Editorial: School district, sheriff's office stonewalling unacceptable


The Tri-Valley community continues to mourn the death of Ben Curry, who drowned during PE class at San Ramon Valley High School in Danville on May 8. Curry's family and friends -- and the entire community -- are demanding answers they are owed.

This school and teacher were entrusted with the safety of this 15-year-old boy, and now he is dead.

The lack of transparency of the public officials and agencies involved, particularly the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office and San Ramon Valley Unified School District, is beyond frustrating and begs the question of who or what they are trying to protect.

Being the only news outlet to consistently cover SRVUSD, we submitted public records requests to the school district and the sheriff's office, which contracts with the town of Danville for its law enforcement. Among the items we requested were the security camera footage from the pool, incident reports, investigation reports and other documents relating to the death, along with body-worn camera footage from sheriff's Deputy Kyle Rhoton, the school resource officer who was first to arrive on-scene.

The school district has been less than cooperative. Contra Costa Sheriff David Livingston summarily denied and dismissed us.

Livingston's written response concluded: "We fully appreciate the family's and the community's sorrow at the loss of this young man. Our investigation into this sad event is, by law, exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Act. This fulfills your Public Records Act request."

Translated: Go away and don't question us again.

No, it does not fulfill our request. And no, we won't go away.

If a teacher isn't fired for failing to notice a student drowning on his watch, what can they get fired for? If a teacher who left for lunch without confirming all students were safely out of the pool isn't even reprimanded, what is wrong with this school district? If school employees apparently face no consequences for a student drowning in class (a lack of care aptly described as "negligence" and "despicable" in the Curry family's lawsuit filed this Tuesday), how can we trust this district and the people who run it?

Transparency would be a good start toward rebuilding trust.

Katrina Curry, Ben's sister, admonished SRVUSD leaders during an October school board meeting saying, "(Aaron Becker) was never even put on leave while the investigation was in progress. He failed in his most basic duty as a teacher. My brother is dead."

We asked SRVUSD Superintendent Rick Schmitt if Becker was placed on administrative leave for any time. After several days we were told by SRVUSD communications director Elizabeth Graswich, "We are not at liberty to share information about personnel matters which are confidential by nature."

When we didn't accept this answer, we were told that there are "no records that apply to your request" -- which we took to mean Becker was never placed on leave.

It is standard operating procedure in the public and private sector to put an employee on administrative leave until an investigation is complete. This applies to a police officer involved in a shooting or an employee accused of harassment. Why is this different?

This is more than a personnel matter; this is a matter of protecting a teacher who had a child die on his watch. Not only is Becker still teaching, he continued his duties as head varsity football coach and associate athletic director at the high school this fall.

The sheriff's office response to our request was to completely shut us down, invoking the "investigatory exemption."

Often public agencies try to keep the public in the dark by claiming the documents requested are part of an investigation and, if released, would jeopardize the investigation or someone involved in the investigation, such as an informant. (The only reason we got access to the coroner's report is the family attorney shared a copy with the media.)

Documents we requested do not put anyone in harm's way and, according to the school district and the sheriff's office, the investigation into young Ben's death is over -- and no criminal charges were filed.

Second, even if an exemption exists, it is not mandatory to withhold information unless disclosure is prohibited by law.

We believe those documents should be released.

"The Sheriff disagrees," we were told by the sheriff's office, citing a prior court case, "asserting that the statute on its face contains no time limitation and that the exemption services interests that outlive the investigation for which the file was originally created, such as the safety of informants and undercover officers, the integrity of related investigations, and the privacy of persons whose affairs have been investigated but who have not been charged with crimes."

Sheriff Livingston, we disagree.

And, like many in the public, we want to know why this child died and why Becker apparently wasn't ever placed on administrative leave, even during the investigation. We also want to know why the district and the sheriff's office is not being completely transparent with the public they serve.

