A Mills High School teacher is alleging San Mateo Union High School District officials negligently disregarded her attempt to blow the whistle on abusive students, urged her to inflate grades and retaliated against her, according to a recent lawsuit.
Patricia Petersen, an English teacher at the Millbrae high school for two decades, claimed that administrators discouraged her from reporting a violent attack by a student, attempted to sweep other incidents under the rug and coerce her through intimidation, according the lawsuit.
A lawsuit filed Wednesday, March 10, in San Mateo County Superior Court detailed these allegations and an assortment of other claims painting Mills High School as an oppressive working environment with an overbearing, mistrustful administration.
Petersen said she hopes the lawsuit will bring awareness to the school’s culture, and give way to changes protecting her fellow teachers who were too intimidated to speak up.
“I’m doing this because there is a history of teachers getting mistreated,” Peterson said.
District spokeswoman Laura Chalkley said the district does not have a comment on the lawsuit or affiliated allegations. But according to the lawsuit, administrators reprimanded Petersen for a variety of alleged transgressions, and have threatened to fire her.
According to the lawsuit, problems started in 2017 when Petersen reported a student who allegedly assaulted her to a superior. When her first complaint was disregarded, she filed a written notice which prompted a call from Principal Pam Duszynski.
Duszynski urged Petersen to withdraw the complaint, according to the lawsuit, which claimed the principal said “that’s just what [the student] does when he gets riled up.” Petersen continued with filing the written report.
Roughly one month later, a district human resources officer called Petersen and again attempted to dissuade her from moving ahead with the complaint and encouraged her to think about how acting against the wishes of administration may threaten her job security, according to the lawsuit.
The following year, Petersen allegedly reported to police that graffiti threatening violence was spray painted at the school. The lawsuit alleged the issue was ignored by the administration, which instead opted to paint over the threats.
The pattern carried over into 2019 as well, when the lawsuit claimed another student transferred to her class sexually harassed Petersen. Again, she reported the behavior to administrators who failed to take action until the student attacked another staffer, according to the lawsuit.
“Our community doesn’t know what is going on at Mills,” Petersen said.
Beyond disciplinary negligence, the lawsuit claimed administrators urged Petersen to inflate grades of struggling students.
“During Duszynski’s time as principal, she has exerted significant pressure on teachers, including Petersen, to pass students regardless of whether their work and attendance merited passing grades,” according to the lawsuit.
For her part, Petersen suggested the pressure to change grades stemmed from the administration’s intent to meet community expectations for high academic achievement at Mills.
The disciplinary and academics differences came to a head in May 2020, when Petersen was attempting to help a student pass her class so that she could graduate on time. Because the pandemic shuttered classrooms, she met the student in a park to take an exam which had been missed previously.
When administering the test on an iPad, Petersen inadvertently left a photo of the answer key on the device. After the student performed well on the test, Petersen grew suspicious they had accessed the answers while taking the exam.
After arranging another time to retake the test, Petersen claimed the student attacked her and threatened to call police and report that she had been sexually assaulted by the teacher. After reporting the issued to administration, the lawsuit alleged Superintendent Kevin Skelly instructed Petersen to give the student a passing grade and “move on.”
When she declined to cooperate, the lawsuit alleged administrators intervened and changed the grade, allowing the student to pass.
Following the incident, administrators issued a formal notice reprimanding Petersen for her conduct. The notice claimed she had acted unprofessionally and failed to create supportive and positive relationships with students, according to the lawsuit.
The disciplinary action set off a series of correspondence between administrators and Petersen’s lawyers, who claim officials are misstating the cause for their concern with the teacher’s conduct.
“The letter of reprimand threatens Petersen with dismissal if she does not correct the ‘deficiencies’ the district identifies, notwithstanding that those deficiencies lack any factual basis,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit claims Petersen hasn’t been able to work while at odds with the administration, and is seeking recoupment for her financial loss as well as the physical and emotional distress associated with the various issues.
“The district’s conduct was intentional and malicious and done for the purpose of causing Petersen to suffer humiliation, mental anguish and emotional and physical distress,” according to the lawsuit.
Moreover, Petersen said she hopes the lawsuit will bring awareness to the concerns she claimed are shared among her colleagues and ultimately give way to greater administrative accountability.
“I’m kind of going out on a limb by challenging the school with all of this and I’m not the only one this has happened to,” she said.