Tony Thurmond’s only experience in overseeing schools was his term as a West Contra Costa Unified School District Board Member. The Obama Administration’s Department of Education Office for Civil Rights investigated Thurmond’s district and found a climate of widespread sexual harassment across school campuses during his term on the school board. The findings strongly criticized the district for failing to set appropriate policies, take corrective action, address student concerns, or protect those who had come forward as victims.
The investigation pointed out the pervasive nature of sexual harassment across school campuses, in hallways, classrooms, and in the gymnasium. Sexual harassment and assaults of students had occurred between students. There were also cases where adult staff had harassed students, which were mishandled by the district.
The findings of the investigation pointed out that, due to the mishandling of sexual assault and harassment in the district, students were being denied their fundamental right to an education guaranteed under Title IX.
The investigation revealed serious shortcomings in how the district addressed issues related to sexual harassment. These included systemic failures of policy and oversight, which reflects poorly on the district and the school board.
The investigation was spurred by two high-profile sexual assaults including a rape by several men of a female student after a high school homecoming dance, as well as a high school coach making inappropriate contact with female players. Although the district took some steps, including reporting the incident to local authorities and expelling the alleged offenders, the Office for Civil Rights’ report was highly critical of the district for failing to address student trauma and protect students in the aftermath.
At a district elementary school, "a substitute teacher’s inappropriate touching and sexually inappropriate language directed at certain students…was witnessed by an entire sixth grade class." But the district "took no action to assess and address the impact of the harassment on the numerous students who experienced and witnessed it."
The teacher was fired, but the district "did not inform the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing" so it could conduct the proper follow-up investigation. "Indeed, several months later, the district erroneously rehired the substitute to teach at the same elementary school."
The investigation found various "female students who experienced unwanted touching said that it made them angry or sad, while others described feelings of resignation and a sense that the conduct was inevitable."
The OCR found one of the reasons students didn’t report harassment or assault was because they had a "sense that the conduct is normal or condoned…They stated that they do not tell teachers because teachers often appear either not to care or are afraid to respond to the incidents."
Witnesses told the OCR "that staff only infrequently refer students to counselors or administrators to respond to conduct that might constitute sexual harassment."
The investigation went into detail about what went on in these incidents:
Title IX Civil Rights law "requires school districts to designate at least one person to coordinate their efforts to comply with and carry out their responsibilities under Title IX…"
However according to the OCR, at the beginning of the investigation, "the district had not designated an individual to coordinate the district’s efforts to comply with and carry out its responsibilities…other than in the area of athletics…"
The investigation also found "the majority of administrators and employees interviewed…were not sufficiently aware of the types of conduct that constitute sexual harassment, were uncertain of their responsibility to respond to such conduct, and received minimal training..." The OCR also stated "the schools did not have procedures or district-wide guidance for responding" to sexual harassment or assault.
The investigation determined students in the district often "do not understand the conduct they are experiencing constitutes harassment…[or]…that they have a right to complain..." or they have "a belief that staff will not respond effectively…"
During his term on the West Contra Costa School Board, Tony Thurmond was sued by the ACLU and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights for leaving at-risk students in dangerous, decrepit conditions.
Tony's West Contra Costa School District oversaw the Community Day School Program, which was supposed to serve Richmond's "most vulnerable, disenfranchised students…". However, these students were shamefully neglected. Their "classroom" was really two portable trailers with rotting floors and no bathroom. Rodents lived in the trailers and left behind feces on the floor.
The lawsuit said the conditions were so bad that they violated the students' fundamental right to an education.
The lawsuit described the conditions at the school, noting that the so-called "classrooms" were "really two dilapidated trailers" located on "a contaminated construction site." The trailers that functioned as classrooms were quite literally falling apart with warped, rotting floors growing mushrooms. Classrooms were filled with trash and rodent feces.
Tony Thurmond and his colleagues at the school district "failed to budget any meaningful amount of money for materials and supplies." According to the lawsuit, the Community Day School Program was "continually understaffed…lacks any counseling and guidance resources," and was "unable to maintain a permanent teacher fully credentialed to administer the math and science curricula…" This lack of resources was so acute, that, according to the lawsuit, "teachers have resorted to…scrounging for useable books in the on-campus trash heap."
According to the ACLU, the district was informed several years prior to the lawsuit, but took no action to address complaints from parents and students:
Rather than address the controversy or fix the problem, Thurmond quit the School Board. When Thurmond had a chance to step up and actually help these kids, he passed them on to someone else to deal with.
He did, however, in announcing his decision to quit the School Board, declare that he was considering a run for the State Assembly two years later.
In addition to the scandals detailed above, Tony Thurmond’s district had notably poor academic performance and gross financial mismanagement.
