A South Bay schools trustee who came under fire for glibly denying the realities of racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination says he’d rather redeem himself than resign.
Matthew Dean—a Campbell Union High School District board member since 2006 and former Campbell mayor—announced his decision Wednesday despite a litany of pleas that he step down and after more than an hour of impassioned testimony at a hearing convened to address his offensive statements.
“I was stunned, I was angry and all the words that came out of my mouth were messed up,” Dean said of his reaction at a May 17 board meeting to a student report about rampant racist and homophobic language at local schools.
Instead of commending student board members Muskaan Sandu and Taykhoom Dalal for shedding light on the problem that night, he used an analogy about fat-shaming his son to condescendingly suggest that kids these days need to learn how to find the “diamond” or “gem” in hurtful slurs.
When San Jose Inside called Dean the next day, the voluble trustee espoused even more inflammatory views while opining at length about how students exaggerate their grievances and how society as a whole has become too sensitive.
Board President Kalen Gallagher issued a statement a few days later distancing himself and the rest of the all-white board from Dean’s remarks. And Dean released his own apology, saying his attempt to create a “teachable moment” for students backfired and instead became a learning experience for him.
San Jose Inside then published a column citing a small fraction of what Dean said in that phone call, including a comment about how he used to play a game called “Smear the Queer” as a kid and how nobody seemed offended by the term back in the late 1960s. He also rejected the existence of systemic racism, groused about how the #MeToo movement has forced men to be cautious about working with women and how the push to turn Columbus Day into an observance honoring indigenous people ignores the positive contributions of European colonialism.
A day after the article came out, Gallagher went to Dean’s house to have a one-on-one talk and let him know that he’d convene a special meeting to discuss his comments and, if he didn’t resign, would pursue a censure. Gallagher said his colleague’s remarks weighed on him, as did his own failure to immediately react.
“The words you said at that meeting really affected a lot of people,” Gallagher said Wednesday. “There’s been nothing we’ve done on this board for the positive that has elicited the level of response that we’ve gotten on this—and for good reason.”
After the May 17 meeting, he said, he had a hard time processing what he heard.
“But I looked in the mirror, too,” Gallagher said, “because during that time I did not call it out in the moment.”
Trustee Stacey Brown, who interrupted Dean at the May 17 meeting with an awkward exculpation about how he views things through a different lens than students, echoed Gallagher’s regret. While she meant to defuse the situation, she said she realizes that, as Sandu had told her numerous times before, impact trumps even the best intentions.
“I wish I could go back and have a re-do of that moment,” Brown said from the dais Wednesday, reading a statement she later posted on Facebook. “I pledge that moving forward I will confront bad behavior wherever I encounter it to deserve the title trustee.”
Fellow trustee Kristiina Arrasmith said she, too, was initially stunned into silence, trying to make sense of what Dean was trying to say and has since done “a lot of reflecting” on her own leadership. But, she promised to support him if he commits to genuine change.
“If you’re willing to stand up and pursue a different path, I’ll walk with you,” she said, acknowledging that doing so would require a “sharp turn” for Dean.
Linda Goytia, another board member, said she condemns Dean’s remarks, which gave her a “general sense of unease,” but that she understands the point he tried to make. Teachers, students and parents who spoke at Wednesday’s meeting, however, described how much pain his words caused them. A couple speakers were moved to tears.
Margarita Ortiz, a longtime teacher in the district, began her testimony by reading a prepared statement about the need to honor the voices of students and recognize systemic bias, but paused to fight back emotion.
“I want to keep reading,” she said. “But when I watch the video [of the May 17 meeting], it hurt. It’s been 20 years since I’ve been in high school, and what that video showed me was that nothing has changed. If not, it’s gotten worse. That should’ve never happened, and not here. I’m sorry that I couldn’t read this better. I think you should step down. … It doesn’t seem to me that you understand your community or that you understand the ramification of your words.”
Sandu said she left the May 17 meeting pondering how 64 years after Brown v. Board of Education, schools remain far from integrated and how disheartening it was to see leaders in her own district downplay and dismiss systemic bias.
“There’s no justification for bigotry,” she said, “and we shouldn’t try to change the topic when we’re talking about something that’s affecting our students so horribly. And that’s what I saw happen on our board.”
