Education Matters: Will Harvie’s return

If there were only one school board meeting to attend all year, San Dieguito’s on Nov. 3 was it.

About 100 people squeezed into the San Dieguito Union High School District board room that night, most there to protest the sudden “resignation for retirement purposes” of Torrey Pines High School AP Physics teacher William Harvie.

Harvie, who resigned unexpectedly on Monday, Oct. 24, has been with the district for over 30 years and is by all accounts a dedicated physics teacher who inspires students with his innovative curriculum and engaging teaching style.

He’s received numerous awards and recognition, including being named one of MIT’s 2014 Inspirational Teachers.

When news broke of the sudden resignation, everyone seemed to have a different theory as to the reason. But no one, except a few school board members and district administrators, believed it was entirely voluntary.

He cared too much about his students to just walk away suddenly, said current and former students.

“There is no way he simply ‘retired,’” read a Facebook post from a Torrey Pines student. “He loved Torrey Pines so much and he would have said something to us.”

A movement was born, and within a week a petition to bring back Harvie had garnered over 700 signatures.

Dozens of letters were written to school board members from current students, alumni and parents, demanding an explanation. Some called for an independent investigation, suspecting Harvie was the victim of political retribution for his conservative views.

And conservative he is.

From the RateMyTeachers.com site, a student wrote in 2015: “My only complaint is that his daily motivational speeches become radically conservative (politically and economically) by the end of the year.”

Said another: “Mr. Harvie wastes a shocking amount of time on unrelated content — almost all of which is politically-fueled conservatism …”

A 2013 article in the San Diego Reader on weekly protests near General Atomics over drone use in warfare includes a photo of Harvie, who is identified as the “lone counter-protester” at one particular protest.

One of Harvie’s signs in the photo read, “God bless General Atomics.”

Putting to rest the rumor that he volunteered at the school, Harvie’s salary, according to Interim Superintendent Eric Dill, was $125,797 on the day he resigned.

He’s given cash donations to many conservative causes.

Harvie was one of only a handful of teachers who is not a member of the San Dieguito Faculty Association, the teachers union for SDUHSD, which may explain why the union didn’t rush to defend him.

Given all this, one gets the impression that Harvie is not intimidated or shy about standing up for his beliefs.

Some would argue, legitimately, that it’s inappropriate for teachers to espouse their personal political viewpoints in the classroom, regardless of which direction they lean.

There are valid claims that Harvie’s off-topic “digressions” leave some students feeling uncomfortable, belittled and alienated. And that’s unacceptable.

Former TPHS student Nada Al-Alusi, in a Facebook post Nov. 6, said how Harvie’s “bigoted and hateful rant” in the second week of class with him when she was a junior four years ago “left me in tears.”

Al-Alusi, a Muslim and now a student at UC Berkeley, said Harvie “violated the safe, inclusive space that all classrooms should be, using his classroom as a platform to propagate racist ideologies.”

She said she avoided taking AP Physics C, even though that was her interest, because Harvie was the only teacher for that class.

The counter-balance is that he inspired so many students to love physics and provided a path to understanding a complex subject in remarkably clear and poignant ways.

I’d like to believe that the pro-Harvie students were able to separate his personal views from his ability to teach physics and make a difficult subject fascinating and accessible. They respect him as a teacher, overlooking his politics — enough to fight for his return.

But he is clearly a man not without flaws.

People are more than one-dimensional. Perhaps for so many students it is possible to overlook a person’s negative aspects in favor of a deep appreciation for those universal qualities that inspire us to believe in ourselves and reach for the stars.

Core beliefs

The actual catalyst for Harvie’s unexpected announcement may never be revealed. The district won’t discuss confidential personnel matters, and so far Harvie isn’t talking.

What is known is that mid-year resignations, without some explanation and the normal two weeks’ notice, are highly unusual.

Wearing their newly minted Harvie T-shirts, student after student stood up and spoke at the Nov. 3 school board meeting about their love and respect for their teacher and their disbelief that he would suddenly choose to retire.

