CORRECTION: Jury weighs Santa Fe High ex-assistant principal's whistleblower lawsuit

·3 min read

Aug. 26—Correction appended

A lawsuit alleging Santa Fe Public Schools punished an administrator who complained about bad behavior by her peers and high school athletes is in the jury's hands now.

Former Santa Fe High School Assistant Principal Kelly Rinaldi said in her 2020 complaint school officials began retaliating against her after she pushed for an investigation into sexual misconduct and cyberbullying by basketball players in 2017. Rinaldi said the poor treatment continued for two years thereafter, eventually leading to her discharge.

"Everything flowed from that," Rinaldi's attorney Linda Hemphill told jurors in her closing argument.

The evidentiary portion of the trial wrapped up Thursday after eight days of testimony during which numerous educators and school officials took the stand. The lawyers finished closing arguments and turned the case over to the jury for deliberation around 5:30 p.m.

In the years that followed her initial complaint, Hemphill said, Rinaldi alerted school officials to at least four other concerning issues, including alleged on-the-job drinking by an Early School Opportunities High School now-former principal after she left Santa Fe High to serve as assistant principal of that school.

Rinaldi, Hemphill said, also accused the former principal of disregarding students' rights and safety and mishandling of student funds, and blew the whistle on his successor for contemplating buying a home the school's students worked on, which Rinaldi said would have been a conflict of interest.

Hemphill described Rinaldi as "salt of the earth," a "hard worker" and "exactly the kind of administrator we want in our schools," adding that in her previous 23 years as an educator, Rinaldi had never been fired.

Attorney Jason Burnette, who represents the school district, countered in his closing arguments that the sexual misconduct incident had nothing to do with Rinaldi's dismissal.

It was her lack of accountability, insubordination and inability to work well with others, he said, that led to her termination.

Burnette said about a dozen witnesses testified during the trial about Rinaldi's alleged misrepresentations regarding the nature of a student robotics competition, her low scores on a teacher evaluation and her alleged rudeness to members of the public who came on campus.

In order to find Rinaldi had been wronged, Burnette said, jurors would have to ignore that her contract had been renewed "not once, but twice after this basketball investigation."

"If you're going to rule on her behalf ... that she was retaliated against for being a whistleblower ... you are going to have to find that Mrs. Rinaldi was always telling the truth and all these people were not," Burnette said. "Not only are you going to have to find all these people weren't candid with you ... for you to award Kelly Rinaldi a dime, you're going to have to believe that there was this three-year conspiracy ... to hurt Ms. Rinaldi."

Jurors selected a foreperson before electing to go home for the evening, telling District Judge Bryan Biedscheid they will return to continue deliberations Friday morning.

Hemphill is seeking an unspecified amount of damages in the case including 2 1/2 times her lost back and front pay and five times that amount for emotional suffering.

"It wasn't that [Rinaldi] couldn't get along with others, it was that she would not go along with illegal or improper activities," Hemphill said. "And it cost her dearly."

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Jason Burnette, the attorney representing Santa Fe Public Schools, referred to Rinaldi as "extremely dishonest" and a "liar." The sentence was removed because it was taken out of context and referred to a third person not Rinaldi.