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Falls accused Medford schools of discrimination

Former Jackson County Sheriff Corey Falls, who twice accused the county of inappropriate actions prior to his resignation last month, also filed a discrimination complaint against the Medford School District after the district denied a school transfer request for his daughter in 2012.

The Oregon Department of Education found discrimination may have existed, while the district's attorney said the state erred in its findings.

A settlement eventually was reached in which the district paid the Falls family $3,000 to cover legal expenses. The district admitted no wrongdoing and said it made the payment to avoid a costly hearings process.

The Mail Tribune obtained documents about the discrimination claim after filing a public records request.

Falls, who is African American, said in an interview he doesn't routinely bring up race-related allegations when he feels wronged. He said each of these complaints was valid.

"I've been turned down over the years many times. But I also have the nerve to speak out if things are inequitable or my family is targeted," Falls said.

During his time in the Rogue Valley, he said he has experienced occasional racism.

"The public overwhelmingly voted me into office, and the public, for the most part, has been supportive," he said of his election as sheriff. "But there have been isolated incidents."

Falls said it's hard to know whether racism in Southern Oregon is widespread, because minorities rarely speak out or file complaints.

"People don't openly complain about these types of things," he said. "Who knows if they'll be given a fair, equitable hearing?"

Falls had filed a discrimination complaint against Jackson County in 2006 when he was not hired for positions with the sheriff's office. He was working for Ashland police at the time, but the sheriff's office promoted staff members from within. The state dismissed his complaint.

After he became sheriff, Falls in 2015 filed a hostile work environment complaint against the county, saying he had been demeaned and humiliated by county administrators and the Budget Committee. A county-hired law firm concluded in a report that Falls hadn't been subjected to a hostile work environment, and he withdrew his complaint. Falls later said the report was biased and meant to silence him.

Falls resigned at the end of December to take a job as director of police services and 21st-century policing for the city of Gresham. Sheriff's Capt. Nathan Sickler was appointed sheriff this month to finish out Falls' term.

School district complaint

In spring 2012, Falls submitted a transfer request asking that his eighth-grade daughter, Jasmin, be allowed to attend South Medford High School, rather than the school she was slated to enter, North Medford.

Falls said his wife, a social worker, was involved with North Medford's Teen Parent Program and sometimes had to call the police and Oregon Department of Human Services about some of the girls. The girls potentially could have their children taken away. That situation created a safety risk for his daughter, he said.

Under the district's transfer criteria, children of school employees can transfer to or away from schools where their parents work. Students are not allowed to transfer because they prefer a sports program at a particular school.

Falls denied he was seeking the transfer request because his daughter, a promising basketball player, wanted to play for the South Medford girls basketball team, which was more successful than North Medford's. South Medford won the state championship in 2012 and has not lost a league game in six seasons.

The district denied the transfer request.

In past years, the district had not strictly adhered to its transfer criteria and was granting the majority of requests. But by 2012, it was cracking down on requests and more strictly enforcing its policies — resulting in a majority of requests being denied.

In an appeal letter, Falls said, "The perception is that transfer requests of students who no one knows about or will recognize are approved. There cannot be different standards where some transfers are approved outside of policy and some are not. This cannot be allowed in public schools."

After the transfer request was denied, the Falls family moved within South Medford's boundaries. However, Falls continued the appeals process because he said he felt he had been singled out and treated differently.

In a meeting with Superintendent Phil Long, Falls said his family was following the rules and had moved.

"To my surprise Dr. Long informed me that he knew that I had moved and openly told me that he had stopped by my residence the previous day and asked the work crew, who was working at my house, who was living there," Falls said in a complaint letter to the Medford School Board.

He said the home visit was extremely inappropriate and an invasion of privacy.

"We have been honest throughout this transfer process, and I just want to be left alone. I have given the School District no reason to assume that I am a liar," he said in the complaint letter.

He said staff at North Medford had threatened to report his daughter to the Oregon School Activities Association.

Falls said other minority families had faced extra scrutiny and the school district was showing a "pattern of discrimination, unfairness, and inconsistencies when dealing with minorities."

In an interview, he said he was acting on behalf of his family as well as other minority families.

"A lot of minority families were treated the same way," he said. "I took it forward on behalf of several families. I've had problems in Southern Oregon. I've voiced those concerns. It's embarrassing, so most people don't discuss it."

Falls said minorities usually remain silent when they encounter discrimination.

"You usually keep your mouth shut and you suck it up," he said. "There's a perception things like this don't happen."

The district responds

Thad Pauck, attorney for the school district, researched Falls' complaint and shared his findings with the Medford School Board.

He said school officials had made unannounced home visits in other transfer request cases, not just Falls' case.

Pauck pointed to two examples, one involving a student athlete, and one not involving an athlete. Neither was a minority student.

The athlete's family had provided documents purporting to show the athlete's address, including utility bills, property tax forms and the student's driver's license. However, after several home visits and discussions with neighbors, the district determined the student was not living there.

