DEL MAR — A single mother in the Del Mar Union School District believes administrators are retaliating against her after she was slapped with two restraining orders preventing her from coming within 200 feet of any district campus — including her child’s former school — in response to what she described as advocacy for her child with disabilities.
Both orders — one on behalf of an Ashley Falls Elementary teacher and another on behalf of district administrators Special Education Director Nadine Schick and Student Services Director Jennifer Huh — originally mandated 100 yards of distance from Ashley Falls Elementary School and the district office.
However, by March, Superior Court Judge Richard Whitney had expanded the restrictions to 200 yards from all eight district schools and the district office.
As a result of the restraining orders, Natalie — who requested that her last name be omitted to protect her child’s privacy — was restricted from going to her son’s sixth-grade graduation and school play. While he is no longer in the district as of early June, she is forbidden to go near any district campuses until 2023.
For years, Natalie said she had pushed administrators to provide improved services for her child, who she claims was separated from the general education population at Ashley Falls in violation of a court order. Since third grade, her son has not had a proper Individualized Learning Plan, which districts are required to provide to qualifying students.
In the months before the district went to court, Natalie had made her concerns known by filing two complaints about the district with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights and speaking at two district board meetings accusing them of abusive behavior.
She was surprised when the district’s attorney Daniel Shinoff, of San Diego firm Artiano Shinoff, and eventually the judge in her restraining order cases, characterized these actions as harassment.
“[Judge Whitney] berated me for sending ‘too many emails’ to the school, alleged I harassed staff by asking for ‘too many [Individualized Education Plan] meetings,’ taking up too much of their time, filing complaints against DMUSD to the Board of Trustees, filing complaints with the Office of Civil Rights, all of which is constitutionally protected activity … which in no way can be construed as a threat of violence and in no way could justify the granting of a permanent restraining order,” Natalie said in a March 29 court filing.
The restraining orders have been granted amid a wave of parents and special education personnel coming forward to expose district administrators’ alleged unethical and illegal practices. A report submitted by the district’s special education staff in March alleges that both Huh and Schick have pressured staff to falsify data and change disability classifications and called for an independent audit of the department.
Ryan Stanley, district assistant superintendent of human resources, said in early June he is investigating the claims shared by special education staff but declined to provide information about how the investigation would be conducted or whether the findings would be shared publicly.
“I take my obligation and responsibility to investigate those allegations seriously,” Stanley said. “What I can tell you is that this district has a highly respected track record for educating all students. The special education program is highly regarded for its delivery of services to the neediest of our children.”
When it comes to litigation against Natalie, both Huh and Schick, as well as teacher Caitlin Fallon-McKnight, allege that Natalie harassed them and staff at Ashley Falls to the point of fearing for their safety.
The first restraining order was granted following an incident in November 2021, when administrators claimed Natalie banged aggressively on Fallon-McKnight’s classroom door when she arrived for a parent-teacher conference.
Natalie said she knocked on the door to get Fallon-McKnight’s attention but did not interact with her, and she was instead intercepted by administrators who informed her she did not have a parent-teacher conference at that time.
Superior Court Judge Anthony Campagna granted a temporary restraining order against Natalie on behalf of Fallon-McKnight in December 2021 but rejected a request from Schick for a similar order. Later that month, the case was reassigned to Whitney, who oversaw hearings regarding the possibility of a permanent restraining order.
At this point, Natalie said things only escalated further.
At the time of the temporary order, she said, Campagna communicated that she would not be violating the order by dropping her son off at school. Shinoff denied this ever happened, and in late January, he filed a request for a new restraining order against Natalie preventing her contact with both Schick and Huh, despite them being the principal points of contact for her son’s special education needs and IEP meetings.
During these hearings, Shinoff claimed that Natalie had violated the restraining order by continuing to enter the Ashley Falls parking lot to drop her son off at school and cc’ing Fallon-McKnight on an email to administrators threatening to inform the media about the restraining order.
“It was [Natalie’s] obligation to follow the terms of a temporary restraining order, and she is now required to follow the terms of the permanent injunction,” he said.
Huh testified that the district had sent three Withdrawal of Consent letters forbidding Natalie to enter campus for two weeks between January 2020 and November 2021 after the mother allegedly violated communication boundaries by sending multiple emails to staff in one day, approaching staff at inappropriate times, and entering campus without registering at the front desk.
“I have had several contentious encounters and issues with [Natalie’s] behavior. Her conduct is erratic, unpredictable, aggressive and dangerous, which has grown increasingly more volatile and threatening,” Huh stated in a Jan. 28 declaration supporting the restraining order.
During the March 29 hearing, Whitney cited Natalie’s habit of contacting officials and filing complaints regarding her concerns as examples of her alleged potential for violence, stating in a March 29 filing that she takes it to “the extreme.”
“If it was legitimate, that would be one thing. But to call CPS (Child Protective Services), to contact the district attorney’s office, to file complaints, to file lawsuits, to file actions every time you perceive the teacher or the administration or the counselors are doing something that you don’t think ultimately benefits [your child] — you have that right. There’s no doubt. But you take it to the absolute extreme,” the judge said in a March 29 hearing.
