Santa Clara County education board hit with lawsuit over gender harassment probe
The Santa Clara County Board of Education is pictured in this file photo. Photo by David Alexander.

Tensions in the Santa Clara County Office of Education continue to rise as trustee Joseph Di Salvo filed a federal lawsuit against the board and his colleagues Tuesday, claiming a vote to censure him last month violated his free speech and due process rights.

The civil complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, named the county Office of Education and trustees Claudia Rossi, Kathleen King, Rosemary Kamei and Peter Ortiz as defendants. Di Salvo did not name trustees Grace Mah and Anna Song, who voted no on the resolution to censure him on July 15.

“The action arises from a censure resolution, totally lacking in factual support, adopted by (trustees)… without affording (Di Salvo) a fair hearing and for the purpose of retaliation” against Di Salvo for exercising his freedom of speech rights, the complaint reads.

Di Salvo, a longtime trustee whose term is set to expire this year, faced censure in July after an investigation substantiated allegations of gender discrimination against him, San José Spotlight first reported. The complaints were made by two staffers and two board members to the county superintendent in January.

A six-page summary of the independent investigation, obtained by this news organization, detailed a number of incidents where “Di Salvo’s behavior was motivated in part by gender.” Investigators interviewed Di Salvo twice before concluding their findings, staff told trustees. Di Salvo said the allegations were baseless. He requested more time and consideration to no avail.

The complaint alleges some trustees, with the help of the superintendent, manufactured the investigation and rushed through the process to “embarrass (Di Salvo) and to destroy his reputation and his future political future.”

Rossi, upon learning about the lawsuit from San José Spotlight, said she is shocked.

“The process afforded trustee Di Salvo every opportunity to respond; he had legal counsel throughout (the investigation),” Rossi said Tuesday. “I’m disappointed that rather than apologizing to the employees who were made to feel discriminated, this is what he’d seek to engage in.”

The complaint claims Rossi, as board president since December 2019, “has engaged in an obnoxious and provocative manner” when it comes to charter schools, a cause that Di Salvo has long championed. It also states Superintendent Mary Ann Dewan “is closely aligned” with Rossi in an attempt to silence Di Salvo for supporting charter schools.

The effort escalated when Rossi mailed Di Salvo the investigation outcome July 9 and requested a meeting the same day, stating “a lack of response would be considered an election not to participate in the process,” the complaint alleges. Di Salvo, who was driving back from Southern California due to a family emergency, asked if he could have more time to review the report and requested to move the vote to August. Rossi rejected the request.

The firm Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo, which hired the independent investigator, also had “an undisclosed conflict” because one of the incidents used to substantiate DiSalvo’s pattern of behavior involved an attorney from the same firm, the complaint alleges.

The complaint also claims the board did not afford Di Salvo a chance to rebut the findings or other trustees a chance to examine them. Board members told San José Spotlight in July they didn’t have access to the investigation prior to the vote.

“The defendants even went so far as to deny (Di Salvo’s) request that the Board at least review the video clips of board meetings on which much of the investigative report was based,” the lawsuit says.

The board passed the resolution in a 4-3 vote. Many parents and teachers spoke in support of Di Salvo, praising his long record of advocacy for local charter schools and students.

The lawsuit requests a jury trial. The Office of the Superintendent did not respond to a request for comment.

Petition for Writ of Mandate and Complaint for Violation of 1983 v.1 (3)

Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

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