Education / Schools

BL Special Report: Former SBHS employees allege abuse, wrongful terminations

Three bus drivers have sued the San Benito High School District because of one supervisor. Two were awarded large settlements and the third is still in court.*

Correction: An error has been corrected in the introductory sentence to this story. The original sentence read, “Three bus drivers have sued the San Benito High School District because of one supervisor and were awarded large settlements.” This was not accurate as one case has not yet been resolved. The sentence was changed to say, “Three bus drivers have sued the San Benito High School District because of one supervisor. Two were awarded settlements and the third is still in court.”

On Nov. 12 and 13, 2020, former San Benito High School District bus driver Melanie Burns, 58, and her attorney heard depositions in Salinas from witnesses in her pending civil lawsuit for wrongful termination and discrimination based on her mental health disability and workers compensation claim. 

Burns drove district school buses for six years. She has already been awarded several months of workers’ compensation payments as her civil case continues to move forward.

Neil Berman, Burns’ personal injury attorney with Rucka, O’Boyle, Lombardo & McKenna, told BenitoLink he did not know if the district will negotiate a settlement or if the suit will go to trial at San Benito County Superior Court, most likely in January.

Burns told BenitoLink her case mirrored that of Sylvia DeLuna, 65, who drove buses for the district for 35 years. 

Both accused their boss, Kristy Bettencourt, manager of maintenance operations and transportation supervisor, and Shawn Tennenbaum, then director of human resources and current San Benito High School superintendent, of abuse, retaliation, and wrongful termination. Additionally, both women accused two male co-workers of two separate sexual assault incidents. 

According to a Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board document obtained by BenitoLink, DeLuna, who was 61 at the time, sued the district, and in March 2016 was awarded $90,000, plus medical benefits until her 65th birthday.

In addition to DeLuna’s and Burns’ lawsuits, a BenitoLink investigation discovered there was a third lawsuit against the district on behalf of Caleb Doty, a bus driver and mechanic who also worked for Bettencourt. 

Burns told BenitoLink that she spoke with Doty about his lawsuit and settlement. She said he would not tell her how much he received, but he did say, according to her, it was for less than $30,000. Doty spoke to BenitoLink, but would not confirm when the settlement took place or the amount.  

Cases against the school district

DeLuna cried repeatedly as she told BenitoLink about when she and a male groundskeeper were sitting on the floor in Bettencourt’s office as the three talked one morning. DeLuna claimed Bettencourt unexpectedly commented that DeLuna and the man had been good friends for a long time. Then the man suddenly rolled atop DeLuna, pinning her to the floor as she struggled to fight him off. He was laughing and would not get off her as Bettencourt called out, according to DeLuna, “Come on, DeLuna, you know he loves you. You know his wife isn’t giving him any. Just let him do you.”

Later, DeLuna said Bettencourt tried to convince her they were all friends and it was just a joke. But from that point on, DeLuna said she was frightened of the man, and the once-friendly relationship between her and Bettencourt deteriorated rapidly as the harassment and intimidation worsened. Whenever DeLuna would see the man around town, she said she would go out of her way to avoid him. Since leaving the district five years ago, she said she still tries to avoid him.

DeLuna was terminated in January 2016. After the district agreed to the settlement, then-Superintendent John Perales said, according to DeLuna, “We’ll agree to this, but Sylvia’s got to resign.”

“I had no choice,” she said. “I couldn’t go back and get more of the same treatment.”

DeLuna and Burns revealed separately to BenitoLink their personal stories of alleged trauma and abuse over several years at the hands of Bettencourt, who was supported by Tennenbaum.

According to the findings and awards document from the state Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board, Burns’ case was approved to go to trial or mediation in April 2019, by Stewart R. Crymes, the presiding workers’ compensation judge, based on her testimony and the testimony of five eyewitnesses who worked at the school.

Melanie Burns drove school buses for SBHS for six years. Photo courtesy of Melanie Burns.
Melanie Burns drove school buses for SBHS for six years. Photo courtesy of Melanie Burns.

