000.

The past two years haven't been her family's best, which is reflected in the home's decor. The adjacent, well-kept living room and kitchen, filled with family photos, plants, and one large goldfish in a giant tank, look fairly standard. But those who know this home intimately know it is a memorial ground.

John-John the leafy green kitchen plant is named after McClendon's uncle, who died in a car accident on February 17, 2007. Another plant, Maebell Perkins, sits in the corner, a reminder of McClendon's great-grandmother, who died a few months ago. Her husband had passed away just a few months before.

The giant goldfish is named Last, because he's the only one left out of 12. And the tank itself serves as a reminder of the hardest thing McClendon has ever had to go through — the loss of her father to prostate cancer in 2006.

"James had a way with the goldfish," says McClendon's mother, Latrelle Gaddies, who is giving a tour of her home. "He played with 'em. He stuck his hand in the fishtank. They knew him."

Gaddies, a petite, opinionated woman with a crop of magenta-highlighted hair, says her daughter — a daddy's girl — took his death hard. She began acting out and throwing tantrums, and her grades in school began to slip. The family clung to their faith and attended Olivet Baptist Church, where McClendon sings in the choir every Sunday.

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