A sheriff's deputy fatally shot a man at the end of a pursuit near downtown Danville on Nov. 3, and when the man's family filed a wrongful-death claim against the town of Danville, the sheriff's office posted on its Facebook last week: "Once all investigations are completed, we look forward to sharing the full details with the public."

Why will full details be shared after the investigation in that case, but not in a case in which a child died while at school?

Livingston, Graswich and Schmitt seem to miss the fact they are ultimately accountable to the public and that the public has a right to know the basic facts of Ben Curry's untimely death. There is no justification for failing to make this information available to the public now.

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68 people like this
Posted by Gina Channell, Publisher
a resident of San Ramon
on Nov 28, 2018 at 1:39 pm

Gina Channell, Publisher is a registered user.

After reaching out to the San Ramon Valley Unified School District about the status of our Oct. 25 public records request, Communications Director Elizabeth Graswich responded today via email that stated:
"Substantially all of the records the District possesses related to your request are attorney-client privileged communications. Within 3 days of the tragedy on May 8, 2018, the District secured legal counsel and immediately instituted protocols to communicate at and through the direction of our attorney related to this tragedy. Therefore, reviewing and redacting records that may be responsive to your request continues to take significant labor hours to generate.

We believe we will have a further update as-to our progress in compiling responsive records before December 31, 2018."

78 people like this
Posted by SRV Parent
a resident of Danville
on Nov 28, 2018 at 5:08 pm

Thank you for the pursuit of truth. The police have no legal right to withhold the police report. Their denial is all the more reason you should seek the report. SRVUSD needs to share who signed off on allowing 57-62 kids in PE swim class.

80 people like this
Posted by Former SRVUSD Parent
a resident of San Ramon
on Nov 29, 2018 at 8:52 am

Thank you for your continuous efforts at getting the truth disclosed to the public. This district is rife with issues from bullying to racially/religiously charged issues to drug/alcohol problems all swept under the rug. As a parent of a former student in the district and the wife and SIL of SRVHS alum, we are saddened and disgusted by the lack of transparency in this and other matters. Are sports and football so important that they are worthy of a coverup? Is this football coach so worthy that he is above reproach? Is there a reason the tragedy of a student breaking his neck at a party just prior to school graduation and the lack of reporting the underage drinking and drug use due to the family having connections to law enforcement (and because it was a student under this coach who threatened to blow the whistle on this)? So many questions, too few answers and this and many other events. This superintendent needs to go- STAT!

66 people like this
Posted by grandma
a resident of Alamo
on Nov 29, 2018 at 11:45 am

One of the things you are taught as you go through a credential program is that you count. Walking your kids to count. Taking them to the bus count. Going on a field count. Any activity involving your students requires the teacher to count them to know that all of them are there.

52 people like this
Posted by Grandma and teacher
a resident of Danville
on Nov 29, 2018 at 2:57 pm

Didn’t you know the police chief has a student at SRVHS? He lives in the community. I’ve watched him be pals and hang out with district officials.

62 people like this
Posted by Mikel
a resident of Danville
on Nov 29, 2018 at 3:10 pm

Let me get this took the SRV School Board 3 DAYS to hire Attorneys but 6 MONTHS to formally APOLOGIZE to the Ben's parents?

I honestly wonder how these people sleep at night. Really. How do you function as a human knowing how you've treated people like the Curry's?

I hope the Curry's know we're ALL behind them 110%. This is an outrage that grows by the day.

48 people like this
Posted by Grandparent
a resident of Danville
on Nov 30, 2018 at 3:44 am

Let’s not forget that in the middle of this tragedy the school board extended the contract of superintendent Schmitt. What were they thinking??? He should be terminated not rewarded!
This editorial points out just how horrible the leadership in the district is.
It goes without saying that Becker needs to be gone too.
The Curry family continues to suffer every day they need everyone to continue to express their outrage.
A child died and there’s no consequences? I just don’t get it.