Burns filed a lawsuit for wrongful termination and disability discrimination in December 2019. In the complaint, she alleged that she was “discriminated against based on her mental health disability workers’ compensation claim, and then denied reasonable accommodations and interactive process and subsequently wrongfully terminated.”

“I took leave for stress because I was no longer able to drive my bus safely, because I was being harassed and asked to do things I felt were unsafe,” Burns said. In one case, Burns said she was asked regularly to go all the way to Salinas to fuel-up. She felt she was being asked to drive too fast in order to be back at the school to pick up students. She told BenitoLink that prior to working for the district under Bettencourt’s supervision she had never undergone psychiatric evaluations. 

Case similarities

In addition to DeLuna’s and Burns’ claims, eight former or still employed teachers, staff, and aides contacted BenitoLink to tell their stories of alleged harassment, retaliation and forced resignations on the part of Tennenbaum, Bettencourt and other administrators.

All of them approached BenitoLink after an anonymous letter and subsequent June 2019 story exposed inappropriate behavior—showing a pornographic video in a special education classroom—by a special education aide, which resulted in internal and police investigations. 

The internal investigation, conducted by SBHS Human Resources Director Cindi Krokower, concluded that what the aide did was “adult-to-adult behavior,” and neither she nor Tennenbaum disclosed what disciplinary action, if any, was taken.

The police investigation found that nothing criminal occurred, and in October 2019 the Hollister Police Department told BenitoLink that the case was closed, but that it could be reopened at any time.

The case against DeLuna

When DeLuna walked into Tennenbaum’s office in early January 2016, she said Tennenbaum, Krokower (who was director of education services) and three others were waiting for her. DeLuna said she told her colleagues she needed to have a union representative present.

“I needed time to get somebody to come there,” DeLuna said. “I called and said, ‘Somebody has to come here and help me out.’ The person I talked to said to set up another meeting and I wasn’t going to be there by myself. What I did was call my doctor because I was falling apart. He said, ‘Leave there and don’t go back.’ So, I left.”

When DeLuna returned on Jan. 15, 2016, she walked into Tennenbaum’s office again where she said he handed her a six-inch thick binder with her name printed on the front and below, “Statement of Charges.”

Sylvia DeLuna said she was stunned at the amount of materials presented to justify her termination. Photo courtesy of Melanie Burns.
Sylvia DeLuna said she was stunned at the amount of materials presented to justify her termination. Photo courtesy of Melanie Burns.

The San Benito High School District had built a damning case against her going back decades and put it all in one book. It was the ultimate data dump on a woman they apparently believed to be mentally unstable.

DeLuna was literally in shock, she said, at the magnitude of the alleged “evidence” accumulated against her. 

The cover letter alone was 52 pages. There were 75 supporting witness and personnel documents, including the entire California Education and Baler codes. The case the district built against her went all the way back to a minor warning in 1984. She was accused of “failure to use the chain of command and your dishonesty to board members.”

The recommendation to terminate her was based on a list of charges, ranging from incompetency, insubordination, dereliction of duty, dishonesty and excessive absences that were determined to be detrimental to the district.

The binder presented to Sylvia DeLuna. Photo by John Chadwell.
The binder presented to Sylvia DeLuna. Photo by John Chadwell.

There were claims of numerous driving infractions and lack of skill, with the first notation against her in 1984, but the majority of infractions were between 2008 and 2015, after Bettencourt took over the transportation department. For her 2007-08 evaluation, DeLuna reportedly received 11 “unsatisfactory” and 12 “needs improvement” ratings. Bettencourt summed up DeLuna’s employment history: “Through the years I have tried to support Ms. DeLuna with additional training from both myself and a representative from the CHP . . . Ms. DeLuna has proven to be un-trainable.” 

Yet in April 2010, Bettencourt gave her a “meets standards” evaluation that stated DeLuna needed “little additional instruction” and only “occasional supervision.”

Then in 2013, she wrote, “DeLuna has continued to compromise the safety of our students and break the law.”

