Oakland School Board Reprimands Dobbins for Conduct

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday August 24, 2007

Solemn-faced members of the Oakland Unified School District board gave fellow board member Chris Dobbins the severest possible reprimand on Wednesday night, voting 5-2 to censure him “in the strongest possible terms,” stripping him of committee assignments, and requesting his resignation for what the board called “unethical, unprofessional, and inappropriate conduct” regarding Dobbins’ contact with a 17-year-old district high school student.  

Dobbins and board member Kerry Hamill cast the two votes against the resolution. A large number of Dobbins’ supporters attended the special board meeting, several of them speaking in favor of Dobbins and against the censure motion.  

Meanwhile, the board released for the first time details of the allegations against Dobbins, including late-night parking with the student in secluded East Bay spots and emails that indicated a relationship that—while not necessarily sexual—had gone far beyond mentoring. 

Board member Greg Hodge, who chaired the committee that investigated the allegations against Dobbins and made the censure and resignation request, said that the board action was necessary because “this board can have no tolerance for certain types of behavior … we need to distance ourselves from that,” and said that “if a 35-year-old man tried to date one of my daughters, we’d be having another kind of conversation.” 

Dobbins, who earlier appeared alternately angry and visibly shaken as fellow board members took turns to lecture him from their seats across the OUSD board chambers, said in a public statement following the vote that he would not resign.  

And while Dobbins added, “I could have used better judgment,” and, “if [the student involved] felt I overstepped my bounds, then I apologize for that.” The first-term board member criticized the findings against him and tried to minimize his actions, saying, “I don’t feel the investigation was conducted in a totally ethical manner,” and “at the end of the day, I didn’t steal any money or anything like that.” 

Dobbins later told reporters, “I don’t think I should be censured.”  

But during the board meeting, Dobbins seconded and then voted for Hamill’s substitute motion that would have censured him only, dropping the call for his resignation and the stripping of his committee assignments. 

Hamill said that she considered censure “serious,” and that “stripping him of his board responsibilities does an injustice to the residents of his district who elected him.” 

But while calling Hamill’s concerns and substitute resolution “positive,” board member Gary Yee said, “the alleged conduct stepped over a professional line. It’s important for the men on this board to exemplify actions towards women, especially the actions of older men towards younger women. Much as I would like to support a more modest resolution, a censure alone would water down the message.” 

Board member Alice Spearman told Dobbins that while “I don’t take any joy in supporting this censure, it sounded like you made light of the situation” when Dobbins complained that other board members had not gotten censured for other deserving actions.  

“Right now, I wouldn’t trust you with any female student,” Spearman said. “You still have a lot of stuff to offer to the district. That’s your being. But you’ve got to use better judgment.” 

And board member Noel Gallo said that the censure resolution was “not a political vendetta against Mr. Dobbins” but a test for the district. “You judge any institution by what it believes, what it values, and what standards it lives by.”  

Gallo, who was the first board member to call for Dobbins’ resignation following the allegations and had been one of his sharpest critics, then said, “forgiveness is the way to heal” and walked across and shook Dobbins hand. 

In making its recommendation, a three-member board committee made up of Hodge, Noel Gallo, and Alice Spearman issued a report that gave details of the allegations that caused OUSD State Administrator Kimberly Statham to contact the Department of Youth Services last month about complaints her office had received about Dobbins. The DYS referral led to an Oakland Police Department investigation that ended with no criminal charges filed against Dobbins. 

In a section entitled “Statement of Corroborated Facts,” the report said that Dobbins developed a friendship with the 17-year-old student, who Dobbins said he was mentoring, over the course of several months. The report noted that on the night when the student graduated, Dobbins picked her up at 2 in the morning from where the student was staying at an Emeryville hotel and drove her to the Berkeley Marina, where they parked. The student told board members that the two kissed and hugged in the car while at the Marina, but Dobbins denies those allegations. 

The following day, two Oakland Unified School District staff members met with Dobbins over rumors the staff members had heard about Dobbins’ relationship with the student. Dobbins said on Wednesday that he learned “for the first time” during that meeting that the student had romantic feelings for him, and agreed with staff members that he would end his relationship with the student. 

Excerpts from email messages between Dobbins and the student, released with the report, confirmed that the relationship between Dobbins and the student had gone beyond that of mentoring. 

On the same day that staff members met with Dobbins and he promised to break off the relationship, the student wrote Dobbins, saying, “what happened last night, even if it wasn’t meant to be, definitely confirmed my feeling. I guess before I wasn’t sure what to think about you. I understand you have a girlfriend, and I always questioned myself if I was doing the right think by liking someone who is taken. … I can say you are everything I look for in a man.” The student wrote, however, that “you made it clear that we can’t be together.” 

Four days later Dobbins wrote back, addressing the student as “dearest” and saying that after reading her email, “I just have to say again that I have to listen to my head and not my heart … When the opportunity presented itself, I got scared because I am too old to be trying to get at you. In addition, it is unethical to do so. Plus, I have a girlfriend so I should not have been trying stuff in the first place.” 

But Dobbins continued to see the student at late hours, picking her up at her UC dorm room at 10 p.m. in early July, taking her to dinner, and then parking at Strawberry Canyon in Berkeley. 

Asked by reporters if that had not violated his pledge to staff members to break off the relationship, Dobbins said, “I was distancing myself from her, but I was doing it on my own terms. After that, I never saw her again.” 

Dobbins said that “I never did anything criminal with her,” saying that he often met with her at her request to discuss family and school problems that she was having, and that he met her during late hours because he was studying for the California Bar Exam and those were the times when he had finished studying.