Santa Clara County Board of Education trustee Joseph Di Salvo filed a complaint in federal court today accusing his colleagues of violating his rights to free speech and due process when censuring him for alleged gender-based harassment.
Earlier this year, two board members and two Office of Education employees filed complaints against Di Salvo for his behavior.
A third-party investigation, which wrapped up last month, found that Di Salvo made “negative, critical, disrespectful, dismissive, demeaning and heated comments ... when challenging women whom he perceived were not doing what he wanted.” The investigation determined that he did not act the same way toward men.
As a result, trustees voted 4-3 at a July board meeting to censure Di Salvo. The decision meant he’d also have to undergo gender bias training.
But in the lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, Di Salvo alleges that the process violated his first, fifth and fourteenth amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution, as well as his right to a fair hearing.
“I have served my community for over 30 years as a teacher, principal and now on the Board of Education,” Di Salvo said in a media statement. “Throughout that tenure, I have never seen the board engage in efforts so politically-motivated without regard to due process or a fair review of the facts. Recent efforts to undermine my re-election campaign are deeply troubling and in part, motivated by efforts to eliminate high-quality schools that are serving students in our county.”
The lawsuit specifically names all four trustees who voted in favor of his censure: Claudia Rossi, Kathleen King, Rosemary Kamei and Peter Ortiz.
In the complaint, Di Salvo claims that Rossi, who serves as board president, sent him a letter on July 9 about the results of the investigation.
He said she “demanded” that he meet with her, Superintendent Mary Ann Dewan and counsel the following morning and that “a lack of response would be considered an election not to participate in the process.”
At the time, Di Salvo said he was in Southern California with his wife dealing with a family emergency. Since he said he was unable to review the report, he asked Rossi to move the meeting to the following week.
“[Rossi] ... responded by asserting that since plaintiff would not be participating in a conference on that day that a motion of censure would be placed on the board meeting agenda for the following Wednesday, July 15, 2020,” he claimed in the complaint.
Requests by Di Salvo and his attorney to move the agenda item to the Aug. 5 meeting were also reportedly denied, as were requests to review the full investigative report due to attorney-client privilege and work product privilege.
The denial reportedly came from the law office of Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo. Di Salvo said he believes the firm had an undisclosed conflict of interest because one of the attorneys had an interaction with him that “substantially influenced the investigator’s findings and that it was that firm that employed the investigator to conduct the supposedly independent investigation.”
The complaint argues that the censure was based “entirely on alleged gender-based harassment” and that the "investigation and the underlying facts makes it abundantly clear that [Di Salvo] did not engage in any acts of gender-based harassment.”
“The alleged complaints of gender-based harassment were simply a ruse by which ... Rossi and the superintendent could cause an investigation which would be influenced in large part by defendant Rossi’s own bias against [Di Salvo],” the lawsuit said.
That bias, Di Salvo claims, stems from Rossi’s opposition to charter schools and the fact that she is endorsing his opponent—Ketzal Gomez—in the November election.
Rossi told San Jose Inside that she stands by the fairness of the investigation’s process and noted that Di Salvo was represented by legal counsel.
“I’m disappointed that rather than engage in introspection, trustee Di Salvo has chosen to remain without remorse and without offering those who were harmed by his behavior an apology,” she told San Jose Inside.
Di Salvo is asking the court to issue a judgment to provide him with an opportunity to voice his own opinion on the office of education’s investigation. He’s also asking for the office of education and listed trustees to pay for any compensatory or punitive damages and legal fees involved with the lawsuit.