40 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of San Ramon Valley High School
on Nov 30, 2018 at 11:55 am

To the Former Parent of the SRVUSD Student, you are spot on.... and not to mention the Danville Oaks Rugby situation... hummmm - there seems to be a common thread here. Everyone just wants to cover things up and brush it under the rug without taking can these people sleep at night?

47 people like this
Posted by Dan
a resident of Danville
on Dec 2, 2018 at 9:34 am

This makes me sick. How does a community not get 100% behind the family of a kid that dies.

I am seeing nextdoor and facebook postings disappear on the topic. This is not China we can have disagreements but to actually remove postings that is censorship. Aaron Becker walked away from a drowning child this is a fact. At this point no one can debate that fact. But some people want to debate Ben Curry's role in his death which is not relevant to the main fact. So we dive into the details that are limited.

The request to get the police report and video is blocked so we know that it is a cover up being done by SRVUSD and the police department. We are learning of a close relationship existing between Danville PD and SRVUSD. SRVUSD early statement to "release the truth as they learned it" we are finding to be a lie. Our elected officials of the school board and city of Danville need to be held accountable for how the tragic event continues to be handled. Police Chief Shields has picked a side and aligned with a man that walked away from a drowning child. SRVUSD by not showing any accountability have also aligned with a man that walked away from a drowning child. Elected officials which oversee SRVUSD and the Danville Police are our voice and yet they are silent and not pushing for the release of video and police reports.

When elected officials are more loyal to whom they oversee than the community they are corrupt. SRVUSD and Danville PD is showing that it's loyalty is with itself not to the community they serve.

Release the records so the community can make the decision for whom to assign accountability for the death of Ben Curry. Our elected officials are not stepping forward so we the community will need to step forward and determine accountability.

43 people like this
Posted by mrszalewski2
a resident of Danville
on Dec 3, 2018 at 6:19 am

mrszalewski2 is a registered user.

I agree with Dan..The community should be behind the Curry family 100 percent. What occurred to Ben and the Curry family was wrong on so many levels. Obviously, those not rallying around them have zero empathy or are perhaps as corrupt as the district and the police department. No one thinks such a tragedy can occur to their loved ones until it does.

19 people like this
Posted by grateful4
a resident of Danville
on Dec 10, 2018 at 7:36 am

grateful4 is a registered user.

Like many others have said, thank you for keeping the pursuit of truth alive.

Now, more than ever, we must rally for transparency! Coach Becker's football team just won the NCS Championship - the Olympic Gold Medal equivalent for HS Football. SRVHS and SRVUSD went silent just days after Ben Curry's death in the campus swimming pool during 4th period PE class. It will be interesting to see how the high school, school district, region and state will celebrate Coach Becker. This is a proud accomplishment - one which deserves high praise and accolades under normal circumstances. However, at least for me, this is a bitter pill to swallow. His his class...whom he is technically responsible still dead. Yet, the football team prevailed to take the NCS Championship. The players are obviously talented...would they have won NCS w/o Becker? Unfortunately the team and their victory is overshadowed by the way this May 8 tragedy is unfolding. In my mind, Becker, by staying on as Head Coach and Asst AD, has robbed these kids too. Would there have been a different response/scenario from all involved if it was one of Becker's players who had died on the football field?

Another thing: Not only is Chief Shields an SRVHS parent, his child was in Ben Curry's classes in elementary school. How can he sleep at night? He has known Ben since his own son and Ben started Kindergarten together. We had all been to many birthday parties and field trips together over the years. I was so proud of and thrilled for Allan when he was promoted. I have since lost all respect for Chief Shields as a person and professional since May 8. I honestly thought that he, of all people, would prioritize and demand justice for Ben and the Curry family.

Please don't give up on truth, Justice and transparency.

