The Santa Clara County Board of Education voted 4-3 Wednesday night to censure trustee Joseph Di Salvo after an independent investigation determined that he engaged in gender-based harassment.
In January, two board members and two office of education employees filed complaints against Di Salvo for his behavior.
The third-party investigator found that Di Salvo made “negative, critical, disrespectful, dismissive, demeaning and heated comments … when challenging women whom he perceived were not doing what he wanted.”
The investigator also found that he did not engage in similar behavior toward men.
The censure is considered a condemnation of Di Salvo’s behavior, as well as an acknowledgment that his “conduct is unacceptable, unprofessional and a violation of the board bylaws.” Di Salvo will also have to undergo gender bias training.
Board of Ed President Claudia Rossi, Vice President Kathleen King and trustees Rosemary Kamei and Peter Ortiz voted for the censure, while trustees Anna Song, Grace Mah and Di Salvo voted against it.
During the meeting, Di Salvo defended himself by acknowledging that he has engaged in heated debates in the past, but apologized “if comments were worded too harshly.” He added that the investigation lacked evidence and was a political ploy to distract from other important school issues and his re-election campaign.
“Citing these disagreements out of context is inappropriate,” he said. “The timing of this investigation is dubious at best. This memo is being acted on with less than a week for me to review the claims and just four months prior to election day.”
Di Salvo also argued that he only had one week to review the claims and that his lawyer was unable to attend the board meeting. The office of education’s legal counsel, however, noted that Di Salvo was interviewed twice during the investigation and that his lawyer didn’t have the right to interject into a board discussion.
Ortiz, who is the only other man on the board, said that while he has no doubt that his colleague cares about students, the board can’t overlook “the methods in how people talk to each other.”
He also noted that the county office should have taken previous action against Di Salvo.
“I myself as a man of color, I would never think to behave in certain ways on this board and that’s because some privileges just haven’t been given to me,” Ortiz said. “I know that the second I talk to someone a certain way I will be crucified by the public.”
Kamei also acknowledged Di Salvo’s passion for students and education.
“It is not to attack trustee Di Salvo,” she said. “Trustee Di Salvo feels very strongly about his positions and he wants to serve the students and the community…This is about what is this board going to do about those women that stepped forward and said I feel this way and the investigators found that the behavior is truly unbecoming of an elected official.”
Mah, however, called the censure “too heavy of a hammer” and claimed that the report didn’t describe any evidence of harassment.
“I certainly respect women on the staff and women on the board who have raised concerns,” Mah said. “I believe it is important to address these types of issues. So I’m not saying we don’t address it, but I’m saying that we need to make sure and find [another] way since this was an insufficient timeline for review and response and the political nature of this [is] inappropriate.”
Wednesday night’s vote marked the first time in history that the board of education has censured one of its members.
Di Salvo has served on the board since 2008 and is up for re-election in November. His district represents a majority of San Jose Unified and portions of Oak Grove and East Side Union High school districts.