Former Santa Fe High School Assistant Principal Kelly Rinaldi has filed a lawsuit against the school district, alleging retaliation she first faced for starting an investigation into sexual misconduct and cyberbullying by basketball players in 2017 followed her for more than two years and led to her eventual discharge.
The lawsuit, filed Friday in District Court, accuses Santa Fe Public Schools of violating the New Mexico Whistleblower Protection Act, the Fraud Against Taxpayers Act and Fair Pay for Women Act. Rinaldi is asking to recover lost wages, attorney fees and punitive damages.
Superintendent Veronica García said Tuesday that after Rinaldi filed a complaint of a hostile work environment in April 2019, the district hired an independent law firm to investigate the claims and found no wrongdoing.
“Her claim that she got in trouble for her whistleblower claim, and her claim that she wasn’t paid fairly — all of that was thoroughly investigated and unfounded,” García said. “That’s my statement. Because it’s pending litigation, I can’t really comment any further.”
García declined to name the law firm hired to investigate Rinaldi’s claims.
Linda Hemphill, an attorney representing Rinaldi, said investigators never interviewed any of the witnesses identified by the former assistant principal.
“SFPS needs to hire a truly independent investigator, not a defense lawyer whose business depends on payment from the districts and the Public School Insurance Authority, to investigate complaints internally,” Hemphill said.
According to police affidavits from January 2017, a 14-year-old female student reported to Rinaldi she agreed to have sex with three male Santa Fe High students, who filmed the acts without her consent. According to the lawsuit, Rinaldi brought the allegations to Principal Carl Marano, who said no action needed to be taken, according to the lawsuit.
Rinaldi then started an investigation into sexual misconduct and discrimination, which was taken over by Marano and which found that three basketball players had sex with the female student at a residence, livestreamed the incident for other students present at the residence to view, and later sent out videos and screenshots of the encounter, according to the lawsuit.
According to the lawsuit, Marano and Santa Fe High boys’ basketball coach Zack Cole met with García and urged her to impose a one-game suspension on the players involved. Two basketball players were suspended from the team for the rest of the season, and while Santa Fe police investigated the incident for voyeurism, a fourth-degree felony, no charges were filed. Following Rinaldi’s insistence on an investigation and García’s decision to suspend the players, Marano’s attitude toward Rinaldi dramatically changed, according to the lawsuit. He handed her a letter of nonrenewal of her contract in May 2017.
According to the lawsuit, for the 2017-18 school year Rinaldi took the job as assistant principal at Early College Opportunities High School, where Will Wade, who was associate superintendent and athletic director during the 2017 incident, had been hired as principal.
The lawsuit also outlined a variety of problems Rinaldi had with Wade, who resigned in July 2018. After Wade’s resignation, Rinaldi was told by Jeff Gephart, formerly the district’s public information officer and assistant superintendent, that she would not be promoted to head Early College Opportunities because of her reputation and history, according to the lawsuit.
After the district hired Michael Hagele as principal ahead of the 2018-19 school year, the lawsuit alleges, Marano sent Hagele an email in October 2018 stating he did not want any communication with Rinaldi.
Rinaldi believes Marano was holding a grudge over her whistleblowing that led to the investigation of the basketball players around 18 months earlier, according to the lawsuit.
Wade, who is now CEO at a charter school in Pittsburgh, did not return calls for comment Tuesday afternoon.
Rinaldi, who now teaches at McCurdy Charter School in Española, filed her complaint of a hostile work environment in April 2019. Later that month, the district informed her she would be reassigned to Ortiz Middle School before placing her on administrative leave and not renewing her contract, according to the lawsuit.