Complaints allege hostile culture in McAllen ISD communications department

The McAllen ISD school board meeting room in the district's Administration Building on Oct. 13, 2021 in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

Complaints filed by employees in McAllen ISD’s marketing and communications department last year allege a culture of hostility and inappropriate behavior allowed to run rampant, though individuals involved dispute some of the claims.

The complaints preceded three people leaving the office: Director Jake Berry, Assistant Director Felicia Villarreal and Berry’s secretary, Victoria Pena.

Both Pena and Berry are no longer district employees. Berry resigned last month after the discovery of inappropriate pictures and videos on his work laptop that do not appear to have factored into the complaints from November.

Villarreal remains an employee, but is now a prevention specialist in the district’s counseling department.

The complaints — filed by Villarreal and Pena — describe cursing, shouting and crude humor as occurring frequently in the office. They also describe Villarreal being uncomfortable with how close Berry and Pena were, and tensions escalating drastically in the department last semester.

During the Superintendent’s “Fishing for Kids” Tournament on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 of last year, the relationship between those three individuals reached a boiling point at a co-ed rental condo, and after what’s described as some boozy post-charity event celebrating, according to the complaints.

School board trustees in February agreed that the investigation into those allegations was factually flawed because of false statements made by two individuals during the course of it. They voted to rescind their acceptance of those findings.

Villarreal told The Monitor that she feels allegations against her are faulty, that she took appropriate steps and that she feels the matter has harmed her reputation.

“It is my belief the McAllen ISD has determined that the grievance filed against me by a former employee was baseless and without merit,” she wrote. “The grievance was based on the false testimony of 2 former employees who have resigned. I believe that at the conclusion of this investigation I will be exonerated and cleared of the allegations made against me.”

Berry, on the other hand, told The Monitor he feels the situation is being used as a political weapon against Superintendent J.A. Gonzalez and School Board President Tony Forina.

“The trustees are in a political dog fight for the majority of the board,” he wrote. “I don’t know anything about the investigation other than that the board began leaking info to media outlets from the get go. I apologize to Dr. Gonzalez, and Tony Forina for being a distraction during a crucial time for the district, and the community. I have been gone for a month and I (am) unaware of anything going on with the investigation.”

The board hasn’t appeared significantly divided on the matter publicly, though trustees have discussed the scandal at length in executive session.

Four seats are up for grabs on the board in the May election, two of which are undefended.

Both complaints were filed months before the filing deadline for that election, and the district elected to resist releasing them through open records requests filed in November.

It’s not clear whether there is still an active investigation into the complaints, and the district has generally declined to comment on them or ongoing investigations.

Pena did not respond to requests for comment.


Villarreal’s 11-page complaint describes a period of time from September to November of last year largely focusing on her relationship with Berry. She claims he was hostile and unprofessional during that time.

Jake Berry

Villarreal filed her complaint against Berry on Nov. 6.

The next day, Pena shot back a shorter complaint against Villarreal, alleging that she too had acted unprofessionally and contributed to the department’s unhealthy culture.

The district placed Berry on leave on Nov. 8 and Villarreal on leave on the next day.

The complaints relate a variety of allegations that describe tensions running high in the office.

At one point, Villarreal writes, an argument in the communications department grew so heated that an employee in a neighboring office asked if she should fetch a police officer.

Selling sponsorship ads at district athletic facilities triggered more than one of those fights, Villarreal’s complaint says.

After that complaint was filed, trustees voted not to pursue new sponsorship opportunities earlier this year.

Berry describes yelling and cursing as not being commonplace, saying he can only remember one instance in which they occurred.

Villarreal alleges that Berry claimed at one point that he had recorded staff conversations in his office that he wasn’t present for. She says she wasn’t ultimately sure whether there actually was a recording, or saying it was as part of “more mental manipulation and mind games being played by Jake.”

Berry said he was not recording employees but had left a streaming software running that meant his computer camera light was on.

“She assumed it was on and recording. It was not, but she ran with the assumption,” he wrote.

Attempts at humor seem to underlie some of the allegations.

Villarreal claims that at a staff meeting Berry ended the meeting by pulling out a photoshopped picture. Villarreal writes that a subordinate’s face had been photoshopped into a picture of Superintendent Gonzalez with his son on his lap, with the employee’s face superimposed over the child’s.

She describes it as a sort of visual aid for a joke about “living life for a child … or though (sic) a child’s eyes.”

Sometimes Berry included Villarreal in the photoshopped pictures.

“Several instances include making a photo of me depicting me as a convict with hickies on my neck. Another depicted me being built and acting like a football player,” she wrote.

Villarreal alleges those photos are a form of sexual harassment.

Berry says he did frequently photoshop different things, although he describes doing so as humorous and not malicious. He says Villarreal did not take issue with those jokes until she decided to file a complaint.

Pena, however, claims that Villarreal was prone to cursing and using crude humor herself, sometimes making sexualized remarks.

At one point, Pena writes, Villarreal showed her and other district employees a “whole video about men fighting with their penis (sic)” on TikTok. Berry described that video as a Comedy Central skit that showed blurred out men’s genitals, adding that individuals who saw the video seemed uncomfortable with it.

Pena also claimed Villarreal would encourage her to flirt with other employees and would badmouth coworkers.

“I feel sick at work every day with the idea of being alone with her, in the case that people step out and I am left alone with her,” she wrote.


At the fishing tournament tensions in the communications department reached a breaking point brought on by Berry, Pena and Villarreal all staying in the same condo together and spending most of their evenings that weekend at bars.

The tournament is a charity event that communications department staff organizes. District employees are paid for working it.

According to Villarreal, she was never comfortable with Berry staying at the condo she and Pena had rented for the weekend.

“I was not quite ok with it, and neither was my husband,” Villarreal’s complaint reads. “I resent that I was placed in this position. My husband was not pleased at all with this arrangement.”

Board President Forina stayed at the condo one night that weekend, which Villarreal says she was uncomfortable with. She said both men were in a position of power and she felt like she couldn’t turn them down.

Berry, on the other hand, claims Villarreal repeatedly invited him to stay at the condo and said Forina could stay as well.

“Not once did she voice her displeasure about anything,” he wrote. “In fact, when I found out that her husband was unaware of the invitation I became very uncomfortable. Especially, when he called her mad about it the second night.”

Berry, Pena and Villarreal went out on the town Friday and Saturday night that weekend, visiting a few bars, Villarreal’s complaint alleged.

At one point, Villarreal writes, Berry and her again argued over who should drive the group home. She wound up driving, he took a cab.

The complaint says Pena, who was 20 at the time, was turned away from one bar. Pena claims Villarreal asked her to bring an open bottle of wine to the tournament, which Berry says he was unaware of at the time.

Both complaints depict Villarreal being uncomfortable with how close Berry and Pena seemed to be, and that added to friction.

Villarreal writes that Pena “would not leave Jacob’s side.” Berry says Villarreal was generally unhappy with him speaking to anyone at the district without being involved.

By the Monday after the tournament the break in the department seemed unmendable.

In October, Villarreal writes, Pena and Berry grew noticeably distant from her.

Pena says Villarreal was avoiding her, and that Villarreal had started making allegations.

Villarreal had, in fact, started talking about conditions in the office to the district’s human resources department.

Berry, meanwhile, says he was not shunning Villarreal but following advice given to him by HR on the situation.

The district also did not respond to questions about whether it took appropriate measures regarding the complaints or whether it generated any sort of law enforcement response.