Fresno Unified Trustee Terry Slatic threatened to block a Bullard High School assistant wrestling coach from future jobs with the district during a confrontation sparked when Slatic demanded that coaches cancel a wrestling practice, according to an investigative report released Thursday.
Slatic, the subject of numerous complaints that he has harassed and bullied students and an Army recruiter on the Bullard campus, likely violated board policy that requires trustees to “act with dignity” and to refrain from attempting to direct school employees, the report found.
‘Hostile, Aggressive, Intimidating’
The assistant wrestling coach’s name was redacted in the 164-page investigative report by Adams Silva & McNally LLP released by Fresno Unified. But he is Nara Sihavong, a longtime coach of the sport at Fresno and Clovis schools.
Sihavong alleged Slatic confronted him Feb. 11 in a “hostile, aggressive and intimidating manner” while ordering wrestling coaches to cancel a Feb. 12 joint practice with Clovis East High School wrestlers, even after coaches had informed Slatic the trustee’s son would not be practicing with a Clovis East wrestler he was likely to compete against in upcoming matches.
The assistant coach alleged that Slatic had told him, “Just remember when you are looking for a position, I will look for your application across my desk.”
The report noted Slatic would not speak with the report’s investigator despite numerous requests.
Slatic Disputes Coach’s Accusations
Slatic, reached by phone Thursday in Boston, where he is attending an education retreat with other trustees, said he disputes a number of the details of the allegations made by the assistant wrestling coach.
Slatic said he never told Bullard coaches he was speaking as a trustee and did not threaten to prevent the assistant coach from obtaining a job with the district. He confirms he told the coach that the joint practice was organized “to please his (the coach’s) own ego.”
As to the allegation that he used “degrading, forceful and intimidating language” when speaking with the coach, Slatic said the coach initiated the showdown using similar language, “and that’s how I responded.”
“What I said was, ‘I’m watching you put my son at risk,’ ” Slatic said.
Says Goal Was to Protect His Son
Slatic said his goal was to protect his son from a practice session with a Clovis East wrestler who had posted on social media his fervent intention to “beat a Slatic.” Whether or not they were on the same wrestling mat, just having them in the same room could have posed hazards, he said.
Slatic confirmed he chose not to respond to queries from the investigator, in part because of his conclusion that the district’s investigations are “weaponized” and would not be impartial.
He said his attorney also advised him that because the dispute did not happen on Fresno Unified school grounds and he was acting as a parent, not a trustee, he did not have to participate.
Though the coaches had initially told Slatic the practice at Clovis East would continue, a decision was made later to cancel it to avoid “ruffling any feathers.”
Assistant Coach: Slatic ‘Went Too Far’
A business owner, Sihavong wrestled at George Mason University and has coached wrestling for 28 years.
Later, he said, he was asked to file an official complaint because of his communication skills and the fear from the other coaches, both district employees, that they might be retaliated against by Slatic.
“Basically, he came in and tried to tell us coaches how to run the program. This wasn’t the first time,” Sihavong said.
“I have no ill will toward Terry. We usually have good conversations, and I like his family. His kids are great. But he went too far. As coaches, we have to do what’s best for the program.”
Sihavong said he didn’t become aware of other investigations into Slatic’s conduct until after the wrestling incident: “I don’t pay attention to those things. What I knew about Terry was from my interactions with him at Bullard.”
Now that Sihavong’s son, Dawson, has graduated from Bullard and is wrestling for Stanford University, Sihavong said he has left the Bullard program.
Previous Investigation Into Confrontation with Recruiter
Adams Silva & McNally also investigated a complaint by Army recruiter Staff Sgt. Jeremy Cooper that alleged Slatic harassed and belittled him during a confrontation at Bullard High, and that Cooper believed Slatic’s behavior was racially motivated. Cooper is black.
The investigation report, released July 19, found Slatic violated board policies for management oversight, governance standards and limits of authority for trustees, but concluded Slatic did not racially discriminate against Cooper. The investigation called Slatic’s interaction with Cooper “confrontational and aggressive.”