TPHS senior Ben Ehrlich said Harvie’s abrupt decision “does not reflect his core beliefs.”

Student Zach Brumm said the board should offer Harvie his position back. “If he declines, then we will know the truth,” he said.

Student Jacob Brumm said Harvie mentioned in class that he was having “issues” with the administration, and said the classes, with Harvie gone, are stagnant and devoid of learning.

Parents spoke as well, many of whom called upon the board to launch an independent investigation and to reconsider accepting the resignation.

Parent Anna Stepanenko called his impact on the students “immeasurable” and said the loss “pains and saddens” the entire community.

What concerns her most, she said, is that “no effort was made to convince him to reconsider.”

Marie LeRose asked board members to call Harvie and offer him his job back, saying they owe it to the students.

The only voice to speak on behalf of the administration and TPHS principal Rob Coppo was Torrey Pines social science teacher Lars Trupe, who said there was “no conspiracy” to drive Harvie out and that Torrey Pines is “more than a single person.”

Trupe said there is no one better to lead Torrey Pines than Coppo, a comment not well-received by the crowd.

Coppo was said to have disagreed with Harvie over a number of scheduling and enrollment issues and was the last to meet with him when Harvie submitted his resignation.

When asked for his reaction to the Harvie incident, Coppo wrote in an email that he was “focused on moving beyond the events of the last two weeks and working to get the school back on track in a lot of areas.”

Breaking eggs

While the students sat respectfully in the front rows at the Nov. 3 board meeting, adults shouted, booed and cheered trustees during their discussion.

Raucous San Dieguito board meetings are a rarity for a school board that nearly always votes quietly and with little controversy — even when votes are now often 3-2.

The frequent interruptions may not have been civil and may have set a bad example for the kids in the room, but disruption and civil disobedience are sometimes the only way to effect change. If everyone had sat peacefully, it’s doubtful the audience would have had their way.

It’s said that you have to break some eggs to make an omelet.

At times the meeting seemed poised to spin out of control, but board president Beth Hergesheimer never exercised her right to clear the room.

After a lengthy discussion peppered by numerous audience interruptions, it was clear that initially only board members Mo Muir and John Salazar were refusing to accept Harvie’s resignation.

Student board member Isaac Gelman, representing Torrey Pines High School, asked trustees if it was fully disclosed in closed session what happened between Harvie and Coppo in the meeting on Oct. 24 when Harvie resigned. Trustees said yes.

Later, Isaac, wise beyond his years, commented that what troubled him is that two board members, referring to Muir and Salazar, did not appear to be satisfied with the explanation.

So whether it was a change of heart or political considerations, trustees Joyce Dalessandro and Amy Herman eventually sided with Muir and Salazar — another rarity — and voted not to accept the resignation.

Hergesheimer was the sole “yes” vote, saying she was satisfied with the explanation provided by the district.

As everyone now knows, after the 4-1 vote, Harvie was called and offered his job back, which he accepted. So, after a two-week absence, Harvie returned to his classroom Nov. 7.

Gap in learning

Torrie Norton, San Dieguito’s associate superintendent of human resources, said it is unprecedented for the board not to accept an employee’s resignation, something she said she’s never encountered.

If Harvie had refused to return, she said the resignation would have come back to the board at the next meeting.

The two weeks Harvie was out were initially recorded as retirement, Norton said, but will be changed to a leave of absence.

The gap in learning caused by a disastrous start to the school year is a major setback for AP Physics students applying this year to college and those intending to take the AP Physics C tests.

Each day of missed class in any AP subject is a challenge to make up. AP classes move along swiftly, and a two-week gap can be critical.

As student Jacob Brumm said, the administration “is messing around with students’ lives. This isn’t a game. Real lives are affected.”

When reached for comment and asked what happened, Harvie simply said, “It’s the COS — Code of Silence,” like the SEALs have.

“I’m just happy to be back to help the students in college and with their careers,” Harvie told me. “Students are number one with me.”

Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at suttonmarsha@gmail.com.

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