The Cold Spring Elementary School District has sought a restraining order against a parent whom they allege has been harassing school employees.
The parent, Amanda Rowan, alleges through her attorney that she is being targeted and retaliated against because of her calls for more transparency at the school district.
The situation is complex and complicated, nuanced and nebulous, but it is clear that the district and its allies are trying to put distance between itself and Rowan — and taking legal action to do so.
In the past few months, Cold Spring requested a restraining order against Rowan for allegedly harassing employees. The temporary restraining order was denied, but the commissioner, Stephen Foley, recommended Rowan only contact the district through legal counsel for the remainder of legal proceedings, which will determine if the district is granted a restraining order.
Rowan has a history of contacting trustees, teachers, and district staff with grievances about the district. In Superintendent/Principal Amy Alzina’s March restraining order declaration, she describes Rowan as having a history of making “hostile, aggressive, and threatening statements to various members of the staff of the Cold Spring School District and also the Board of Trustees.” She said she witnessed staff members’ fear of opening emails and answering phone calls from Rowan because “they are afraid of where her wrath will turn next and what will happen.”
“Amanda Rowan has never engaged in and never would engage in any act of violence against anyone at the school district, nor has she threatened any act of violence, and nothing that the District has submitted constitutes any evidence that she has,” said Timothy Cary, legal counsel for Rowan, who herself declined to comment.
The district feels Rowan has bombarded it with cease and desists, Public Records Act requests, and demands for investigation after the school suspended her daughter. So far, responding to Cary has cost the district over $100,000 in legal fees.
“In almost 30 years of practice, I have never seen an angry checkbook and a law degree so devastate a school community,” said the attorney representing the district, Gregory Rolen. “This is nothing less than an advanced placement course in running district legal bills and wreaking havoc on teaching staff. It is obvious and it is odious.”
The cease and desists revolved mainly around communication, with several aimed at Superintendent/Principal Amy Alzina. One required Alzina to cease meeting with Rowan’s daughter at the small school nestled in the foothills of Montecito.
In a February letter from Alzina to Rowan in which Alzina pleads with Rowan to cease with the legal action, she says: “Frankly, I no longer speak with her [the daughter] alone out of fear of what you may do or say. We have heard you might file a third uniform complaint if I so much as talk to her. Staff is also walking on eggshells. I am conflicted because I have a responsibility to support all students and all staff. This is no way to run a school.”
The district has described the public information requests as the most troubling move by Rowan. She filed five requests that each had numerous subcategories of information being requested, with one request going back over 10 years. Rowan is interested in uncovering several pieces of information about the district, particularly regarding expenditures from Measure C, a 2008 bond measure that authorized Cold Spring to borrow $2.44 million.
Though the district accounts for every Measure C dollar spent on its website, the Public Records Act requests asked for items like bid documentation, bid proposal, contract documents, construction documents, and more. According to Alzina, the requests have been “overburdening and stressing our staff to the point of needing to seek medical attention.”
According to Cary, however, the length of time the district is taking to respond to these requests is unacceptable, and the district is making the process more cumbersome than necessary.
“Our requests for information about expenditures from the proceeds of the Measure C bond measure are completely reasonable and very common. Normal operating procedure is for a school district to provide public records quickly, in particular if the records sought are for information on construction work, by simply putting them in a room and letting the requestor review them,” Cary said. “It should not require a major expenditure of legal money or time.”
Rowan’s inquiries and calls for more transparency at the district began with the previous administration back in 2016. She believes the district suspending her daughter last year was an act of retaliation for her efforts to expose issues in the school.
But for the district, the legal battle began at the point of suspension. In Alzina’s February letter to Rowan, she alleged that Rowan was retaliating against herself and the district for the suspension. The reason for the 5th grader’s suspension has not been made public, although Rowan acknowledged it happened in a NextDoor post in November.
“Amanda, we both know it is not a coincidence; instead, a concerted effort to force the removal of your daughter’s suspension from her file,” Alzina wrote in the letter. “If it was your goal to make the school district and its students hurt, it is working. Set aside the exorbitant amount of general fund dollars expended in response to Mr. Cary’s correspondence, your activities have taken an enormous toll on staff’s morale.”
The battle will continue on for now, but Cary said he feels good about Rowan’s standing with the upcoming hearing on the restraining order.
“Amanda Rowan is disappointed that the Cold Spring School community has been subjected to outlandish and unreasonable fearmongering, and welcomes her day in court,” Cary said. “We fully expect that the petition for a restraining order will be denied based on the clear lack of factual support and the complete inability to prove violence, actual violence, or threats of violence, by clear and convincing evidence. There is no such evidence because such acts never occurred. Therefore we believe the petition will be denied.”
Despite Foley denying the temporary restraining order, Cary has asked that he be removed from the case. “Stephen Foley, to whom the above matter has been assigned, is prejudiced against Respondent or the interests of Respondent such that I believe that Respondent cannot have a fair and impartial trial or hearing before Commissioner Stephen Foley,” Cary’s declaration read.
The turmoil stretches beyond just an issue between Alzina and Rowan. The teachers union sent a letter to Rowan asking her to back away.
“The Union is concerned that Cold Spring teachers are again receiving emails from a parent, Ms. Rowan, that again targets teachers,” the letter from the California Teachers Association read. “This time, the email contained attachments that include false allegations and — as one from Ms. Rowan’s lawyer makes an allegation of defamation against a teacher — again raises the specter of legal action against teachers.”
The district’s biggest priority now is to get through the ordeal and move on.
“I have an obligation as the superintendent to ensure a safe educational environment for our students and staff,” Alzina said. “Students can’t learn and teachers can’t teach when they feel threatened or unsafe. It is the hope of the governing board, teachers, staff, and greater community that we can get back to focusing on the educational program rather than hurtful threats and attacks on our staff that doesn’t belong anywhere near our children.”