An attorney for former La Cañada Elementary School principal Christine Castillo suggested there could be a “happy ending” to his client’s lawsuit charging La Cañada Unified School District with gender discrimination.
“A happy ending is the school district apologizes,” said Ben Meiselas, an attorney handling Castillo’s suit along with Mark Geragos, of the Los Angeles-based firm Geragos & Geragos. Castillo is seeking unspecified damages in the suit.
La Cañada Unified School District denies that it discriminated against Castillo, who was reassigned to a role as a 1st-grade teacher in June 2015, curtailing her tenure as principal at LCE that began in August 2012.
“The board remains resolute in our support of [Superintendent Wendy Sinnette] and are confident that the legal proceedings will show that the district acted appropriately in this matter,” LCUSD Governing Board member Ellen Multari said in an email Tuesday.
Castillo alleges the demotion was retaliatory, the result of a “discriminatory plan” to remove her from her position as a result of her pregnancy. She informed district officials she was pregnant one month after she began work at LCE, and she was within her rights to do so, Meiselas said.
“The law recognizes that pregnant women have the right to privacy,” Meiselas said. “We’ve determined — and rightfully so, after dark ages where women were discriminated against on this issue — that that’s not OK. Women have a right to maintain their health, take care of a child and maintain their careers.”
District policy supports that, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of pregnancy or gender.
LCUSD policy also bars its Governing Board members from discussing personnel matters, but in a statement issued early this month they insisted that Castillo’s “placement into the classroom … had absolutely nothing to do with her maternity leave of four years ago.”
An internal investigation conducted by the district, in response to Castillo’s discrimination complaint filed on April 5, 2015, indicated that Castillo was reassigned because of “concerns about staff morale and an increasingly negative climate at LCE” that included a “group complaint from a majority of teachers at LCE.”
Meiselas, who provided documentation of that investigation, the results of which were reported on Aug. 8, 2015, said he doesn’t believe Castillo’s relationship with her LCE staff was at the root of the decision to reassign her.
“Look, any time you have a principal-staff relationship, there’s always a somewhat adversarial and difficult [dynamic],” he said, adding that the scores on her annual evaluation by the district took a dramatic drop after she filed her grievance, falling from 3s and 5s, to 1s and 2s.
The district’s investigation sought to determine whether Castillo received negative treatment because of her pregnancy and request for maternity leave.
It concluded that Castillo’s year-end evaluation was not in retaliation for her complaint, and that a notice of possible release from her administrative position was not related to the pregnancy.
But it also found that Sinnette acknowledged that, “at the board’s direction, she communicated with Castillo that she had been expected to act with ‘full disclosure,’ even though she was within her legal rights not to disclose her pregnancy upon hiring.”
And it found that Sinnette and Patty Hager, formerly LCUSD’s assistant superintendent of human resources, “focused on ‘managing’ the announcement of the pregnancy, due to concern about anticipated negative reaction in the community to the pregnancy, [Castillo’s] marital status at the time and [her] mid-year leave.”
Though the investigation found no evidence that either Sinnette or Hager personally disapproved of the pregnancy, Sinnette reported receiving and shredding anonymous letters from parents who were concerned that Castillo wasn’t married.
At the time, Castillo was in a relationship with her now-husband Ian McFeat, the principal at La Cañada High School.
“It’s irrelevant,” Meiselas said. “She was in a loving relationship with the high school principal, it’s not like she had just met someone and had a baby — which in my opinion would still be OK. It wouldn’t even be a question if she was a man. And what was also concerning about that was … Wendy was speaking for the whole community. I don’t think that was the view of the community.”
He said his firm and Castillo have received “hundreds” of letters of support since news broke about the lawsuit, the substance of which he said has relevance with working women outside of LCF.
Multari said, for its part, the district is feeling support from the local community as she and her fellow board members remain steadfast in support of Sinnette.
“Board representatives have reached out to many of our community-based organizations to reiterate our support of Wendy and to thank them for their continued confidence in the district’s leadership,” Multari said. “While Wendy has made no public comments regarding this, I know that she is appreciative of the board and the community’s ongoing support.”
Meiselas also said his client’s desired resolution includes an updated maternity leave policy for administrators.
Jeff Davis, the district’s current assistant superintendent of Human Resources, said all of LCUSD’s employees presently are afforded the same maternity leave options, whether they are administrators or teachers. He said he believes that to be typical for a district the size of LCUSD.
When the district conducted its internal investigation in 2015, it determined that it lacked a policy to govern maternity leave by administrators, which “likely contributed” to Hager being “annoyed” by Castillo’s repeated inquiries regarding maternity leave.
In one email Hager sent to Castillo, she wrote: “Bottom line is we agreed to conditions to help you out, but this whole leave will cost us $35,900 … So we finally have to say stop. Stop. Take your leave and let [substitute Principal Susan Kobilarcsik] do the job we are paying her to do.”
“They quantified the cost,” said Meiselas, who provided The Outlook with a copy of the email. “Think about how horrible that is, to quantify the cost and burden because you had the audacity to get pregnant and ask for accommodations.”
In the end, Meiselas said Castillo still wants to work as an administrator in the district.
“Obviously, there are real serious issues between her and Sinnette based on unfortunate history,” he said. “But [Castillo’s] an educator and she’s an administrator and she loves La Cañada. She grew up in Pasadena, she moved here from Seattle and she wanted to make this her home. Her husband is a beloved high school principal.
“If this has to go to litigation, so be it, but I think there could be an appropriate [LCUSD] Governing Board representative who makes sure they recognize this is wrong and comes up with something that embraces human dignity and human rights in La Cañada.”
Following her reassignment, Castillo took leave pursuant to a doctor’s note. According to the lawsuit filed Dec. 28, 2016, the district informed her before the end of 2015 that she was no longer entitled to the teaching position and she remains on indefinite leave.