From The Colorado Sun: Background check of DPS special ed director missed prior allegations of inappropriate behavior

Editor’s note: This article by Jennifer Brown of The Colorado Sun was reprinted with The Sun’s permission. The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported news outlet that covers the entire state. Learn more at coloradosun.com.

Denver Public Schools’ recently promoted special education director was hired by district officials who did not know he had been accused of making sexually inappropriate comments to high school girls when he was principal of a California school, where he had used a different first name.

Michael Winston, who went by the name Phil Winston when he was principal in Palo Alto, was paid $150,000 in a settlement with that district in 2015 after he was issued a notice of “unprofessional conduct and unsatisfactory performance.”

Denver Public Schools officials told The Colorado Sun that Winston passed a background check when he was hired because he had never been convicted — or even charged — with any crime, and that they only learned of the past allegations from a mom who was angry about her child’s special education services and threatened to “send this story to the press.”

The background check showed that Winston previously used a different first name, district officials said, but the background check process does not include searching the internet for any news articles or documents about a potential job candidate.

A quick search on Google produces several news articles from Palo Alto news outlets about Winston’s tumultuous tenure with that school district.

Denver schools officials told The Sun that the district stands by its decision to hire Winston and called his work for Denver Public Schools “exemplary.” He was hired two years ago as a special education instructional specialist, promoted to senior manager of special education about a year later, and promoted again in July to director of special education.

Winston declined to talk to The Sun for this story, but school district officials said none of the California issues surfaced during the hiring process. Since then, Winston has had “an open and honest discussion with his supervisors and explained the situation,” district spokesman Scott Pribble said. As director of the department, Winston doesn’t regularly work with students.

“There has been no need to take any action,” he said. “Mr. Winston has been an exemplary employee, as demonstrated by his two promotions since his initial hire.”

Winston’s past troubles in Palo Alto surfaced when a Denver mother asked for an array of special education services for her child and then threatened to expose Winston’s past when those services were denied, Denver schools officials said.

But at this point, it’s clear that numerous parents in the district know about what happened in Palo Alto and have raised concerns. The Sun heard about the situation from members of Colorado’s disability community, not from the mother who allegedly was upset about her child’s education plan.

Pribble said it was several months ago that the parent tried to pressure Winston into meeting her requests. “The family member threatened ‘to send this story to the press’ unless he complied with their demands,” Pribble said in an email. “He declined to do so.” Winston and DPS officials discussed the California allegations after his confrontation with the parent, Pribble said.

The matter has some parents of special education students asking questions about the background check process, which includes a fingerprint criminal records check through the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. The district also checks a candidate’s references, which must include at least one previous manager, Pribble said.

Pamela Bisceglia, executive director of a group called AdvocacyDenver that supports students with disabilities, said she and her members easily learned about the California allegations when they searched online for Winston’s name.

“When they hire a new special education director, we are in the habit of Googling and seeing what we can find,” she said. “I can’t even begin to explain whether he goes by Phillip or Michael or whatever.”

Bisceglia, who does not have a child in Denver Public Schools, said she emailed a Denver schools official after reading news reports from Palo Alto, where local news outlets, including the student newspaper, covered the allegations extensively. The administrator responded by looping in the district’s legal department and asking Bisceglia if she wanted to discuss the matter further, she said. Bisceglia wasn’t sure whether the district already knew about the issues.

Bisceglia said she worries because Winston is “in a position of trust with staff” and is overseeing a department with vulnerable students. She called the California allegations, which involved four female employees and six students, a significant issue.

Bisceglia said she was concerned that the district’s background check process, even after it revealed Winston had previously used a different name, was not thorough enough to uncover the past allegations. That, in some ways, is worse, she said, than if the district knew of the issues, reviewed them and decided to hire Winston anyway. For one, the oversight left the district open to threats from a parent.

Bisceglia said she did not know the mother who the district says threatened to expose Winston’s past. Many parents know about it by now, she said.

“It’s out there in the community,” Bisceglia said.

She’s also concerned that Winston lacks the appropriate license to serve as director of special education. Denver Public Schools officials said Winston is currently working toward achieving the special license.

Every district is required to have one employee who holds a special education director license, according to the Colorado Department of Education. The license requires a master’s degree in special education or completion of a similar program, plus at least two years of full-time experience working with students with disabilities.

Winston was paid $150,000 by Palo Alto Unified School District in exchange for resigning as a middle school special education teacher in 2015. He took that job after stepping down as principal of Palo Alto High School, where he was accused of making sexually inappropriate comments to students and staff.

Winston resigned as principal in 2013, citing health issues. Several months later, the Palo Alto Weekly obtained documents under public records laws that revealed he had been under investigation for allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior. He was issued a “notice of unprofessional conduct and unsatisfactory performance” following that investigation.

The allegations included that Winston made sexual comments, remarked on female students’ bodies and touched a female student’s ear. The Palo Alto district’s designated Title IX compliance officer wrote a five-page document detailing the alleged behavior.

Winston was reassigned to teach a middle school special education class, then left the district with a settlement. The circumstances surrounding the settlement were not disclosed, the Palo Alto Weekly reported.

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