By Marsha Sutton
Senior Education Writer
The Del Mar Union School District agreed to pay a teacher’s court costs and legal fees when the teacher filed a harassment charge last spring against a parent at her school. The teacher claimed the parent, the mother of several children at the teacher’s school, was threatening the teacher and endangering the students at the school.
The teacher, and the district, lost the case when the judge ruled in favor of the defendant, the parent, after a court appearance that included testimony from the teacher, the parent and the school’s principal, Wendy Wardlow of Del Mar Heights School.
The alleged erratic behavior started when the teacher began dating the mother’s now ex-husband (the mother and father were separated and in the process of divorcing at the time).
After the teacher reported to the school’s principal that the mother had made offensive and threatening statements to her, Wardlow alerted DMUSD superintendent Jim Peabody, who brought the issue to the district’s lawyer Dan Shinoff, of Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz.
Shinoff advised the school district to take the threat seriously and to pay the teacher’s litigation costs. The district became involved, he said, “because of the safety of the kids on campus.”
After handling three school shootings in San Diego County, Shinoff said he weighed the risks carefully and recommended that the district support the teacher. “The school district’s interest was to make sure that all students and staff were safe which is its constitutional obligation,” he said.
If the district had not taken the reported threats seriously and someone had been hurt, Shinoff said people would view the tragedy as having been foreseeable and would consider that those “in loco parentis had recklessly disregarded the obvious.”
“That’s a huge calculated risk,” he said.
Shinoff had no regrets about advising the district to take the case. “It’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback,” he said in an email.
The harassment case began on April 25 when the teacher filed a temporary restraining order against the mother, which was granted. The mother was ordered to stay at least 100 yards from the teacher until the formal hearing on May 13.
At the May 13 hearing, after testimony, the restraining order was dissolved and “denied with prejudice,” meaning the case cannot be filed again.
“The court initially granted the request for a temporary restraining order and later declined to grant a request for a longer term injunction,” Shinoff explained.
The case cost the district about $6,700, said Peabody — $2,875 to Shinoff’s firm to represent the plaintiff (the teacher) in court, and $3,800 to the defendant for her attorney’s fees.
After finding in favor of the defendant, the court ordered the teacher to pay $3,800 to the defendant for reimbursement of legal fees. The DMUSD school board then met in closed session and agreed to pay the $3,800 owed by the teacher to the mother. It was after the case was officially closed in August that the district disclosed that the school board had agreed to cover these costs.
The mother said her defense cost $4,500, and she will try to collect the remaining $700 in small claims court.