Notably, emails entered into evidence indicate it was the district who contacted the district attorney with concerns about Natalie, and Natalie testified that it was the district who called CPS, not her.
In court filings, Natalie repeatedly claimed that many of the district’s described incidents of harassment were fabricated entirely, such as claims from Fallon-McKnight, Huh and Schick that she hid in bushes on school grounds or followed them to their home.
To her and many other parents, the restraining orders exemplify the district’s willingness to spend thousands of dollars to silence parents who speak out.
“We teach our children to speak out for what is wrong, and here these educators are punishing people for defending a child,” Natalie said. “I’m a single mom, I work full time, and I have a kid that needs my attention. This is really beyond irresponsible; I don’t even know the word for it. I really hope there is gonna be some accountability.”
Purchase orders indicate the district paid just over $1 million to various law firms between April 2021 and April 2022, including around $60,400 to Shinoff and $546,500 to Fagan, Friedman and Fullfrost, which has also represented the district in their dealings with Natalie.
Christopher Delehanty, assistant superintendent of business services, declined to provide the dollar amount the district spent on litigation involving Natalie.
Pattern of retaliation
Fellow parents of special needs children, many of whom have been in their own years-long battles with the district, are horrified by how far administrators have gone to silence Natalie. To them, her case is a prime example of what has been referred to as a culture of fear in the district.
In a court declaration in support of Natalie, Del Mar Union parent Danielle Roybal, who has spoken out repeatedly regarding her challenges with the district, said she feared retaliation from administrators just for speaking out.
“Ultimately, I decided to write and sign this declaration because nothing will ever change at the district if the parents always stay silent out of fear of retaliation,” Roybal said. “I am crying as I write this.”
Parents from other districts have also come out in support. Janice Holowka, a parent in the San Dieguito Union High School District who has attended most of Natalie’s hearings, spoke to the Del Mar Union school board in late May about the situation.
“I hope you, the board members, are aware of a large amount of taxpayer money being spent on what seems to be retaliation, personal vendettas, to have a security guard, that appears to be armed, monitor Natalie, a single mother and thereby an easy victim, who has never in her life even seen a gun, dropping her son off over 200 yards away from the school and to silence Natalie because she complained,” Holowka said.
Advocates have also raised alarm bells about Del Mar Union’s alleged pattern of retaliation and lawsuits against those who speak out, both inside and outside the special education sphere.
“There’s definitely this concept of ‘the Del Mar Way,’ but what they tend to do is, most districts try to make their way fit the law; Del Mar tries to make the law fit their way,” said Nicole Shelton, a special education advocate for families in school districts, including Del Mar Union. “It’s just too bad because, with the resources they have, they could be doing so much good for all these kiddos. At the end of the day, it’s just damaging kids.”
Natalie and other parents have also criticized Del Mar Union for doing business with Shinoff, a longtime San Diego County education attorney who has been let go by several school districts due to lost cases and malpractice allegations, including Poway Unified, San Ysidro — which sued Shinoff for malpractice — Sweetwater Union and others, according to the Voice of San Diego.
In response to questions about these concerns, Shinoff said he respectfully disagrees with Natalie’s “personal attacks.”
Poway Unified parent and forensic scientist Kim Garnier, who has served as an advocate for Natalie, said her family was targeted in a similar case led by Shinoff in 2016.
According to Garnier, Shinoff moved forward with a restraining order against her husband, Chris Garnier, on behalf of the district, claiming that he had threatened staff after being terminated. Her husband denied the allegations and argued that the restraining order was brought forward after he raised concerns regarding alleged racism in the district.
“Natalie reached out to me, and as soon as she started telling me, my heart went out to her,” Garnier said. “It’s infuriating to see Dan Shinoff is still doing this after so many have ceased working with him.”
For now, Natalie said she is continuing to fight against the district’s attacks, despite the strain it causes her and her son.
“I still can’t believe this is happening. I keep thinking I’ll wake up, and it won’t be real,” she said.
Whitney has denied Natalie’s requests to have the case moved to a new judge due to prejudice concerns after the judge compared her to a domestic terrorist and school shooter during court proceedings. She appealed the decision and filed a complaint with the county’s Commission on Judicial Performance regarding Whitney’s conduct.
As of May 20, Shinoff’s firm had filed another motion which left Natalie stunned, requesting to declare her “a vexatious litigant” — a status given to those who file excessive and frivolous motions as a means of harassment — referencing her requests for ex-parte motions to gain clarification on the terms of the restraining orders and motions to disqualify Whitney as a judge.
Natalie said the motion is ironic at best, considering the district’s repeated litigation against her even after her son had left the district.
“Despite all this, Mr. Shinoff continues to cause harm to both me and my child by filing more false declarations and motions … asking the court to declare me a vexatious litigant for defending against these malicious and repetitive actions,” she said in a June 14 court filing.