A former Theuerkauf Elementary School teacher filed a wrongful termination lawsuit alleging she was fired in retaliation for reporting a hostile and abusive work environment.
Crysti Flowers-Haywood, who taught at Theuerkauf for one year, filed a civil suit against the Mountain View Whisman School District claiming that she and others were subjected to sexual harassment and violence by first grade teacher Bryan Rios during the 2017-18 school year.
The suit alleges that the district was aware of Rios and his "propensity to violence and/or his harassment of other women at the district" but repeatedly failed to prevent it, instead responding to complaints by transferring him to Theuerkauf. Flowers-Haywood alleges that after complaining, former Theuerkauf Principal Ryan Santiago suddenly became overly critical and scrutinizing of her work, and told her she was "not a good fit" for the school or the district.
Rios was arrested in November 2017 on sexual assault charges including forced sodomy. The Santa Clara County District Attorney's office declined to prosecute the case, citing insufficient evidence. The arrest prompted district officials to put Rios on administrative leave.
District spokeswoman Shelly Hausman told the Voice in an email that the district has yet to be served the complaint and cannot respond to the allegations in the lawsuit. Speaking generally, she said the district moved swiftly to remove Rios during the criminal investigation and that he later resigned. Flowers-Haywood was released "in accordance with the terms of her temporary contract and applicable law," Hausman said.
"Any allegation or suggestion that the district terminated or retaliated against any employee for speaking out about Mr. Rios’ alleged conduct is entirely false and misleading," she said.
Flowers-Haywood was hired to teach reading and writing to students in kindergarten to third grade as part of Theuerkauf's Response to Instruction (RTI) program. The program supports students with remedial and enrichment activities four times a week and involves frequent one-on-one meetings with other teachers at the school. Almost immediately after joining the district in August 2017, Flowers-Haywood said she was sexually harassed by Rios, who acted "in a hostile, erratic and aggressive manner" towards her and other female teachers.
Rios would comment on what female teachers were wearing and how they wore their hair, and would talk to them in an aggressive and combative manner including yelling and clenching his jaw, according to the civil complaint. At some point during the school year, Flowers-Haywood reported observing strange behavior in which Rios would teach classes in the dark and cover his classroom windows with paper so he could not be observed.
Another teacher at the school, referred to as Jane Doe in the suit, told Flowers-Haywood that Rios bumped, grabbed and shoved her in front of students in November 2017. Santiago and Assistant Superintendent Carmen Ghysels were notified of the alleged sexual harassment and battery but did not take steps to ensure the safety of employees on campus, according to the complaint.
"Crysti did what she was supposed to do -- she complained when she saw behavior that was inappropriate," said Erika Jacobsen White, the attorney representing Flowers-Haywood. "And when it didn't get resolved, she complained again, and her complaints were systematically ignored."
Rios was put on administrative leave on Nov. 9 for "personnel reasons," which district officials declined to detail at the time. He was arrested 20 days later on sexual assault charges by the Santa Clara Police Department, but prosecutors later declined to press charges.
Starting in January, Flowers-Haywood said she was subject to a disciplinary meeting and a sudden increase in scrutiny and criticism by Santiago, which she believes was prompted by her complaints about the hostile workplace environment. She repeatedly asked about her "letter of recommendation" in order to continue her position at Theuerkauf and claims it was withheld by Santiago and later by Ghysels over the course of nearly three months -- a move that she describes as "holding her career hostage."
Santiago was among four principals who were either "released" or reassigned in March 2018 in a controversial 5-0 move by the school board that caused sweeping administrative changes at Theuerkauf, Mistral and Landels elementaries and Graham Middle School. Moving Santiago to assistant principal of Graham was a demotion and a direct result of his handling of the complaints against Rios, according to the suit.
Santiago submitted a "summative evaluation" of Flowers-Haywood on May 24, determining that she did not to meet the district's standards, and her employment with the district was terminated on June 1, according to the suit. She was reportedly the only temporary teacher at Theuerkauf Elementary who lost her job that year.
The district did not investigate whether Santiago's actions amounted to discrimination or retaliation, according to her complaint.
White said Flowers-Haywood's case is a situation where the district received reports of sexual harassment and complaints of a hostile work environment but failed to fully investigate it or take action, exposing her client to "unconscionable behavior." By making repeated reports, Flowers-Haywood was doing the right thing in untenable circumstances, and the district's answer was to fire her. Rios was also teaching first-grade students at the time, White said, making it all the more important to take complaints of harassment and aggressive behavior seriously.
"Ms. Flowers-Haywood was an excellent employee, she was respected by her colleagues and I think that the facts are going to show that the district's true motivation was to get rid of somebody who was exposing the district's complete failure to take seriously complaints of sexual harassment and workplace violence," she said.
The lawsuit alleges that the district violated state laws barring retaliation against employees and was negligent in its duty to investigate or prevent harassment, discrimination and retaliation that resulted in an "unreasonable risk" caused by Rios. The complaint is seeking damages including lost earnings and bonuses in addition to suffering from emotional distress, shock, embarrassment and other damages to be proven in court.