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Behrens Fights Back with Appeal Against Demotion

Behrens Contests Demotion, Battles Against Matsuoka and Board

Ed Behrens | Credit: Paul Wellman File

After losing his lawsuit against the Santa Barbara School District last May, Ed Behrens’ year-and-a-half-long legal battle reignited this week. The demoted San Marcos High principal fired back Friday through an appeal of the court’s ruling against the suit, which demands he be reinstated to the position because the demotion was “malicious and retaliatory.”

“In deposition, [school district Superintendent] Matsuoka admitted that strategic public statements he made about Ed were false,” said Leila Noël, partner in the law firm Cappello & Noël, which is representing Behrens. “He also carefully controlled the information to the board and Ed about Ed’s performance to lead the board to the predetermined result he wanted: Ed’s removal from SMHS. We are pursuing this case to ensure justice is done.”

Behrens lost his lawsuit against the district in May of this year because Judge Pauline Maxwell said that the district didn’t need any specific reasons to demote Behrens, as he was an “at will” employee. His reassignment as a Santa Barbara Junior High social studies teacher in March 2018 came with more than a $50,000 salary cut, which he asserts is punitive. He has worked for the district 27 years, 20 of which were at San Marcos High School.

The demotion came at the peak of parent and community turmoil over the now ill-famed “chat room incident” that erupted around the same time. In the video posted at a video-game chat room, four male teenage students demonstrated how to load a musket and shoot “a thot,” (that ho over there) and gave a list of “thots that need to be eradicated,” 16 of whom were students from San Marcos High and Santa Barbara High, mostly females. 

The lawsuit claims Behrens’ hands were tied in handling the incident, as he could not fulfill parents’ demands to release the names of the four boys because it would have been a violation of privacy restrictions under FERPA. The suit also says his communications with parents about the incident was limited because the district requires all communications on events involving violence or a threat of violence to go through the ParentSquare communication service. As a result, the angry parents released the video to the media and began an even larger public uproar about the district’s mishandling of the incident. 

The lawsuit claims that after the January 2018 video was released to the media, “[Superintendent] Matsuoka began a campaign to deflect blame away from himself and his assistants and to make Behrens the scapegoat for the community’s reaction to the incident.”

Despite the chat-room incident, hundreds of parents who support Behrens flooded the Board of Education meeting on March 13, 2018, in which four of the five boardmembers voted to oust Behrens — arguably inciting more outrage than the threatening video. 

“The district didn’t anticipate the subsequent, impassioned outcry of support for Principal Behrens, including the attendance of over 300 community members at the March 13, 2018 Board meeting to challenge the demotion,” the suit reads. “The district ignored the views of these constituents and approved the demotion, and an election recall effort to remove several school board members was initiated immediately after.”

The lawsuit claims that demoting Behrens denies his right to due process under District Administrative Regulation 4313.2 because Behrens was not notified of “all derogatory charges against him and afforded a meaningful opportunity to respond.” In addition to seeking reinstatement to his position of principal of San Marcos High School, Behrens is also seeking back pay.

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