Former Oahu principal sues Department of Education over threat case

·6 min read

Sep. 22—A former principal of Stevenson Middle School has filed a civil suit in U.S. District Court against the state Department of Education, alleging that officials failed to adequately protect her amid violent threats and sexual harassment from an unknown person or people, and retaliated against her for questioning the department's response.

A former principal of Stevenson Middle School has filed a civil suit in U.S. District Court against the state Department of Education, alleging that officials failed to adequately protect her amid violent threats and sexual harassment from an unknown person or people, and retaliated against her for questioning the department's response.

The suit filed by alleges the DOE violated Title IX of the Education Amendments and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, retaliated against her, was negligent and inflicted emotional distress.

Balatico's case is part of the growing mountain of reports from DOE employees who say they have been by members of the public. Scores of DOE educators testified at this year's state Legislature that they and /or their colleagues have been harassed or threatened, and department officials agree that such cases are growing in numbers and severity.

Balatico's 45-page lawsuit, filed Tuesday by her attorney Scott E. Kubota, details terrifying threats of sexual assault, torture, arson and murder against Balatico and her children from an unknown person or people, from May 2020 to January 2021. Police have not arrested any suspects.

Balatico's suit asks the court to declare that the DOE discriminated and retaliated against her for advocating for herself. It alleges the department did this in various ways, including ending protective safety measures without notice, and later removing her from her job and failing to arbitrate.

The suit also asks the court to require the DOE to develop and enforce policies and procedures to address incidents of sexual harassment against employees, and to provide Balatico with resources and support to address the harassment she has received. The suit also seeks unspecified special, general and punitive damages, plus attorneys' fees.

"By coming public with this and taking this into litigation, we hope to bring at least some public scrutiny of the DOE, their lack of preparedness and their retaliatory nature, " Kubota said in an interview with The Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

Balatico said in a separate interview that she filed suit because she believes she has exhausted all alternatives. She said she still fears for her and her children's safety. If her harasser were caught and prosecuted, she said, "and they put me back in a school, I'm gonna rock it. I would be happy to be back with the kids and teachers." But currently "I can't even get back to work because they won't come to the table, " Balatico said of the DOE.

Requests for reactions from the state Department of Education and state Board of Education Chair Bruce Voss were referred to the state Department of the Attorney General, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The state has argued in the past that continuing to provide Balatico and her children with round-the-clock security would be an improper use of public funds. Balatico has argued that the threats and protection should be considered state matters because the emails and phone call that threatened her came via school channels, and an attack on her or her children's campuses would put other students and school staff at risk.

The suit sheds new light on the explicit threats Balatico received via her DOE work email account and work phone line, and what she claims was a pattern of negligence and retaliation by the DOE.

Harassment of Balatico began in May 2020, when Instagram posts appeared in which an apparent student said the school would be burned down and Balatico would die.

Then a series of threatening emails began arriving to Balatico's DOE email account, the suit said. The three emails, which arrived in June, July and October 2020, each relayed in graphic detail the writer's intent to hurt, rape, burn, torture and kill Balatico, kill her child, and burn down her home. Two emails also included sexually explicit photographs. All were authored with a similar, distinctive writing style and repeated some key phrases, but each was signed with a different name.

All the communications were reported to DOE officials, and a police report was filed for each, the suit said. Temporary restraining orders were granted against people whose names matched the first two letters. They denied writing the letters but agreed to refrain from contacting Balatico. After the third similar harassing letter, the suit said, an investigation by the Honolulu Police Department concluded that the people whose names appeared at the bottom of the harassing emails weren't the senders, and no criminal charges were filed.

Still, the DOE in December 2020 was advised by the Hawaii State Fusion Center, Threat Team Oahu and Threat Team EDU that the threats against Balatico were "highly concerning " and "credible, " the suit said. But the DOE implemented only two steps out of 14 safety recommendations prepared by an FBI special agent, according to the lawsuit.

On Jan. 12, 2021, Balatico wrote an email to then-state Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto ; then-state Board of Education Chair Catherine Payne ; Randall Tanaka, assistant superintendent for the DOE's Office of Facilities and Operations, and other state education officials, summing up the threats to her safety, concerns over the DOE's response, and requests for support and protection.

Balatico filed a Title IX complaint in January 2021, but the lawsuit alleges the DOE and specialist were "deliberately indifferent " in failing to take effective steps to stop the sexual harassment.

A DOE "safety plan " implemented in May 2021 included residential and school security for Balatico and her children. By September 2021, however, all measures in the plan were unilaterally ended by the DOE, the suit said. An alternate plan was created by the DOE in November 2021 without consulting with Balatico, lacking safety measures she had requested, the suit said.

Balatico's requests for a cybersecurity investigation, long-term counseling and monitoring of her case by the Title IX coordinator were rejected. The suit also says there has been no DOE response to demands to have at-school security during school hours reinstated for Balatico's two children. The department has "retaliated by deliberately withholding resources, safety and security measures, and other support " from Balatico, the suit said.

Balatico went on stress-­related worker's compensation leave starting July 2021. In March of this year her treating psychologist confirmed she could return to work in August, the suit said. But in April the DOE began advertising the principal's job at Stevenson as vacant, without notifying her, and a new principal was announced April 28.