Ousted San Marcos High School Principal Ed Behrens’s lawsuit against Santa Barbara Unified School District will move forward with several key documents sealed from public viewing. In Judge Pauline Maxwell’s courtroom this morning, Behrens’s attorney, Leila Noël, with Cappello & Noël, argued that the privacy of personnel files is protected under the California Constitution and the district’s own policy. For her client’s case to proceed with those documents open to the public, she added, would be “highly inappropriate and a violation of Mr. Behrens’s rights.”
These documents, however, are part of the same file that “shows a positive career trajectory, with generally positive evaluations continuing to the end of the 2016-17 school year,” according to the lawsuit, filed in May. Behrens is suing for reinstatement and punitive damages. In March, the district’s Board of Education voted to reassign Behrens to a teaching position in the aftermath of a video circulated online in January involving first-year boys threatening the lives of female students. According to parents familiar with the cyber threat, at least one of those boys is facing multiple felony charges in juvenile court. Supporters of Behrens said he was unfairly blamed for response failures at the district level.
Arguing for the district, Joseph Sholder, with Griffith & Thornburgh, said Noël’s motion to seal the documents didn’t pass the “balancing test” weighing Behrens’s privacy against the public’s interest and right to know the extent of his performance as a leader of a public high school. “I’m not going to base my case [against Behrens] on cherry-picked portions of his file,” Sholder said, nor should Noël. “I want the public to see the whole file,” he added. “We are a public institution. We should be scrutinized, and scrutinized closely.”
Judge Maxwell, who said at the outset of the hearing that she was inclined to grant Noël’s motion, ruled in Behrens’s favor with no explanation.
Among the documents now sealed: the district’s February 7 letter reprimanding Behrens, in which the district blames the principal for “exacerbating” the cyber threat, according to the lawsuit; the district’s February 12 letter reassigning Behrens to a teaching position; Behrens’s February 19 response to the letter of reprimand; the district’s February 22 evaluation of Behrens, which is “extremely negative,” according to the lawsuit, and contains an “inexplicable drop in five of six categories since [his] June 2017 review”; the district’s March 7 statement detailing the reasons for his reassignment; and Behrens’s March 12 written statement to the district’s Board of Education.
As the case proceeds, forthcoming documents deemed confidential — such as depositions from Behrens’s colleagues and past administrators, for example — will also be sealed, presumably. However, Judge Maxwell did say that if the case goes to trial, it will be open to the public. Noël agreed. After the hearing, Noël said Behrens is not giving interviews.
Behrens reassignment is to teach social studies at Santa Barbara Junior High. District Superintendent Cary Matsuoka said Behrens “understands that is going to be his position next year. That’s his job, and if he doesn’t show up, that’s a different conversation.” Matsuoka added that the district owes Behrens the teaching position, regardless of his lawsuit against his employer. “We have to separate this litigation from his rights as an employee,” he said.