Editorial: District justified in controversial Persky firing

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Editorial: District justified in controversial Persky firing

Persky's past in People v. Turner resurfaces with his hiring as Lynbrook's girls JV tennis coach.

Persky's past in People v. Turner resurfaces with his hiring as Lynbrook's girls JV tennis coach.

Opinion Section

Persky's past in People v. Turner resurfaces with his hiring as Lynbrook's girls JV tennis coach.

Opinion Section

Opinion Section

Persky's past in People v. Turner resurfaces with his hiring as Lynbrook's girls JV tennis coach.

Epic Staff

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Vice News, Sept. 12: How the Hell Did the Brock Turner Judge Get a Job as a Girls Tennis Coach?

Certainly, no one expected it.

But it happened: former Santa Clara Superior Court judge Michael Aaron Persky was hired to coach Lynbrook’s JV girls tennis team.

Persky made national headlines in 2016 for his notoriously lenient sentence in People v. Turner, one of the most controversial and highly publicized sexual assault cases in recent history. In particular, many were enraged by Persky’s justification for the sentence, one-fourth the statutory minimum, in which he cited Turner’s intoxication and the “severe impact” that incarceration would have on Turner’s future. Two years later, Persky became the first judge in 86 years to be recalled by California voters.

The controversy reached Lynbrook in early September, when both the administration and the public learned who Michael Persky was. It is unclear how Persky was hired and how his past factored into the district’s decisions. When asked for an interview regarding the issue, Bove declined to comment.

On Sept. 11, Persky was fired. Reactions were mixed. Notably, the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times penned a scathing indictment of the district’s decision, calling those who fired Persky “spineless school bureaucrats” and their decision “ridiculously gratuitous, cowardly and off-base.” But despite the numerous concerns voiced by the authors of this article and others within the community, the district ultimately made the best decision in the interests of the students and the school environment as a whole.

Instating Persky in a leadership position on campus can be seen as an indirect endorsement of his decisions, and by association, the “rape culture” they represent. It conveys the message that while the district might or might not support his sentence in Brock v. Turner, it does not fully condemn it. This stance, whether real or perceived, affects the school environment.

For instance, consider the message this inadvertent endorsement sends to survivors of rape on campus. Knowing that a member of staff genuinely believes — and has stood by his decision — that sexual assault can be punished by only six months in county jail could cause many to believe that they cannot count on school staff to appreciate the gravity of their experience.

“I definitely think it’s going to play with people’s perception of safety,” said Amy Oestreicher, a sexual assault expert at the National Sexual Violence Research Center. “A big component of [recovering from sexual assault] is having to deal with flashbacks, hypervigilance and anxiety because of triggers that bring up certain memories or associations. And [Persky’s] presence here is going to be a trigger for some people. It’s hard enough to come forward in a public school setting and talk about these things, [and] I think this is just adding another layer.”

Persky’s presence could also affect perceptions of the district. The district has a zero tolerance policy toward sexual assault and rape, but Persky’s ruling drew fame for being excessively tolerant toward the perpetrator. While the district never gave any indication of changing their stance on sexual assault and Persky himself has never outright condoned sexual assault, many have made the case that placing Persky in a position of authority and leadership is in conflict with the school’s claims.

“It’s sending very mixed messages to the students,” Oestreicher said. “This looks like hypocrisy, like they’re not committing to the values that are trying to instill in their students.”

It’s sending very mixed messages to the students. This looks like hypocrisy, like they’re not committing to the values that they are trying to instill in their students.”

— Amy Oestreicher, sexual assault expert

Such a perception could have negative effects on student behavior and ethics. The opinions of school staff do not necessarily reflect those of the administration or the district. Persky’s merit as a coach can and should be considered independently from his personal views. But unless coaches’ only role on campus is to preside over practices, coordinate with tournaments and tweak athletes’ form, their personal values have a role in their effect on the school. Coaches, like all staff, are role models — for better or worse.

“The teachers and mentors at Lynbrook shaped the way I perceive others, my society and myself,” said Neha Palvai, a Lynbrook alumna and creator of a change.org petition calling for Persky’s removal. “I was lucky to have amazing teachers who taught me to prioritize having good values, but Persky’s [presence] normalizes rape culture — it devalues it and desensitizes it.”

Palvai was at the center of one of many petitions through change.org which challenged the hiring. The most successful petitions, including Palvai’s, reached signature counts into the thousands within days. The school initially responded to this onslaught of criticism by defending its legality and citing Persky’s qualifications, writing, “He was a highly qualified applicant for the position, having attended several tennis coaching clinics for youth and holding a high rating from the United States Tennis Association.”

