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Elementary school principal accused of repeated discrimination against Latino families
Marshall Elementary School. Photo: Valeria Olguín

For the past 12 years, Peter Avila has been the principal of the San Francisco immersion school Marshall Elementary, but a series of complaints have recently emerged regarding Avila’s leadership, in particular, his lack of bilingual communication and multiple allegations that he discriminates against Latino families.

The complaints, which go back years, have been brought forward by multiple former parents and Marshall community members, who say that Avila has created a hostile environment for students, teachers and parents.

“He [Avila] doesn’t support the community and when I say ‘the community’ I mean the school community and the Mission community in which the school exists. He treats the white families and the Latino families very differently,” said Susan Cieutat, an organizer and former parent at Marshall. Cieutat was one of four parents who made complaints public during a March 12, 2019 meeting of SFUSD Board of Education.

It wasn’t the first time that parents had approached the Board of Education regarding Avila.

On May 29, 2018, six parents sent testimonies regarding Avila’s behavior via email to the Board of Education and Superintendent Vincent Matthews. The testimonies alleged Avila being adversarial with parents, eliminating tutoring programs and parent-student lunches, and making important decisions without first consulting Marshall parents and teachers.

Beatriz Gudino, whose child went to Marshall Elementary back in 2009 and is herself a Marshall alumni, has also questioned Avila’s leadership.

In 2009, Gudino said her daughter’s kindergarten teacher was physically disciplining the students.

“There was a teacher that had been targeting three kids and was pulling their ears,” Gudino said, explaining that when kids were sitting at the edge of their seats, the teacher would pull the chairs from under them while pulling their ears. “My daughter was one of them, but we didn’t find out this was going on until the end of the school year.”

According to Gudino, parents were not notified of what was occurring in the kindergarten class despite the administration and Avila being aware of the situation. Parents were only notified at the end of the school year, at which time the teacher was transferred.

“They moved her [the teacher] to fourth grade and during that time a lot of white parents came in,” said Guidino. “There were a lot of white parents complaining and they wanted to get her out and with those voices, he [Avila] paid attention, but he didn’t pay attention when it was the Latino parents.”

Gicella Galves de Alvarenga is another former parent at Marshall elementary who had a negative experience with Avila. According to Galves de Alvarenga, Avila allegedly shouted at her in the school yard in front of children, because he had sent her a letter telling her she wasn’t allowed at the school without his authorization.

“On March 23, he intimidated me and he started shouting that I had to go to the office to sign in if I wanted to enter the school, although I was already in the school yard,” said Galves de Alvarenga.

After the altercation, Galves de Alvarenga immediately went to the school office signed her daughter out of Marshall for the day and never returned. She has since transferred her daughter to a different elementary school.

Incidents such as these have motivated parent and community organizers to file multiple complaints against Avila to the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD). Though El Tecolote has confirmed that these complaints were filed to the district, parents and alumni still haven’t received a response. Despite multiple emails, El Tecolote has yet to receive a comment from the SFUSD.

“We have been complaining about problems and this principal since my daughter was in school,” said Guidino. “I really think it’s an injustice to the families and you see the treatment at the border, and SF considers themselves a sanctuary city but they can’t even get it right in one little school.”

According to the Marshall community members that El Tecolote spoke with, school traditions such as parent story time, parent-student lunchtime, El Dia Del Niño and parent involvement in general have slowly been diminishing under Avila’s watch. These school traditions have been an integral part of the school’s identity. And parents say their removal have led to a tense and unwelcoming school climate.

“That’s what he does,” said a current Marshal teacher, who requested to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. “He has other people talk to the Latino parents and tell them they’re not supposed to be here, that they’re distracting with learning and distracting the kids.”

Parents sharing meals with their kids has been an important cultural tradition at Marshall elementary. This was extremely beneficial given that a large population of the Marshall parents have jobs that require them to work evening shifts, which then results in parents not spending much time with their kids.

Sharon Hoff is a recent Marshall Elementary parent whose daughter just transitioned from Marshall to middle school. Hoff has seen the decline of the parent/child lunches throughout the years.

“For a lot of the Latino parents, that was the only time they could visit with their kids because they had afternoon jobs in the evening,” said Hoff. “They basically cut it down from every day to once a week to once a month and they basically just cut it out entirely.”

The complaints against Avila go deeper than the removal of traditions at Marshall. According to Galves de Alvarenga, Avila uses intimidation tactics to run the school.

Galves de Alvarenga, says that Avila utilizes the phrase: “you’re in trouble” towards children despite the word being banned from the SFUSD. SFUSD Instead encourages teachers to use words phrased like “take time to reflect” or “time-out.”

One incident in particular that Galves de Alvarenga spoke with El Tecolote about involved Avila allegedly grabbing a child by the arm and telling him, “he was in trouble.”

“A este niño en particular lo estremisio con los hombros lo toco y lo puso contra la pared,” said Galves de Alvarenga.

“With this particular child, he shook him by the shoulders and put him against the wall,” Galves de Alvarenga said.

Avila’s inability to communicate with the Marshall’s Spanish-speaking community has also been a point of contention, which has resulted in the Latino community feeling excluded. According to Schooldigger.com, a website that helps parents evaluate schools, 85 percent of the Marshall community are Spanish speakers and because of that, PTA meetings have always been held in Spanish. However, because Avila is not bilingual, PTA meetings are now held in English, and Spanish speakers have to wear headsets to translate the meetings.

Hoff attended a School Site Council and English Learner Advisory Committee meeting on Saturday, March 3, 2018, and witnessed the lack of effort that was put into the Latino community being able to understand the information that was being presented.

“There was a presentation, none of which were translated in Spanish, even though there are a bunch of only Spanish speaking people who attended,” said Hoff. “Then he got a bunch of numbers wrong and his excuse was that he had just prepared it that morning . . . so [Avila has] a very kind of like blasé attitude towards his responsibilities.”

According to the Marshall Elementary teacher that El Tecolote spoke with, everybody who is being hired at Marshall elementary has to have Spanish/English teaching credentials.

Avila doesn’t have such a credential, which has surprised many teachers and parents. According to Transparent California, as of 2017 Avila’s annual salary was $103,285.

Avila’s lack of credentials is not only concerning for students, but for the Spanish-language educators as well. Teachers are evaluated every two years, and Avila sits in to evaluate the lessons for both English and Spanish classes. If Avila (who doesn’t speak Spanish) gives a teacher a bad evaluation, the educator has the right to ask what changes need to be made to the lesson.

This has created a problem for Spanish-language educators because not only does Avila not understand the lesson fully, but he does not have the capability to give Spanish-language educators instruction on how to teach.

“This is how you evaluate someone’s career,” said the educator from Marshall. “If you understand the gist of it and he says you are doing something wrong twice, that means you go into probation and you’re one step away from losing your job, only because he got ‘the gist’ of your lesson, and that’s what I resent. It’s that someone’s career is on the line because someone doesn’t understand what I’m teaching.”

Attempts to reach Avila for this story were unsuccessful.

Story by: Jacqueline Pinedo