Testimony begins in case of fired Arlington Heights whistle-blower

FORT WORTH -- School district officials tried Thursday to paint a former Arlington Heights High School assistant principal as a bully who created hostile environments at schools where he worked.

But the attorney for Joseph Palazzolo asserted that school officials began to target Palazzolo, and moved to fire him, only after he became a whistle-blower.

Thursday was the first day of testimony before an examiner for the Texas Education Agency, a hearing Palazzolo requested in hopes of reversing his firing.

Attorney Jason Smith said Palazzolo told officials about attendance fraud, questionable booster club spending and an inappropriate relationship between a supervisor and a coach. Smith said Palazzolo became a target only after news outlets began reporting the concerns, which embarrassed the district.

But Sandra Carpenter, an attorney for the district, said Palazzolo was fired for reasons including lying about his criminal history on his job application, not disclosing a former termination, creating a hostile work environment and being aggressive toward students.

Officials reviewed a video deposition of Margaret Renfro, a former Heights student who now attends college in Oklahoma.

She went into detail about the night of the 2009 homecoming dance when Palazzolo refused to let a group of students she was with into the dance. Palazzolo asked police officers to give some male students in her group field sobriety tests, she said.

Renfro, who was student council president, said she repeatedly asked Palazzolo why he wouldn't let her group into the dance. He grabbed her shoulder and led her out of the school, she testified.

"I knew that none of the teachers would treat us like this. ... I felt that he was on a power trip, and he was being a bully," she said.

He didn't grab her hard, but he had no right to touch her, she said.

Renfro declined to give her home address for the record, saying her parents were warned by Michael Menchaca -- the district official who initially oversaw the Heights investigation -- that Palazzolo was not someone to mess with and could be "scary."

In questioning, Smith insinuated that because of the Renfro family's long history with the school that her family had close ties to Trustee Judy Needham, former Principal Neta Alexander and former coach Isabelle Perry. Smith noted that although the homecoming dance was in the fall, administrators did not take action until the summer, after Palazzolo's allegations came out.

Alexander and Perry resigned from the district in wake of district investigations into complaints by Palazzolo and others.

At the hearing Thursday, two teachers from South Hills High School, who worked with Palazzolo there in the 2007-08 school year, testified that he contributed to divisive attitudes and a hostile environment.

Superintendent Melody Johnson's testimony took up most of the day as attorneys tried to create a timeline of when she knew about Palazzolo's claims.

Johnson said that Palazzolo was not the only person reporting on Heights and that he was not singled out for retribution.