"Because the student had participated in high school athletics for a school that was not in the student's attendance area, the District was required to self-report the violation to the OSAA, resulting in the forfeiture of all games that the student had participated in," Pauck said in his findings.

The Fallses' move came closely on the heels of that matter. There was heightened awareness about the family's transfer request because of Jasmin Falls' participation in sports, Pauck wrote.

"I do not find that heightened awareness to be based on any discriminatory factors, and find that it was related solely to concerns with maintaining compliance with OSAA eligibility requirements," Pauck wrote.

He acknowledged the district did not have written policies about verifying residency in cases where students allegedly moved into a new attendance area.

Pauck recommended the district's policy committee establish criteria for what kinds of evidence could be accepted as proof of residency. He also recommended criteria for home visits, ranging from regularly conducting visits when students change address to responding only to complaints or suspicions.

He said parents should be told in advance home visits are possible, and if a visit is conducted when parents aren't home, a notice should be left that a district representative had made a visit.

Pauck said another family had a minority student who had transferred from the North Medford attendance area to the South Medford area. Family members said School Board member Jeff Thomas had driven by their new home numerous times, presumably for the purpose of verifying their residency. They said another person saw Thomas taking photos in front of their home.

They would also see him in his vehicle at a nearby intersection, but Pauck said Thomas lived in the general vicinity and denied knowing the addresses of specific students.

Both that family and the Falls family thought Thomas was trying to interfere with transfers of student athletes from North Medford, where Thomas' daughters participated in sports, to rival South Medford, Pauck wrote in his findings.

Thomas told Pauck he was a vocal proponent of strictly enforcing the district's transfer criteria, but had not made complaints about the transfer of any particular student.

During her time at South Medford, Jasmin Falls was successful in sports and academics, and is currently a freshman and basketball player at Portland State.

State findings

The Oregon Department of Education received Falls' complaint and issued its own findings in 2013.

The state has the option of finding that no substantial evidence exists for charges of discrimination, or it can find that discrimination may exist and conciliation should be attempted to reach an agreement between parties.

The state determined discrimination may exist.

"It was the harshest findings you could have from the state," Falls said in an interview.

The state said while the district was taking steps to prevent another student residency violation, its action had an unintended adverse impact on the Falls family.

"Additionally, the Complainant had followed all of the District's procedures, as requested, and did not appear to warrant the type of scrutiny as the prior circumstance. Finally, the Complainant's occupation deserved consideration in ensuring a level of privacy and notice relative to home visitation," the state said, referring to Falls' career in law enforcement.

In an apparent mistake, the state said Falls turned in his daughter's transfer application prior to the district changing its practices in 2011 to more strongly enforce transfer criteria. The state said Falls therefore had grounds to believe the transfer request would be approved.

Pauck, attorney for the district, said in an email the district had changed its transfer policy in March 2011, leading to fewer transfers being approved. The Falls family did not submit its transfer request until March 2012.

The settlement

The district and Corey Falls began discussions about the complaint in 2014, when he was running for Jackson County sheriff, Pauck said.

Falls wanted the district to pay his family $15,000 in moving expenses, Pauck said.

In a confidential settlement proposal letter, the district refused to pay moving expenses, but offered to pay legal fees. It also offered to continue cultural sensitivity training for district staff, create home visit policies including notification and agree to Falls' request to sign a confidentiality and nondisclosure agreement in exchange for him not taking further action against the district.

Falls responded that he could not accept the offer and planned to move forward on filing a federal lawsuit and making a complaint to the state Teacher Standards and Practices Commission.

"If you want to come up with some real solutions where the school district is held accountable, we can talk about that," he wrote back.

The Falls family requested a formal hearing before the Oregon Department of Education, but asked that it be held after the November 2014 election. Days after Falls was elected sheriff, his attorney offered to dismiss the complaint for $10,000 and the adoption of policies and procedures, many of which the district had put in place, Pauck said in an email.

Although the district believed there were no grounds for a finding of discriminatory conduct, it ultimately agreed to settle the matter for $3,000 in attorneys' fees — $1,500 of which was covered by the district's insurer, Pauck said.

"The payment was agreed to because it would have cost the District far more to actually conduct the hearing, regardless of the outcome," he said in the email.

The district did not admit to wrongdoing, and the Falls family agreed to withdraw all complaints and make no further claims.

"We firmly believed no discrimination took place," Pauck said in an interview.

As part of the settlement agreement, district Superintendent Brian Shumate, who was hired in 2014, after the episode, sent a letter of apology. It read, in part, "We certainly want fair and ethical treatment of all of our students and their families. I will ensure that each transfer request is given equal consideration based on a consistent set of guidelines."

Falls said in an interview his complaint was valid and resulted in the district making changes to its transfer policies so the process is more equitable for everyone.

— Reach staff reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

Former Sheriff Corey Falls claimed the district discriminated against his family after it denied his daughter's transfer request to South Medford, but the district said it enacted a more stringent policy on transfers after an OSAA violation by another student forfeited games. Mail Tribune file photo