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Documents: Cary Changed His Behrens Story (Update)

Under oath, Santa Barbara school Superintendent Cary Matsuoka changed, on two key points, his previous account of what happened in the hours and days after discovery of online threats posted by male students at San Marcos High School in 2018.

In a sworn deposition taken last July 22, previously unreported in the media, Matsuoka acknowledged that the version of events he publicly disseminated amid a community controversy over the infamous “chat room” incident last year was inaccurate.

The videotaped deposition lies at the center of a new legal action that former San Marcos Principal Ed Behrens is bringing before California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal. The action, announced by his attorneys last Friday, seeks to overturn unfavorable rulings by Superior Court Pauline Maxwell in a case Behrens filed against the school district last year, in a bid to reclaim his job. Our coverage of the judge's decisions is here and here.

"In deposition, Matsuoka admitted that strategic public statements he made about Ed were false," Leila Noël, a partner in Cappello & Noël, the law firm representing Behrens, said in a press release. “We are pursuing this case to ensure justice is done."

School board attorney Craig Price, in an interview, noted that the school district prevailed on every aspect of Behrens’s case in Judge Maxwell’s court and asserted that the appeal lacks validity: “It’s unfortunate that an appeal was taken when the record so clearly establishes that Mr. Behrens was not entitled to the relief that he sought,” he said.

Beyond the present legal issues in the matter, however, the long running Behrens saga has emerged as a kind of totemic marker of Matsuoka’s tenure.

Beginning in mid-January 2018, the incident was the first in a series of high-profile controversies that have followed, seemingly non-stop. Along the way, it helped coalesce a loose alliance of unhappy parents, mostly white, who have organized political opposition while aiming harsh criticism at Matsouka's professionalism and policies.

Last week, one day after a series of speakers once again lambasted the superintendent at a school board meeting, he announced through the board president that he will not seek an extension of his contract, set to end in June 2021, as he did successfully in the past two years.

On Tuesday evening, the school board is set to consider Matsuoka’s annual performance evaluation in closed-door executive session, before which members of the public are permitted to comment.

Late Friday, the venue for the meeting was changed from the district’s modest boardroom at its downtown headquarters to the 808-seat Marjorie Luke Theatre, to accommodate an expected crowd.

(Update: On Tuesday night, Matsuoka abruptly announced he will retire early, leaving the district in June, a year before his contract was to expire. Details here).

Our story to date. On Friday, January 19, 2018, administrators at San Marcos learned from students of the existence of an internet “chat room,” where a group of male students had posted content rife with violent and misogynistic language and threats, targeting more than a dozen girls.

They referred to the girls, from San Marcos and other schools, as “thots,” code for “those hos over there.”

A video showed one boy demonstrating how to load and fire an antique long gun he held. “You no longer need to worry about your lives. They no longer exist,” read one post, amid other images about the “War on Thots.”

The school contacted the Sheriff's office, and deputies who responded swiftly concluded there was "no credible threat" to anyone's personal safety.

What happened, precisely, after that, and whether it was fair to victims, parents and Behrens, has been a matter of public debate, political campaigning, whispers within SB's education community and litigation, much of it cloaked in secrecy, ever since.

One event is clear: the week after officials learned of the chat room, parents unhappy with the district’s muted response to their concerns provided a video of some content to KEYT. The station's news report mushroomed into a major community controversy and a public relations nightmare for the district.

Cary vs. Ed. As media coverage intensified, Matsuoka throughout the winter and spring of 2018 repeatedly cast blame on Behrens in explaining the district’s slow and stumbling response to the incident.

The superintendent claimed, at a Feb. 5 public meeting of angry parents, that there was a “four day delay” by the principal in communicating to the superintendent and his executive cabinet the seriousness of the posted threats of violence.

On Feb. 7, the district formally reprimanded Behrens for his handling of the incident.

On March 13, acting on Matsuoka’s recommendation, the school board voted 4-1 in closed session to “reassign” him from his principal post to a teaching job at another school the following year, despite a show of public support from about 500 people at the board's meeting.

The superintendent later stated that he had planned to reassign Behrens for several months; the move had nothing substantive to do with the chat room affair, he said, but resulted from his unhappiness with Behrens’s overall performance.

Not long after, Matusoka elaborated on the San Marcos controversy, during a one-hour, one-on-one interview with Newsmakers that we published on April 24.

That post, which included a full transcript of the interview, later became an evidentiary exhibit in Behrens's lawsuit, and legal sources believe Matsuoka’s answers about it will surface again in his new appeal.

