A Santa Barbara judge has tentatively granted a motion that would effectively end former San Marcos High School Principal Ed Behrens’ lawsuit against the Santa Barbara Unified School District.
According to a tentative ruling published last week, Judge Pauline Maxwell determined, based on the pleadings already filed in the case, that the district is entitled to judgment against Mr. Behrens’ action for violation of due constitutional process. She is expected to affirm her tentative ruling during a hearing Wednesday in Santa Barbara County Superior Court.
Mr. Behrens sued the district in May 2018, alleging he was made the scapegoat of a Jan. 19, 2018 student threat video targeting several female students.
The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department determined there was no credible threat of physical harm, but on Jan. 23, 2018 a group of parents contacted Mr. Behrens and threatened to release the video if he did not release the names of the students involved. The video depicted a student with an antique musket describing how to kill female classmates.
Mr. Behrens did not release the names of the students and the video was eventually released to local news media.
Mr. Behrens received a letter of reprimand on Feb. 19, 2018.
The lawsuit claimed Superintendent Cary Matsuoka prepared Mr. Behrens’ notice of reassignment five days after the reprimand letter was delivered and before Mr. Behrens submitted his response letter to the district.
He was demoted in March 2018 to a junior high school social studies teacher. The demotion included a $50,000 salary cut, according to his lawsuit.
On May 9 Judge Maxwell denied Mr. Behrens’ petition for reinstatement because the district did not have a duty to reinstate him and it did not abuse its discretion by removing him from his principal position and reassigning him to a teaching position.
On Aug. 9 Judge Maxwell dismissed Mr. Behrens’ labor code claim for unlawful retaliation.
Attorneys for the school district argued that Mr. Behrens’ final due process claim must fail because the district is a government instrument and not a person within the meaning of the relevant statute.
“While local governmental entities, such as cities and counties, are considered “persons” subject to suit under Section 1983, states and their instrumentalities are not because of sovereign immunity,” observed Judge Maxwell.
Mr. Behrens’ attorneys, from Santa Barbara law firm Cappello & Noël, argued school districts are more like counties than arms of the state because the state guarantees a minimum amount of funding, but if a school district’s property tax base equals or exceeds the minimum funding amount, the school district does not receive any state funds.
Judge Maxwell explained that although school districts receive revenue from state along with local tax dollars, the state still exercises “pervasive control” over the affairs of school districts. She added that because Mr. Behrens still works in education, his demotion did not deprive him of a liberty interest.
“Stigmatizing statements that merely cause ‘reduced economic returns and diminished prestige, but not permanent exclusion from, or protracted interruption of, gainful employment within the trade or profession’ do not constitute a deprivation of liberty,” wrote Judge Maxwell, quoting from the case of Blantz v. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.