1 person likes this
Posted by parentof5
a resident of Danville
on Dec 10, 2018 at 8:35 am

I'm as frustrated and angry as anyone. But can you elaborate why you partially blame chief Shields? I don't get it. Yeah I know the Danville PD investigated but suggesting it's some sort of cover up is misguided, imho. This serious of a tragedy is waaaaayyy beyond the capabilities of danville pd. Danville pd is good for speeding tickets and jaywalking. So i'd cut them some slack. The truth is coming out and i blame the school district more than anyone at this point.

16 people like this
Posted by Parent SRV
a resident of Danville
on Dec 10, 2018 at 8:38 pm

The comments are in regard to this editorial "School district, sheriff's office stonewalling unacceptable" The sheriff's office in Danville is run by Shields and is not releasing a report on a completed investigation. So he is indeed part of a cover up. The only facts are from Curry's lawyer. Why does Shields continue to withhold the facts they determined during their investigation? My fear is that the relationship of SRVUSD and Danville PD is not professional and can not withstand the light of day. Because SRVUSD is under attack Danville PD also feels attacked and is joining the circling of the wagons.

5 people like this
Posted by grateful4
a resident of Danville
on Dec 10, 2018 at 8:46 pm

@parentof5 - I am not suggesting a cover up, per se. I personally don't see evidence that the DPD came alongside the Curry family at any point to support them amidst their tragedy. I just pointed out that Chief Shields knows this family personally through a shared journey with his own son.

This editorial clearly highlights multiple opportunities for the CCC Sheriff's Office, contracted by DPD, to share records, video surveillence footage, reports, etc. with this editorial author and/or media outlets asking for transparency. He/they haven't been forthcoming and have made flimsy excuses as to why requested records are not currently made available. What could they they hiding? Who might they be trying to protect. Chief Shields oversees the entirety of their investigations and public responses. So, I made that last little leap: if he has complete oversight, why would he not act with more fervor in pursuit of truth and transparency...especially if he knows Ben and the family so personnally and there is nothing to hide?

What I hear you saying is that the you believe our police department are made up of some bumbling idiots, incapable of carrying out their duty to protect and serve their community. Make no mistake, the DPD are "real" police officers trained to investigate "real" tragedies just like this one (and the officer-involved fatal shooting downtown last month)...not just speeding tickets and jaywalking.

21 people like this
Posted by SRV Parent
a resident of Danville
on Dec 10, 2018 at 9:44 pm

Something to hide is the facts that are not in favor of Aaron Becker and SRVUSD. But Danville PD have decided that we the public do not have the right to know. As a parent of a child at SRV High I do have the right to know.

12 people like this
Posted by grateful4
a resident of Danville
on Dec 10, 2018 at 9:51 pm

grateful4 is a registered user.

SRV Parent, agreed. Wholeheartedly.

29 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of another community
on Dec 29, 2018 at 2:15 pm

"The California Public Records Act requires that certain information contained within a police report must be disclosed upon request, even if the actual copy of the report is exempt from disclosure. (Cal. Gov. Code 6254(f)(1)-(2)(a).) Additionally, the CPRA exemptions are permissive rather than mandatory. (Cal. Gov. Code 6253(e).) It seems the easiest way to provide me with the information I am entitled to is to provide a copy of the police report in this matter, and I am requesting that you do so under the CPRA. If you are unwilling to provide a copy, I am requesting the information I am entitled to from the report, as stated in Cal. Gov. Code 6254(f)."

The above wording might help.

14 people like this
Posted by Ted
a resident of Danville
on Jan 10, 2019 at 1:42 pm

SRVUSD continues to break the rules of transparency. Their agenda for meeting on 1/8/19 does not disclose the needed facts about the "litigation". This prevents the public from tracking litigation the district is facing.

From Gov code 54956.9 (e)(2)
(2) Facts and circumstances, including, but not limited to, an accident, disaster, incident, or transactional occurrence that might result in litigation against the agency and that are known to a potential plaintiff or plaintiffs, which facts or circumstances shall be publicly stated on the agenda or announced.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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