There was also a July 2013 letter signed by five drivers who claimed that DeLuna not only alienated herself, but was responsible for a hostile working environment, and that she was a danger to special education students who traveled on the buses.

A couple drivers pointed out in the letter that DeLuna had been a caring, dedicated, competent person, who underwent a personality change around 2011, after which she became combative, paranoid and dangerous. 

Because of an issue of needing to complete 10 hours of instruction in order to renew her driving certificate (which she claims she completed), from November 2014 to September 2015, according to her sworn testimony to the Workers Compensations Appeals Board, DeLuna was put on a temporary assignment as a one-on-one aide for two special education students, something she had no training to do, she said. 

She told BenitoLink she was fearful of a down syndrome student because he was “the size of a grown man,” and that, being a petite woman she did not know how to handle him. She further testified that she took medical leave for a short while and when she came back, she was called up to the meeting at which she was terminated. 

Two of the witnesses against DeLuna were Honor Spencer, a campus supervisor of 23 years and now a Hollister City Council member, and Susie Alarcon, a school staff member. 

In an August 2014 letter addressed to “To whom it may concern,” Spencer wrote about an incident that took place in 2012, when she had a conversation with DeLuna about how she was being treated by Kristy Urbina (Bettencourt’s maiden name), and that DeLuna claimed Urbina was having DeLuna followed by Highway Patrol officers, and that Urbina was involved in an affair with one of the officers. 

“I was worried about Sylvia’s mental state at the time,” Spencer wrote, “She was showing signs of paranoid delusions.” 

She clarified her statement, “I would like to make it clear here that I am studying psychology and at this time studying Abnormal Behaviors and Delusions. I am not a psychologist, but I do have experience in studying behaviors and interpreting what I hear.” 

Spencer wrote about how she met with Tennenbaum to tell him about her concerns for DeLuna’s mental health, but that, “Mr. Tennenbaum was more concerned on how Sylvia expressed her knowledge of the affair . . . than the concern for her mental health.”

DeLuna told BenitoLink that she had been “forced” to undergo numerous sessions with a psychologist.

According to her attorney, the district wanted to “settle with Sylvia after we got a favorable, neutral evaluation with the psychologist.”

DeLuna said she was not only cleared by the psychologist, but passed a Highway Patrol driving test. Even so, she was eventually terminated primarily because of a long list of driving infractions, but also for her behavioral problems.

DeLuna told BenitoLink that even before she was terminated that she was offered a job to drive buses for the Salinas City Elementary School District (SCS). In the Statement of Charges there is a comment attributed to Roseanne Lascano, then SBHS district director of finance and operations, that accused DeLuna of telling “an outright lie” about working at SCS. BenitoLink verified through SCS Human Resources and pay receipts that DeLuna is still employed as a bus driver as recently as last December.

So, the question begs asking: If Sylvia DeLuna was so irrational and dangerous why was she allowed to continue driving students at the high school for so long, and how does she continue to drive? 

Burns’ legal journey

Burns had her own story to tell about Spencer coming to one of her hearings about Bettencourt’s alleged harassment.

“Her advice to me was to go home, have a glass of wine and relax,” Burns said.

Burns testified on her own behalf during the deposition, saying that because of constant harassment from Bettencourt she was afraid to go to work and was having nightmares. She said other school employees would tell her that Bettencourt said she hated her and was trying to get rid of her. 

Bettencourt yelled at Burns over a yellow engine light. Cal Doty, who was then working as a mechanic, said in his sworn testimony that he felt Bettencourt should not have yelled at Burns about the yellow light. 

Burns’ most damning claim was that a male employee sexually assaulted her twice. She said she reported the two incidents, but nothing was done and the employee has since been promoted. She said the school district had been paying her workers’ compensation during 2019.

“The state is giving me $6,000 to be retrained in any area of my choice from a list they provided. I’m still trying to decide what I’m supposed to do,” she said.

Attorney Berman said there is a common theme with the women’s lawsuits.