Dean, who spoke only at the end of the Wednesday meeting to say he’s profoundly sorry for what he said and the way he said it, still rationalized some of the controversy by blaming San Jose Inside for taking his comments out of context.
“Speaking with the reporter was a mistake,” Dean said.
He quickly backtracked by saying he still takes responsibility for his words, most of which were either summarized or not included in San Jose Inside/Metro Silicon Valley’s initial column, which had to be kept short to fit in the print issue. Listed below are some of the more notable quotes that didn’t make it in the previous article.
His take on #MeToo:
“We’re in a society right now where if you pay a compliment to a woman, you might get charged with harassment. It’s come to the point where if I’m conducting reviews with women, I have to make sure that we’re not alone or there have to be windows on all sides or something. It’s fraught with peril in today’s environment, and now men aren’t engaging with women in the workplace and not hiring women because of that concern.”
On Christopher Columbus and colonialism:
“The student board members and I don’t see eye to eye on this. What it comes down to, I think, is that we as a society today are at a point where people are running around looking to be offended, and it’s just silly. I mean this whole country wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for someone other than the people who were already here to settle it. If America doesn’t get discovered, the whole world around us wouldn’t exist. It’s the path not taken. … I don’t agree with making Columbus this ultimate villain. Did the settlers bring disease? Oh yeah, they did, but they didn’t mean to.”
On the achievement gap:
“We have 50 ethnicities and 50 languages natively spoken in the district and it’s only two ethnic subpopulation that really struggle [black and Latino, he later clarified], but the other 48 cultures do well … So what’s the difference? Is it the system? I think it comes down to more of a cultural problem, a lack of parental involvement. … Until the world has ended, there’s always improvements on the system. but I think each and every one of these students has a responsibility to step up, to not just be passive and say that’s OK.”
On being “colorblind”:
“You could say I’m white, but actually I’m speckled … race is not an identifier I use.”
On systemic racism:
“You know some of these people run around saying they’re marginalized, and I’m going, ‘Really? How?’ I guess they’ve never been to São Paulo and seen what a real slum is like. … I fundamentally question whether it’s them marginalizing themselves.”
On Sandu calling attention to the widespread use of the N-word at school:
“One of the comments this young lady made was about the N-word. Now, I play basketball and I almost always hear that word from one subset of people—not Caucasians. That’s all I was trying to say. So it’s really interesting that in almost 59 years of living and years of playing basketball, that 99.9 percent of the time I’ve heard the word, it comes from that one group. But the way she’s portraying it—purely anecdotally, by the way—makes it sound like students hear it all the time on all of our campuses, and I just don’t believe that picture. There are students that probably throw it around here and there, but to characterize it like it’s somehow completely pervasive in the culture is just hard to believe.”
On his “tough love” parenting style:
“One time my son was in seventh or eighth grade and someone called him fat, and he came and told us about it. And I didn’t necessarily say this then, but the message was, well, ‘Go look at your BMI. You’re round, son. But whose fault is it? Your mother and I, we provide good nutritious food. We’re not holding you down stuffing garbage in your mouth. … You can make that statement someone told you completely factually inaccurate by changing your behavior, by changing what you eat.’… You want sympathy? Go talk to your mom. I’m just telling you the facts.’”
On verbal harassment in general:
“There’s a responsibility on the receiver of comments to choose how they respond. And if they choose a response of victimhood, that’s what they become. … You don’t like the words? Then change the reality.”
And finally, on one of his favorite games in third grade:
“There’s a game called ‘Smear the Queer,’ and we played that for years in elementary school. That word didn’t have any negative connotations to us. Nobody was offended. All it meant was that the guy with the ball was the ‘queer,’ and the rest of us would run around on the grass and chase him. That’s what boys needed at recess. But people now turn a word and an innocent game into something that it’s not.”
At the end of the Wednesday session, Arrasmith asked Dean what steps he plans to take to learn his way out of his admitted obliviousness to discrimination. After a long pause, he replied that he will interact more with students and expand his reading repertoire. He also admitted that he needs help.
“I’m open to suggestions,” he said.
The hearing ended in a 4-0 vote—with Dean abstaining—authorizing Gallagher to draft a censure to bring to the board at its next regularly scheduled meeting June 14.