Norgaard, SMUSD Reach Settlement in Civil Suit

One month after the parties agreed on a framework to resolve their dispute, the San Marino Unified School District and one of its Board of Education members, Chris Norgaard, have signed a formal settlement to his lawsuit against the school system and several of its officials.
In the agreement, Norgaard agreed to drop his lawsuit with prejudice — meaning he cannot later try to litigate the issue again — and there is no monetary award to him or the former defendants. Nor is there an admission of liability from either party.
The agreement, reached Monday, also introduces a new code of conduct that significantly restricts board members’ ability to interact with school faculty and staff members during school hours. In a joint statement, all parties affirmed that the issue that began in January was resolved.
“The parties are pleased with this result,” the statement reads. “All parties agree their prime objective is the education of the district’s students and that litigation does not advance that goal. The parties also agree that all district employees, administrators and board members are entitled to an environment free from improper conduct, and that when concerns from employees are raised, it is the duty of the district to investigate and respond appropriately to them. The parties look forward to working together for the continued success of our San Marino schools.”
The new code of conduct bars board members from visiting a school site, district administrator or employee (other than the superintendent) without the express permission of the superintendent, who will have the discretion to decide whether
the meeting would be best suited for a board meeting. Public events at schools, such as open houses, games and PTA meetings, will not require prior permission.
When interacting with district employees in all contexts, board members are permitted only to shake hands in greeting them. Board members with children in schools are allowed to work with the superintendent to establish “reasonable accommodations consistent with typical parent-school interactions.”
The settlement resolves Norgaard’s complaint that he was defamed by Superintendent Alex Cherniss and Assistant Superintendent Linda de la Torre and that his civil rights were violated by his four peers — C. Joseph Chang, Nam Jack, Lisa Link and Shelley Ryan — on the school board. The suit stemmed from a district-initiated investigation of sexual harassment allegations against Norgaard, the existence of which was made public by a statement to the news media in January that identified Norgaard by name.
The allegations included emails from two district employees who claimed Norgaard had kissed them on the lips while greeting them at school events; one woman said it happened on two occasions, leading her to conclude it was intentional on his part.
Despite Norgaard’s immediate and consistent denial of the allegations, the investigation concluded that the bulk of them could be substantiated. However, the firm that handled the investigation noted it did not find Norgaard to be “sexually motivated” and recommended he undergo training on not mixing personal conduct with his professional duties.
In legal filings, Norgaard asserted that the closeness of the San Marino community meant that residents friendly with one another often greeted each other with a hug and a kiss.
After the district began a second investigation into allegations that Norgaard had intimidated parties involved in the first probe (which he also has denied, but the inquiry found were valid), Norgaard sued Cherniss and de la Torre for alleged defamation and the Board of Education for alleged civil rights violations (the board had just barred him from Cherniss’ annual evaluation).
A judge ordered a settlement conference in August, after which the parties announced they had reached a tentative agreement.
In an unrelated development, Cherniss is leaving the district next week after accepting the superintendent position with Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District in August. Jack also is not seeking re-election this year, while Chang and
Ryan are.

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