In a highly unusual mid-schoolyear decision, Stanislaus Military Academy Principal Alberto Velarde has been removed from his job as at the Turlock campus where numerous alleged incidents of misconduct occurred.
Velarde now holds an assistant position under the Superintendent within the Stanislaus County Office of Education’s Alternative Education Program. His transfer became official after the holiday break.
In addition, SMA’s Director of Community Services, Fred Bigler, was relocated to SCOE’s offices in Downtown Modesto. He maintains his same title and job description in the new location.
Troubles Bubbled to Surface at SMA
Velarde was placed on paid administrative leave in mid-October when SCOE launched an “external” investigation into a claim of student abuse at the campus.
The claim came from a parent, Frances Sanchez, who said her son Reece suffered a broken wrist after a drill instructor allegedly shook a table he was sleeping on. Sanchez said the drill instructor's action caused him to fall off the table, break his wrist and hit his head hard enough for blood to be drawn.
Sanchez says she was recently notified the investigation found no evidence of fault with the drill instructor or administration. She maintained at the time of the complaint that video surveillance of the incident was doctored.
She also made verbal complaints that her niece, Alexandria Flores, was refused access to Student Support Advocates (similar to counselors) at the school by administration. Flores later committed suicide. Sanchez maintains that Flores, who was 16 at the time of her death, could have been helped if she was given access to counseling services.
No official investigation was ever launched involving Sanchez’s claims involving Flores.
Reece Sanchez was pleased to learn Velarde had been transferred from the campus.
“I might want to go back there and graduate now,” he said.
SMA Cloaked in Controversy
Shortly before Sanchez went public with her concerns about SMA, a group of parents requested a meeting with TurlockCityNews.com where they voiced their concerns and listed allegations.
While no other official claims for investigations were made, Velarde, Bigler and other staff and administration officials came under heavy fire from the group of parents and union representatives. They made a litany of claims including excessive verbal abuse, physical assaults, failures of administration to act as mandated reporters, teacher misconduct with students, sexual misconduct, intimidation of staff, forced teaching of religion, fabrication of grades, lack of balance between educational opportunities versus physical or military training, staff and administration’s failure to acknowledge student medical issues and, lastly, misappropriation of parent club funds.
Even the “external “investigation of the incident involving Frances Sanchez’s son Reece was questioned. The investigator, Kelsey Olson, was a paralegal for SCOE’s law firm, Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo. While she was not officially employed physically at the SCOE office, she did work in the firm’s Pleasanton office.
In an effort to discover the truth at SMA TurlockCityNews.com filed a California Public Records request for e-mails between Velarde, Bigler and SCOE Superintendent Tom Changnon.
Of the approximately 800 pages of e-mails, dating back two years, nearly 200 entire pages were left blank with simply the word “REDACTED” across them in bold blank ink. When asked what these pages were, a representative from Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo indicated they were communications that fell under attorney-client privilege.
Student: Assault Not Taken Seriously
One former SMA student, Salina Montoya, says she was physically assaulted by Velarde on March 21 of last year. Though SCOE launched an investigation into the incident, it was done half-heartedly, she said.
Montoya says she got into a verbal altercation with another student inside a classroom and Velarde physically grabbed her from behind, placed her hand behind her back, shoved her outside the classroom and slammed her on the ground.
Velarde is described as an average adult male size. Montoya is about 5 feet tall, 100 pounds. Montoya said she suffered a bruise to her face as a result of the impact with the ground.
“I was terrified, he is a grown man, I was screaming for Mr. (Fred) Berry to help me. Velarde grabbed me by my shirt and slammed me on the ground once we got outside,” she said.
A copy of a medical report supplied by Montoya indicated neck and shoulder pain, which Montoya says she continues to suffer from and that she takes two pain medications as a result.
Montoya filed a report with SCOE in which she claimed Velarde violated her rights by assaulting her and she listed two staff members, including Berry, as witnesses to the alleged assault.
The SCOE Human Resources Dept conducted an investigation, interviewing seven witnesses. Their report found no fault with Velarde.
“You (Montoya) and another female student were engaged in a verbal confrontation,” the report reads. 'You swept the book and other materials off your desk, grabbed your jacket and swung your desk towards the wall. Mr. Velarde told you to go with him to the office. As you moved towards the door, you passed the teacher’s desk and swept papers and a metal file tray off of the desk. At that point, Mr. Velarde restrained you and moved you towards the outside door.”
Berry was later laid off from SMA, but in recent weeks has been reinstated to his position after a lengthy grievance hearing. It is believed by several sources, including his attorney, that Berry was laid off because he was refused to give a statement in favor of Velarde.