Former Stowers Magnet School Principal, Eileen Blagden, is suing the ABC Unified School District because she claims she was demoted for reporting death threats being made against teachers. However, the school district maintains they demoted Blagden as a result of her performance. Patrick Healy reports from Cerritos for the NBC4 News at 6 p.m. on July 3, 2012.
Eileen Blagden, former principal at Stowers Magnet Elementary School in Cerritos, thought it was a no-brainer when she was confronted with a teacher she thought might be a threat to others.
Having heard the teacher express unhappiness with his life, and then muse about having a hitman
kill two of his colleagues, Blagden recalls thinking that the district needed to get him help. And she thought law enforcement and his two colleagues needed to be notified for their safety -- and potentially the safety of others at the school.
But administrators at ABC Unified School District told her not to tell anyone, and then punished her after she did, according to her lawsuit. The complaint has now survived a summary judgment challenge and is scheduled for trial later this year.
"I never in my wildest dreams thought I'd be here today with a lawsuit against the school district, because I did the right thing: I protected the children from potential harm. And they wanted to sweep it under the rug," Blagden said in her attorney's office.
Blagden served as principal at the well-regarded school in southeastern Los Angeles County. She recalls having concerns about odd behavior by one teacher, including sleeping during class. She later learned he had a misdemeanor arrest on his record.
Her concerns came to a head early in 2010. The teacher was involved in a traffic accident on the way to campus in the morning, and then, with clothing torn and bloodstained, came to her office. It was clear to her that he was hurt and upset, Blagden told NBC4.
According to Blagden, the teacher expressed his unhappiness with his life and then spoke of how much he hated two of his fellow teachers, musing about arranging for their deaths.
"He said, 'I want to hire a hitman and have him kill them,'" recalled Blagden.
Paramedics transported the teacher, and Blagden notified district headquarters that he appeared to need mental health care. She was stunned, she said, that he returned on the Friday three days after the incident to resume teaching.
Blagden said she was told by a human resources administrator not to tell anyone what she heard the teacher say -- not law enforcement, not the teachers named in the threat.
"She said, 'If you do, you'll be sorry,'" Blagden said.
It was phrased as a formal directive, and Blagden took it as formal notice that her job was on the line if disobeyed, she said. But over that weekend, she notified the Sheriff's Department and informed the two teachers.
The next day, Blagden was told district officials wanted to meet with her. After the session two days later, she was put on leave pending an investigation.
"Mrs. Blagden was properly placed on paid administrative leave following her refusal to comply with...validly-issued directive," states a March 29, 2010 letter to Blagden's attorney from a law firm representing the district. It maintains it handled the situation properly.
Later, the district demoted Blagden and reassigned her as a classroom teacher. Blagden's lawsuit followed.
"You can't retaliate against a whistleblower," said Ronald Wilson, Blagden's attorney.
In its legal filings, the district contends, contrary to the March 2010 letter, that Blagden failed to fulfill her responsibility by not notifying law enforcement sooner.
But there was evidence another school employee knew of the threats and did not report them, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joanne O'Donnell noted.
"This evidence weakens the credibility of defendant's position," Judge O'Donnell wrote in her June 22 ruling denying the district's request for a summary judgment against Blagden.
At the same time, the district maintains the incident was not the reason for her demotion, but rather
shortcomings in her job performance.
Challenging that, Wilson said pre-trial discovery has revealed that her file is full of commendations without any written complaints from the teachers at Stowers.
As for the teacher in question: arrangements were made so that he never did return to his classroom.
He told the Sheriff's investigator he made the "hitman" comment "in jest, I wouldn't hurt a fly." He also said that at the time he was feeling more pain and shock from his injuries, according to a Sheriff's Supplemental Report.
His current occupation is unknown. NBC4 was unable to contact him.
The court scheduled a settlement conference for Blagden's suit on July 17th, and failing a resolution, trial to begin October 31.