Superintendent fired after daughter’s softball rival alleges retaliation

National News

Marian Kim Phelps texted one of her daughter’s teammates, asking if she and other players had conspired to give her daughter lackluster applause.

Players on the Del Norte High School girls’ softball team clapped last year when their pitcher was named MVP during an end-of-year banquet. But their “resounding support” wasn’t enough for her mother — the California school district’s top official, a lawsuit states.

Later that night, Poway Unified School District Superintendent Marian Kim Phelps texted one of her daughter’s teammates, asking if she and other players had conspired to give her daughter lackluster applause compared to others who had won awards, according to a lawsuit filed Nov. 27, in San Diego Superior Court. When the player said no, Phelps allegedly suggested they were “trying to cover up their poor behavior” and threatened school discipline.

“But it is what it is and we will follow up on our end from an administration standpoint,” a text to the student, which was included as an exhibit in the lawsuit, stated.

It was the start of a nearly year-long campaign in which Phelps harnessed her position leading the school district to bully and discipline a pitcher she perceived as a rival to her daughter, according to the suit, which was filed by the student’s father. The saga escalated last week when the Poway Unified school board, after a four-month investigation into the allegations, voted unanimously to fire Phelps.

“Based on her conduct, as revealed to the Board through the investigation, the Board has lost all confidence and trust in Dr. Phelps’ ability to continue to serve as Superintendent,” Board President Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliff said in a statement.

Phelps did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday afternoon. District spokeswoman Christine Paik declined to comment on Phelps’s firing or the lawsuit’s allegations.

The plaintiff, identified as Jane Doe in the suit, and Phelps’s daughter have pitched for Del Norte High School’s varsity softball team for years, competing for the “prime spot in the circle and valuable playing time on the field,” according to the suit.

Both girls were stars. On May 30, the team held its banquet during which Phelps’s daughter won MVP and Jane was awarded defensive player of the year, the suit alleges. Phelps’s daughter later said the other players “would cheer in a loud and overly exaggerated way for certain players and then not at all for me,” according to the suit.

During the conversation between Phelps and one of the players after the banquet, the superintendent said Jane’s defensive player of the year award was undeserved and she would use her “power” to prevent Jane from becoming co-captain alongside her daughter the following year, the suit states. Phelps also allegedly threatened to have Jane transferred from Del Norte and, if that didn’t work, said she would make sure she had a “lonely year.”

Finally, Phelps threatened the entire team’s corps of incoming seniors: If they didn’t admit to orchestrating a conspiracy to not clap for her daughter, she would make sure none of them walked at graduation, the suit states.

Over the next five months, Phelps allegedly harnessed her power as superintendent to get officials at the district and high school to conduct an “investigation” into Jane bullying her daughter, which ended in Jane being banned from all extracurricular activities during her upcoming senior year – including softball.

Her family hired lawyer Justin Reden who sent a 135-page complaint to the school board, including 26 witness statements he said vindicated Jane and established the findings of the school’s investigation as “demonstrably false.” On Oct. 9, district officials sent notice that Jane’s claim had been rejected, according to the lawsuit.

But public interest in the accusations started to build. At a school board meeting on Nov. 9, Tom Peronto, one of the girls’ softball coaches, addressed the school board during public comment, saying neither he nor any of the other coaches had been interviewed during the investigation that had led to Jane’s discipline, even though they had the best view of what happened at the banquet.

“Is that not suspicious? How can that possibly be considered a legitimate, comprehensive investigation?” Peronto said.

As Peronto spoke, some in the audience held up signs, including ones that read “STOP abuse of POWER,” “FIRE PHELPS NOW” and “We saw something. We said something. Now, what will you do?”

On Nov. 15, the board authorized the independent investigation into Phelps.

That day, she gave an interview to KFMB in which she said that the discipline against the pitcher “had nothing to do with the clapping.”

“I’ve never threatened any student. I never would,” she told the station. “I’ve never talked to any student about making threats about them not graduating. All of those accusations are completely false and fabricated.”

Last week, the school board disagreed. In her statement announcing Phelps’s termination, O’Connor-Ratcliff, the school board president, said that the outside law firm they had hired to investigate the superintendent had interviewed 41 witnesses and reviewed documents before wrapping up on April 18.

The probe “brought to light previously unknown evidence from witnesses with direct first-hand knowledge, that contradicted Dr. Phelps’ statements and assertions to the Board, District staff, and the public,” O’Connor-Ratcliff said in the statement.

Meanwhile, Jane has gone through her senior year and, after her lawyer reached an agreement with the school, participated in extracurricular activities, softball included. The team’s last regular season game is on Thursday, and then she and her teammates will try to make a deep push into the postseason, Reden said.

After graduation, Reden said, Jane is off to a Division I college where she has already secured a scholarship to play softball.

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