Behrens vs. SBUSD. Behrens sued the district in spring 2018, challenging his dismissal on several grounds. His case failed, in large part, because the job of being a principal is an "at-will" position.

“The procedure for removing a principal is simple,” Maxwell wrote in her ruling. “It does not require a finding of cause and may be based upon no more than a personality conflict, and does not entitle the affected administrator to a hearing.”

The judge also ruled against Behrens on a separate but related issue.

The former principal argued that Matsuoka and the district, through public comments pointing the finger at him, damaged Behrens’s professional reputation, built over 20 years as a school administrator, and thereby violated what is called in the law his “liberty interest” to pursue his chosen career.

The attorneys for Behrens are expected to seek to overturn Judge Maxwell’s rulings on several grounds, including her denial of this “liberty interest” claim.

Much of the case and the controversy remains confidential and unavailable to the public, in some instances understandably so: State privacy laws protect, among other things, the identity of the involved students; Behrens’s personnel file; and the executive sessions in which the school board discussed and demoted him, among other matters.

However, hundreds of pages of the proceedings are public record, on file at the Superior Court's archive, and provide a glimpse into some previously unreported issues.

What did he know and when did he know it? The transcript of Matsuoka’s full deposition runs to more than 150 pages, and much has been redacted in the public file.

One public portion focuses on the four days between Friday January 19, when several students informed San Marcos officials and Tuesday, January 23, when the first news coverage began to bring huge attention to the issue.

At the deposition, Behrens attorney David Cousineau questioned Matsuoka closely about his comments in the aforementioned Newsmakers interview (AKA “Exhibit 29”).

The superintendent acknowledged two facts that Behrens’ attorneys believe are significant to his appeal:

a) One of Matsuoka’s five assistant superintendents was informed by the school within one hour of the discovery of the online posts on January 19;

b) He personally received copies of emails from worried parents, showing screen shots of some of the threatening material, as early as Monday, January 22 -- two full days before the time that Matsuoka previously claimed Behrens fully briefed senior officials.

Here is what Matsuoka told Newsmakers and what we pubished.

"January 19th, a Friday – that’s when the school first started catching wind of this. My cabinet team was not informed about this until Tuesday January 23rd, Late afternoon is when my cabinet team started to become aware of the depth of the incident.

So there was a four-day delay in my cabinet team being informed so we could support, investigate, help with communication, and get the word out. When we get these kinds of serious incidents I tell my principals, your first call is to one of us, just so we’re aware and, two, we always make these really quick assessments – is this like low, medium, high?

I think this one, we would have said immediately, this one is a big deal and just assigned one or two of us to get on the ground and just help to collect information.

But then more importantly, writing communication statements to assist our principals. Because this stuff moves super fast and I love the days when media cycles were 24 hours, and then it dropped to four hours and now it’s seconds."

Here is how he answered when questioned about his statements under oath.

Q: “….Your first answer in the second paragraph says, ‘There was a four-day delay in my cabinet being informed.’ Do you see that?

A: I see it.

Q: Your cabinet team actually learned about it on January 19th, correct?

A: That Friday, yes.

Q: And you yourself received some of the disturbing posts on Monday, January 22, right?

A: Correct.

Q: And the board received these same disturbing posts on the morning of January 22, correct?

A: Correct.

Q: So there was not a four-day delay in your cabinet team being informed right?”

A: Correct.

Q: You did not ask Mr. Roberts to correct the four-day delay statement right?

A: If this is what is still on his website, then, no I did not ask him to correct that.

Q: And you were given the opportunity to provide clarification right…?

A: After the interview, I mean, I – I don’t even remember the interview, so as far as any follow-up I don’t have any memories of follow-up conversations.

Bottom line. We sought comment from the superintendent at a recent board meeting; he declined, saying he was prohibited from speaking about ongoing litigation: "You know I can't talk about that," he told us.

We also asked school district attorney Price about the discrepancies between Matsuoka's comments right after the incident and his sworn statements.

"Subsequent to the interview with (Newsmakers Editor) Jerry Roberts," he said, "the Superintendent learned of additional facts about the incident."

Newsmakers is appending an editor’s note to our posted interview with Matsuoka, explaining that his claims about Behrens's "four-day delay" are now inoperative. We regret the error.


Images: Ed Behrens; Cary Matsouka speaks to angry San Marcos parents, spring 2018; Coverage of the "chat room" incident in the Independent; Behrens at the school board meeting where he was fired (Paul Wellman/SB Independent); San Marcos High School; Matsuoka, shortly after his hiring in 2016; Newsmakers one-on-one with the superintendent, April 24, 2018; Cover page of Matsuoka deposition, July 22, 2019; SBUSD marketing material.

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