A 2011 study by Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based advocacy group, graded 146 large California school districts in four categories: performance, improvements, gaps, and college readiness as they relate to African American, Latinx, and low-income students.Thurmond’s district ranked "at the bottom, and with the only overall F grade…" 1
Thurmond’s district also saw graduation rates fall to the second-lowest in the county among districts of similar size, and a 37% increase in truancy during his term on the school board. 2
According to the East Bay Times, the district was in such poor financial shape during Thurmond’s term that it nearly went bankrupt and was at risk of being taken over the by the State. This situation forced the district to lay off more than 100 teachers, and dozens of workers and administrators. 3
To make matters worse, a report by the Davenport Institute at the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy found that 48% of the district’s non-capital expenditures were spent on administration and other "outside the classroom" items during the district's financial turmoil. 4
On Tony Thurmond’s watch, the West Contra Costa School District’s construction program became one of the most expensive, inefficient, and mismanaged in the state. The scandal culminated in 2016 with a grand jury investigation into allegations of mismanagement, fraud, and the wasting of millions in taxpayer dollars during Thurmond’s tenure. It found that politically well-connected contractors were bilking the district out of money. 5
According to the East Bay Times, the investigation found that under Thurmond’s watch, his district gave the Seville Group, the construction firm which oversaw the district’s taxpayer-funded construction projects, "rent-free office space, a 10 percent markup on general contracting reimbursements and reimbursement for office furnishings, supplies and cellular service, as well as substantial increases in pay, averaging 69 percent, when 10 or 20 percent would have been reasonable."In 2008, while campaigning for School Board, Thurmond had criticized other candidates for accepting contributions from the Seville Group, because the firm managed the District’s construction projects. 6
But after he was elected, Thurmond accepted a $2,500 contribution from the very same firm. 7
In 2017, when in the State Assembly, Thurmond had a chance to vote for AB 776, which would create more transparency in the school bond process. But Thurmond abstained, failing to vote on the bill at all .8
In response, the East Bay Times issued a scathing editorial, saying: 9
Tony Thurmond is running for Superintendent of Public Instruction as a progressive, but what he won’t mention is that his campaign is being boosted by $1 million from a PAC representing California’s prison guards. 1 California already spends four times more on each prisoner than on each student—$75,500 vs. $16,000—but in 2018 Thurmond voted to significantly raise the salaries of prison guards. 2 3 The prison industry wants Thurmond as the leader of our public schools.
This is not the first time that special interests have thrown financial support behind Thurmond. He owes his current seat in the Assembly to huge Super PAC spending from Big Oil and Big Tobacco companies, and throughout his multiple political campaigns, he’s benefited from support from pharmaceutical companies, payday lenders, and more.
In 2014, when Thurmond ran for Assembly, $634,000 in special interest cash poured into the race on his behalf, including from Big Oil and Big Tobacco.
The Alliance for California’s Tomorrow spent $411,000 in support of Thurmond. The Super PAC was funded by Big Oil and Big Tobacco. 4
In 2015, the Independent Voter Project paid for Thurmond to attend their annual conference in Maui. According to the LA Times, the group receives its funding from oil and tobacco. 5
Thurmond has taken other special interest cash throughout his career, including: 6
Since his election to the Assembly, Tony Thurmond has been part of the problem in Sacramento, blocking progress on education. Major newspapers in both Southern and Northern California have criticized Thurmond for his failure to stand up to the status quo to help students.
The San Diego Union-Tribune editorialized against a political stunt Thurmond pulled in Sacramento to kill a bill that would have helped ensure students had more effective teachers, calling Thurmond’s stunt "typical of Sacramento" and "pathetic." 1
San Francisco Chronicle, Thurmond’s hometown paper, refused to endorse him for State Superintendent, editorializing that, "where Thurmond falls short, however, is evidence of his willingness to take on the status quo when its comfort zone conflicts with the interests of students. A prime example was legislation last year (AB1220) that would have extended the number of years required for teachers to earn tenure from two to three….": 2
The bill Thurmond helped kill, AB 1220, would have extended the minimum time for teachers to earn tenure from 18 months to 3 years. It was written by Democrat Shirley Weber, a former professor and School Board president. The bill had bipartisan support, passing the Assembly 60 to 5. According to the LA Daily News, "even a strong majority of teachers think the tenure period is too short." 3
Thurmond authored AB 1164, which would increase protections for the lowest-performing teachers by giving teachers who failed to improve an additional third year of probation.
In 2017, Thurmond helped kill AB 1482, which would have enabled parents of foster kids, English language learners, and low-income students to transfer to public schools more easily. [Assembly Education Committee, 5/10/17] The Folsom Telegraph noted the bill failed "despite receiving bipartisan support." 4
In 2015, Thurmond spoke in opposition to Democrat Shirley Weber’s AB 1495, which would have held schools accountable for ensuring every child has an effective teacher and specified multiple examples of evidence of student learning for use in performance evaluations.
Thurmond declared his position that evidence of student learning should not be used when evaluating teacher performance, saying "I’ve never really liked linking the student’s performance to their teacher’s performance." 5
In 2017, Thurmond also voted for the original AB 1661 proposal, which would have repealed critical school accountability measures relating to academic performance and allowing principals to refuse transfers of ineffective teachers. 6