A teacher’s slur roils La Cañada School District

In October, Cindy Wilcox, then a member of the La Cañada Unified School District’s (LCUSD) Board of Governors, made public that she had filed an official complaint against a teacher at the district’s high-performing public high school. The public reaction was mixed, immediate — and intense.

The complaint alleges that Gabrielle Leko, a tenured math teacher at La Cañada High School, made bigoted remarks during the 2011-12 school year to students in her ninth-grade honors geometry class, including calling a Jewish student “Jew boy.”

Wilcox, who earlier this month stepped down after two four-year terms on the LCUSD board, said in a recent interview that some who live in La Cañada Flintridge, a wealthy city in the San Gabriel Valley, have thanked her for speaking up.

“But other people,” Wilcox said, “said this should never be public.” One particularly blunt letter published in the La Cañada Valley Sun, a local weekly newspaper, began with the sentence, “Cindy Wilcox should be ashamed of herself and leave La Cañada!”

Wilcox filed the complaint in June after hearing reports from parents of Leko’s students. But because none of those parents would attach their names to her official complaint, Wilcox decided to go public in October in the hope of finding a parent or student who might corroborate firsthand, on the record, the allegations against the teacher.

Speaking with The Jewish Journal in November, Wilcox said her complaint referenced a number of biased comments allegedly made by Leko, including remarks targeting an Armenian student, female students and a student with a stutter, in addition to allegedly calling one unnamed Jewish student “Jew boy” and “my little latke.”

Unbeknownst to Wilcox, Debra Archuleta and her daughter, Alyssa Stolmack, now a 10th-grader at La Cañada High School and a student in Leko’s 2010-11 class, also had complained about Leko’s remarks. In February and March 2011, Archuleta had contacted Jackie Luzak, the school’s principal, and Stolmack also attempted to raise the issue with a counselor at La Cañada High School.

Despite their efforts, nothing happened, Archuleta told a packed LCUSD board meeting on Nov. 15. It was only when Archuleta learned of Wilcox’s complaint in an article in a local newspaper that she and her daughter decided to become the public face of the case against Leko.

“There has not been one other parent in this town that has been willing to do what my daughter and I have been willing to do, and I think it’s frankly shameful,” Archuleta said at the November meeting.

For Jews who live in La Cañada Flintridge, the situation has raised questions about anti-Semitism.

“Pasadena, San Marino, La Cañada — these have historically been kind of unwelcoming to minorities,” said Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater of the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center. “All these areas had quotas on Jews.”

Grater estimates that at least 25 member families of his synagogue’s 520 live in La Cañada, which has no synagogue of its own.

Rabbi Rick Schechter of Temple Sinai of Glendale, which also draws families from La Cañada, said that in six years on the pulpit he has heard a few stories about anti-Semitic comments being made in area schools.

“Of the three instances that come to my mind,” Schechter said, a number that includes the Leko case, “two involve people of authority working for the school systems. It’s not a large number, it’s not an epidemic, but it’s certainly shocking.”

Still, many Jewish parents of LCUSD students or graduates say they don’t see anti-Semitism as a pervasive problem in the area.

“I have never encountered any signs of anti-Semitism or bias based on our ethnicity [Jewish] or country of origin [Israel],” Avi Zirler, a manager for a major Southern California utility company who has lived in La Cañada for 16 years, wrote in an e-mail. “Our kids, both graduates of LCUSD, do not bear scars of anti-Semitism either.”

As for Leko, Zirler called her “an equal opportunity offender.”

Leko declined to be interviewed for this article and is still teaching in the classroom.

An investigation conducted by an LCUSD assistant superintendent found Leko had “made inappropriate comments containing gender and ethnic bias during exchanges of banter with students during class time,” according to a Nov. 12 memorandum published by La Cañada Flintridge Patch.com. The memo directed Leko “to participate in individualized sensitivity and diversity training” and said the board could take additional disciplinary action.

The LCUSD board met in closed session before and after its Dec. 6 meeting, but did not announce any actions. Before the meeting, two newly elected board members were sworn in, one of them Andrew Blumenfeld, a 20-year-old student at Princeton University who is Jewish.

The board is scheduled to meet again in closed session on Dec. 21 to discuss the Leko matter.