“Transportation Supervisor Kristy Bettencourt treating Sylvia and then Melanie badly. She seemed to target the two of them,” he told BenitoLink. 

Berman said the district continued to defend Bettencourt despite the fact that the workers’ compensation judge ruled in Burns’ favor. He said the first judgment for Burns was reached because the defense declined to call Bettencourt as a witness.

”It seems like the district bends over backwards for Kristy Bettencourt,” he said. “One of the reasons the judge ruled in Melanie’s favor at trial was that the district pulled Kristy as a trial witness at the last minute and the judge ruled that Melanie was credible and couldn’t be contradicted by the district because they held Bettencourt out of trial, perhaps because she would have presented poorly.”

Witness recants her story

During the time that BenitoLink interviewed DeLuna, Burns, and other school employees and volunteers, Alarcon contacted DeLuna and then BenitoLink to say that what she had written about DeLuna included in the Statement of Charges was taken out of context. She also said Tennenbaum had pressured her into writing her statement.

Alarcon told BenitoLink that she was pressured to resign her aide position rather than be fired after being falsely accused of harassing the same aide investigated for showing a pornographic video in a special education classroom.

Legal battle continues

Burns is still fighting the school and struggling to cope. She no longer works for the district. Her last day was April 21, 2018, as she continued to receive disability benefits. She was on paid leave until February 2019, as she underwent psychiatric treatment for stress.

Workers’ compensation judge Crymes determined that Burns did sustain “industrial injury to stress and psyche which were caused by her employment as a bus driver with San Benito High School District,” based on her “credible testimony,” along with the corroborating testimony from DeLuna, Peggy Churchill (the parent of a special needs student), Jill Ichien (an aide and union representative), Courtney Evans (a special ed aide), and Caleb Doty, “as well as the medical opinions of Julie Armstrong [a psychologist].”

Ichien, who has worked at the district for 18 years as an instructional aide and was job steward for California School Employees Association 173, testified during Burns’ first hearing that as a union representative she had received not only Burns’ complaint, but complaints from three others: DeLuna, Doty, and another bus driver, Terri Embry. She said all claimed Bettencourt favored some employees and made things difficult for others.

According to his testimony, Doty, who started working for the district in 2015, was also suing the district for unfair treatment by Bettencourt. He testified that he was afraid to return to work and claimed Bettencourt had singled him out and excluded him from activities that included other employees. He said Bettencourt showed preferential treatment to other employees, that she had falsely accused him of different infractions in front of others, and that he had tried to report her treatment to Tennenbaum.

Doty accused Bettencourt of ordering him to move a bus “unsafely” and harassing him when he refused. He said Bettencourt would order buses to be driven before he could do maintenance work on them. Bettencourt reprimanded him in July 2018 over an issue concerning spare parts. He filed his complaint against her in February 2019. He said Bettencourt’s “manner of dealing with people” has caused his stress. He no longer works for the district.

Crymes found that Burns’ injuries were caused by numerous incidents while driving, including being left alone on the Grapevine in Southern California for several hours after her bus broke down; her interaction (sexual assault, according to Burns) with a male co-worker; and being treated in an unprofessional manner by Bettencourt.

Crymes also determined that San Benito High School failed to meet a burden of proof that Bettencourt performed in good faith and was nondiscriminatory toward Burns.

No response from high school

Neither Superintendent Tennenbaum nor Bettencourt responded to BenitoLink’s numerous requests for comments related to the allegations by Sylvia DeLuna, Melanie Burns and others. SBHS Board President John Corrigan did not respond to questions on how the high school might avoid future costly lawsuits, and whether as president he can guarantee to the board, parents, teachers, taxpayers and students that school employees have been getting the training and leadership they need in the areas of appropriate sexual behavior on a high school campus and in respectful treatment by supervisors of employees. 

 

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John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a BenitoLink reporter and an author. He has many years experience as a freelance photojournalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer who has worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and underwent graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John has worked as a script doctor and his own script, God's Club, was released as a motion picture in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime that are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]