But not all members of the community were satisfied with this justification; ethicality and legality, they asserted, were not one and the same, and the district had a responsibility to promote leaders with good values. To them, his sentence reflected poorly on his character.

“I think his decisions reflect a complete and total lack of understanding and sympathy of other people, and especially those of the opposite sex,” said Lynbrook Spanish teacher Kim Revilla. “If it were my daughter on the tennis team and I knew that the person who was going to coach them was someone who had that little regard for women, I’d be very upset. I wouldn’t want him anywhere near my children.”

Between the voices of protestors and lingering resentments from the Brock Turner trial, media coverage of Persky’s employment escalated quickly. This brought players into the spotlight, and the district faced increasing pressure to alleviate the strain on students. In Persky’s statement to the press after his firing, he wrote that Bove’s decision “was motivated by a desire to protect the players from the potentially intrusive media attention related to my hiring.”

Had the district continued to defend its hiring decision, the coverage likely would have continued, putting pressure on players and their families. While firing Persky for this reason was perhaps not entirely fair to him, it was a decision made in the best interests of the students and families. This is the district’s responsibility — to defend the students and community first.

Still, giving in to media pressure has its consequences. As the aforementioned Los Angeles Times editorial noted, the firing could be seen not as a victory for accountability, but rather for mob rule. It could set a precedent for staff employment to become disproportionately affected by their personal views. While the district undoubtedly has a responsibility to respond to the voice of the school community, some believe that this case eroded its ability to separate popularity and politics from personal merit in its staff.

Nor should the effect on Persky himself be overlooked. His ruling was controversial, but he committed no crime — in fact, an investigation by the California Commission on Judicial Performance cleared Persky of ethical wrongdoing in 2016. His sentence, furthermore, only followed the recommendation set forth by the probation department.

Does that mean that he should not take responsibility for his ruling and its implications? Certainly not, particularly given that he has since stood by his decision. But the context does color the way his past should be viewed. Many feel that, in the frenzy of outrage over the trial, the public made Persky an unwilling figurehead for the much larger and deeper problem of rape culture in America. For that, he lost his job as a judge. But now, while seemingly doing his best to earn an honest living in an entirely distinct field, public opinion brought his past back to life. This sets a second and equally concerning precedent: that Persky may now be considered unemployable due to one controversial case.

From my perspective, he didn’t do anything wrong, per se. What he did before — it really isn’t our business. It shouldn’t affect the way he lives his life.”

— Aditi Chockalingam, player on the JV girls tennis team

“I feel like he was a good coach, and I don’t believe he deserved to get fired,” said Aditi Chockalingam, a player on the JV girls tennis team. “Because from my perspective, he didn’t do anything wrong, per se. What he did before — it really isn’t our business. It shouldn’t affect the way he lives his life.”

Chockalingam was one of many tennis players to come to Persky’s defense. While students, staff, community members and alumni rallied against his hiring, several players were actually in favor of him staying. This view was not unanimous, though.

“First of all, [the news] should have been contained within the JV team,” said varsity player Maya Abiram. “And [the school] should have also known that, because he’s such a controversial figure, news would spread quickly. And it got everyone caught up in something that they shouldn’t have been involved in. It just should not have happened in the first place.”

Most critically, the JV tennis players needed Persky because, at the time of his hiring, there were no other qualified candidates for the position. Had Persky not been hired, the team might not have had a season. 

But in the end, the district was right to prioritize the long-term effect that Persky’s presence would have on the larger school community rather than the short-term effect on the tennis team. By Sept. 11, there was no perfect avenue forward. Like voters in the recall campaign against Persky in 2018, the district was torn between succumbing to mob rule and alleviating the mounting pressure from the public and the media. 

Whether Persky’s dismissal was a win for justice or for the media firestorm, it was above all a victory for the interests of the student body. By recognizing that Persky’s influence on campus extended beyond JV girls tennis, the district was able to maintain its ethics and preserve a healthy school community.

By the day of Persky’s firing, Lynbrook needed closure more than anything. Had Persky remained, media coverage would have only built, and outrage would have only grown.

And it was Persky himself who gave the school what it needed to move forward.

“Although I am disappointed with the District’s decision, it was a privilege to coach the team, if only for a short time,” he wrote in a statement the day of his firing. “I wish all of the players the best in their future academic and athletic endeavors.”