SMUSD, Norgaard Reach Impasse on Cherniss Evaluation

Embattled school board member Chris Norgaard, who is claiming damages against the San Marino Unified School District in a legal complaint regarding a sexual harassment investigation, has agreed to recuse himself from closed session meetings regarding the potential litigation, but not from evaluations on Superintendent Alex Cherniss — who also is a defendant in Norgaard’s complaint.
Simultaneously, the SMUSD Board of Education was scheduled to take up two items regarding these issues at its meeting Tuesday — the establishment of two committees, one addressing specifically Norgaard’s threat of litigation and another to conduct Cherniss’ annual performance review.
Joshua Morrison, an attorney representing the defendants in Norgaard’s complaint, said it is appropriate to exclude Norgaard from Cherniss’ evaluation process. In addition to SMUSD and Cherniss, the complaint also named Assistant Superintendent Linda de la Torre, who handles human resources for the district, as a defendant.
“Mr. Norgaard has filed a Claim for Damages against the School District, the Superintendent, and the Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources, and has threatened to personally sue the Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent,” Morrison said in an emailed statement. “Based on these facts, the board may determine it is inappropriate for him to participate in the process of evaluating the Superintendent.”
Meanwhile, Guy Glazier, the attorney representing Norgaard, said: “That is a very dangerous move on the part of somebody. We’re not sure who. Mr. Norgaard was duly elected to participate in that very important function of the school board.”
Tuesday’s school board meeting was to be held after The Outlook’s deadline.
Norgaard’s complaint regards the sexual harassment investigation of him by the district, which was initiated by Cherniss in January. A separate battery investigation was conducted by the San Marino Police Department. Nothing materialized from either investigation, with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office noting, based on the SMPD report, that the complaining victim did not desire prosecution.
The complaint also addresses an ongoing second investigation by SMUSD, which was initiated on April 19 based on a new report regarding “harassing, bullying and retaliatory conduct and commentary” on the part of Norgaard toward district employees who previously reported improper conduct.
Norgaard, first elected in 2003 and currently serving through 2020, filed the legal complaint on April 23 alleging defamation, emotional distress and the deprivation of state and federal civil rights. He amended the claim on April 30, resetting the 50-day window in which the defendants may respond to the claim.
Deborah Parker, who is representing Norgaard alongside Glazier, told SMUSD lawyers in an email on May 2 that Norgaard would not recuse himself from Cherniss’ evaluations, in opposition to their requests. Parker, in the same conversation, informed SMUSD lawyers that Norgaard would recuse himself from last week’s Board of Education meeting regarding the legal complaint to avoid a conflict of interest. Glazier forwarded the email chain to The Outlook.
“The reprehensible course of conduct pursued by the district and its administrators … [has] had at least one of its purposes the exclusion of Mr. Norgaard from this very important aspect of the job he was elected to do,” Parker wrote in the email. “Mr. Norgaard’s participation in the evaluation of the superintendent will consist of Mr. Norgaard listing actions or non-actions by the superintendent (unrelated to the facts and circumstances giving rise to Mr. Norgaard’s meritorious claims) that should be taken into account, without making subjective comments or giving a numerical rating.”
Norgaard’s complaint specifies that the investigation substantially compromised his ability to act as a school board member because of both policy restrictions on his ability to enter school campuses, as well as the negative publicity that came with public disclosure of the investigation.
The investigation was made public in a Jan. 29 news release from SMUSD, which identified Norgaard by name. The same evening, a news release issued by SMPD indicated it was conducting a criminal battery investigation into a school board member, although it did not identify anyone by name. (Law enforcement agencies do not typically identify subjects of any investigation unless they are prepared to make an arrest.)
The complaint filed by Norgaard appears to cite the results of the district’s investigation, which was conducted by the firm Nicole Miller & Associates, in claiming that not only did Norgaard not harass any current or former district employees, but also that Cherniss and de la Torre fabricated the allegations.
In the complaint, Norgaard and his team claim that Nicole Miller & Associates concluded on March 22 that he had “committed no ‘sexual harassment’ or other misconduct and violated no law or policy.” It goes a step further by adding that investigators concluded Norgaard’s conduct was not “sexually motivated,” nor had anyone interviewed perceived it as such.
This conclusion forms the basis of Norgaard’s claim that Cherniss and de la Torre fabricated the allegations that resulted in the investigation.
The evaluation by the District Attorney’s Office notes that the victim, a current SMUSD employee, reported that Norgaard contacted her twice “in an inappropriate manner,” first in October 2015 and the second in either 2016 or 2017. The victim said Norgaard hugged and kissed her on the lips on both occasions, although she did not believe it was for sexual gratification and ultimately signed a Refusal to Prosecute form.
San Marino Police Chief John Incontro, asked generally about victims who decline prosecution, said there can be a multitude of factors in that decision.
“In a case like this where it’s a misdemeanor, we have to rely upon the victim,” Incontro explained. “For a variety of personal reasons, a victim may not move forward with a prosecution. It doesn’t mean that nothing’s happened. It just means that they’re not moving forward with the prosecution.”
Norgaard’s complaint also makes reference to kissing, stating that it is common among entrenched San Marino residents to greet each other affectionately and that it is routine for public officials such as school board members to greet locals with a hug and a kiss.
The complaint also suggests Cherniss had an ulterior motive for preventing Norgaard from participating in his upcoming evaluation. It indicates that Norgaard had, in the past, been critical of Cherniss in his capacity as superintendent. Glazier said the agenda item to appoint a committee for Cherniss’ evaluation supports this assertion.
“This sort of demonstrates why Dr. Cherniss and the administration were taking the actions they did,” Glazier said. “They specifically do not want Mr. Norgaard participating in the evaluation process.”
The school board — sans Norgaard — met in closed session last week with district officials and legal counsel regarding the complaint and issued a statement condoning the merits of the investigation and expressing disappointment toward Norgaard for the complaint. Glazier, in an email, criticized the school board for its statement.
“In today’s climate, obviously the actions of the superintendent and assistant superintendent had far-reaching and devastating consequences to Mr. Norgaard, consequences for which the district, Dr. Cherniss, and Ms. de la Torre must be held accountable,” Glazier’s statement read. “Neither Mr. Norgaard nor his counsel [has] been advised of any School Board action on Mr. Norgaard’s claim, but rather continue to hear district commentary only through the press.”
Additionally, the school board issued a statement to all SMUSD employees Friday, May 4, expressing support for any employee who reports misconduct allegations to the district.
“We want to assure you that we take seriously our obligation to maintain learning and working environments that are free from harassment or mistreatment,” the statement read, in part. “To this point, if anyone expresses concerns regarding any form of harassment, we have an obligation to investigate the situation… While this situation is indeed unfortunate, we believe that the district’s commitment to ensure safe schools means that no one can be an exception to our policies. Together, we must be vigilant that this news does not cause even the slightest hesitation for anyone to speak up.”

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