Slatic disputed the conclusions of that investigation, saying the school district allows its hired investigators to follow their own procedures.
Investigation Coming on Cheerleader Incident
At a special board meeting July 18 called after complaints that Slatic had been hostile to Bullard cheerleaders, trustees approved a motion to investigate the allegations but specified that it would employ an investigator it hasn’t previously used, “so we can have a report that is completely impartial,” trustee Carol Mills said.
District spokeswoman Veronica Ramirez said a new investigator has yet to be identified and hired.
The complaint by a Bullard cheerleader alleges Slatic came to a cheer practice “to bully and threaten the program and individuals for the actions of two members.” On July 10, he addressed the team about lingering tensions from national news stories that were sparked after social media posts surfaced showing videos of a Bullard cheerleader in blackface and using the n-word.
Board Places Restrictions on Slatic
The board on July 18 also voted to ask Superintendent Bob Nelson to issue a civility letter that states Slatic is not allowed on Bullard’s campus for 14 days. Ramirez said Slatic received that letter earlier this week. In addition, the board took action requiring Slatic to have a district administrator escort him on any visits to Fresno Unified campuses.
“I stand by what the investigator found. As trustees, we are entrusted not only with the safety of children but also staff. Their safety is important to us as well.” — Board president Claudia Cazares
An ad hoc committee appointed by board president Claudia Cazares is reviewing the completed investigations and will recommend to the full board whether or not to vote to censure Slatic. Cazares said she appointed board members Keshia Thomas, Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas, and Veva Islas to the committee and hopes their recommendation will be ready by the Aug. 7 board meeting.
Cazares said she wanted to move forward with the ad hoc committee, even though the investigation into the cheerleader’s allegations has not begun.
“I stand by what the investigator found,” she said. “As trustees, we are entrusted not only with the safety of children but also staff. Their safety is important to us as well.”
Later Thursday, Cazares issued the following statement: “As your representative on our local school board I took an oath that I would ‘well and faithfully discharge the duties upon which I am about to enter’ — and I don’t intend to ever waiver from that mandate. As the Board President, as a woman, and as a mother I could no longer in good conscience stand by, while complaints where submitted, staff approached me regularly in fear of encountering Trustee Slatic and while children are forced to sit terrified through a tirade. Our children and staff of FUSD have found their voice, and we need to listen.
“The Board’s ad-hoc committee is working to document these incidents and bring them forth as part of the August 7, 2019 Regular Board Meeting as a discussion and vote to censure Trustee Slatic. Fear tactics, threats, intimidation and bullying will not be tolerated as a modus operandi. Change and progress can be achieved and is being achieved differently. Look around you Trustee Slatic, there are six of us on the Board that are doing just that.”
Jonasson Rosas, who is vacationing in Boston, said in a phone interview Friday that she expects the ad hoc committee will be ready with its recommendation by the next board meeting. “I think a lot of the facts necessary for a (censure) resolution are out there,” she said. “I’m sure the lawyers are working on something for us as a committee.”
She said the number of allegations lodged against Slatic and resulting investigations are taking up a lot of the board’s time and attention. Board members do have a responsibility to ensure that students, faculty and staff remain safe, Jonasson Rosas said. But she wanted to reassure the public that the board is hasn’t lost sight of the need to improve students’ academic performance.
“We can’t take our eye off that ball,” she said. “We’re still working toward that.”
Thomas and Islas did not respond to emails.
Board member Mills, when asked for comment, provided the following by email: “The expectation is that every Board member engages with staff in a civil and respectful manner. I fully anticipate this incident, as well as other incidents involving Trustee Slatic, will be considered when the Board addresses a formal censure resolution at the August 7 meeting.”
DA Cleared Slatic in Confrontation With Student
Slatic also was investigated in January – barely two months after his election to the school board — after a Bullard student alleged the trustee grabbed his backpack and got into a physical confrontation. The District Attorney’s Office investigated the incident and decided not to file charges against Slatic or the 15-year-old student, who Slatic alleged made threats to kill him and his aide.
GV Wire’s Bill McEwen contributed to this report.