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Safety at MHUSD board meetings brought into question by three trustees

Board split 3-3 investigating police action on Feb. 2 where board member was detained on call about gun

Published in the June 8 – 21, 2016 issue of Morgan Hill Life

By Marty Cheek and Robert Airoldi

Rick Badillo

Rick Badillo

Details about why the police briefly detained a trustee at the end of a dramatic school board meeting earlier this year are concerns of high interest for three Morgan Hill Unified School District trustees seeking an investigation.

On Feb. 2, a police officer pursued trustee Rick Badillo through a packed board room and into the district office lobby where he was detained and frisked. They then took him outside and questioned him for several minutes on suspicion of having a concealed gun based on a call from a citizen. MHUSD trustees Gino Borgioli and David Gerard said that because of this incident, people have expressed to them a fear for their safety at board meetings.

Board members at the May 3 meeting discussed two agenda items involving the incident. The items came from trustee Borgioli and the first concerned changing district policy on board room safety. The other brought up discussion on whether or not the district should hire an attorney to conduct an investigation on why someone suspected Badillo of carrying a gun. The police officers did not find a weapon. They did find a Leatherman utility tool inserted into the back waist area of Badillo’s belt. A construction worker, Badillo told them he had come from work and often carries the tool there.

Borgioli said he has received “many, many” emails from parents who wanted answers to what happened in regards to the Badillo incident. At the March 1 meeting, board members heard from several parents who told them they feared for their safety and the safety of their children, he said.

“I want to show the public that we are doing something to earn their trust relative to safety and security at our board meetings,” Borgioli said at the May 3 board meeting.“I think we need answers as to why someone would think that trustee Badillo, of all people, would be carrying a weapon.”

The person who was concerned asked a school employee to make the call to police on their behalf. That concerned person spoke with Morgan Hill Life on the condition of anonymity for fear for their safety.

Badillo was elected to the board in 2012 and soon after began exhibiting a pattern of aggressive behavior that made parents, teachers, school board members and others feel intimidated, said Claudia Rossi, who was elected to the board in 2010.

During her first two years on the board, Rossi found trustees might disagree but were polite and professional in working together.

“At the end of every meeting, we would wish each other a good night and part professionally and there was no animosity,” she said. “If we were on different sides of an issue, there was always respect, there was always that fundamental belief that we all wanted what was best for our children, our students. When Rick was elected to the school board, that changed completely.”

Rossi recalled a board decision in 2013 to rename the former Burnett Elementary School after Loritta Bonfante Johnson where she voted differently from Badillo. She noted her fellow board member became very agitated.

“He followed me as I was walking to the restroom, and appeared to have something to say to me but he didn’t,” she said. “He was breathing heavily, was red in the face and staring at me.”

Rossi noticed a pattern develop. When she tried to make her points about matters the board might be discussing in closed session, he would sometimes cut her off and become agitated.

Rossi also said she received emails from home and school club mothers at Jackson Academy of Math and Music, where Badillo was a parent, inviting her to attend a club meeting because of Badillo. Rossi observed what she described as Badillo exhibiting antagonistic behavior toward the home and school club members similar to what he did at board meetings.

“Rick was literally hijacking those meetings, contradicting those mothers, challenging their ideas but in a way that was very aggressive,” she said. “These moms, who had looked forward to providing a pleasant environment to support Jackson, were being bullied at home and school club meetings by a board member.”

Two of the mothers told Rossi they had considered filing a formal complaint with the district against Badillo, but then withdrew it because they were very “intimidated by him,” Rossi said.

Badillo’s behavior was a factor contributing to Rossi’s decision not to seek a second term on the MHUSD board, she said. She instead ran in 2014 for the Santa Clara County Board of Education where she won a seat.

Former MHUSD trustee Kathy Sullivan said her first encounter with Badillo took place one Saturday morning in the summer of 2012 at a county board of education meeting for people considering running for school boards in various districts. She didn’t know who he was at the time but remembers “all of his questions were so angry” in tone. When she found out he was running for a MHUSD seat, she grew concerned.

Badillo had on two occasions talked about his guns to Sullivan, she said. His infatuation with firearms raised worries for Sullivan at a farewell party for Superintendent Wes Smith when a group picture was being taken and she put her arm around Badillo’s back.

“I felt something hard on the back of his pants belt and it scared me, and I don’t scare easily,” she said. “I couldn’t figure out what would be behind there except maybe a gun. I wasn’t sure what it was but thought a gun was a possibility.”

Like Rossi and Sullivan, MHUSD trustee Ron Woolf saw the tone of the board meetings change dramatically from friendly discussion to “negative” tension after Badillo joined the board.

“In my first two years, people disagreed on things, but it was a polite disagreement. It wasn’t the raising of voices, it wasn’t the pointing of fingers, it wasn’t the shouting,” Woolf said.

The closed meetings grew increasingly contentious, with Badillo verbally putting other trustees down or aggressively staring at them, several board members said. When Gerard and Borgioli joined the board in 2014, the combative climate grew even more intense.

On May 26, 2015 in a closed session meeting, Woolf and other board members felt uncomfortable with Badillo’s behavior and the rising tension.

“No one grabbed anybody, nobody pushed anybody, but you could tell just in the total atmosphere of the whole thing, that something was going to happen,” Woolf recalled. “I said to Steve (Betando), ‘We need to call the police. We need to have a policeman here.’ That policeman needed to stay the entire board meeting as far as I was concerned.”

A plainclothes MHPD officer arrived and sat outside the door during the closed session. Later during the public school board meeting that evening, a uniformed officer stayed in the room. For several more meetings, a police officer attended until the school district contracted with a security firm.

Members of the public began to realize there was a problem in the school board environment indicated by security at meetings. A year ago an anonymous source sent Betando and each trustee Badillo’s police records obtained at Santa Clara County Superior Court and the Morgan Hill Superior Court.

The records show in 2007 he was arrested for grand theft and fraudulent use of a contractor’s license, both felonies, and contracting without a license, a misdemeanor. The grand theft charge was dismissed after he paid $55,000 restitution to the victim. The second charge was reduced to a misdemeanor after he made the restitution and pleaded “no contest” to both second and third charges.

Five years later, he was arrested in San Martin on suspicion of felony battery to a domestic partner with visible or serious injuries and false imprisonment, both felonies. Charges were reduced to misdemeanor battery on his partner and was dismissed after he completed an anger management program in November 2014.

When contacted by phone, Badillo said he had no comment.

Since the 2014 election, the public watched the MHUSD trustees divide into two factions: one made up of Gerard, Borgioli and Badillo and the other made up of Benevento, Woolf, Amy Porter Jensen and Donna Ruebusch. In October, Porter Jensen abruptly resigned due to harassing emails and phone calls from a member of a parents activist group. Because of this, the public learned in November about a host of emails sent by Gerard to fellow trustees Borgioli and Badillo and members of the parents activist group. Many citizens considered Gerard’s words about other board members and members of the MHUSD administration to be racially and sexually insulting and demeaning.

On Feb. 2, the board split 3-3 on a vote to censure Gerard because of these emails. The meeting continued with a verbal report by two teachers. During that time, Betando left for the restroom and met two Morgan Hill police officers in the lobby who told him they wanted to question Badillo about a call made to police from someone who believed Badillo was carrying a concealed gun. The police and the district had no information that Badillo intended to commit a violent act on anyone.

“The plan was for me to invite Mr. Badillo to step out and talk to the police and that way they could confirm one way or another whether or not the report they received was accurate,” Betando said. “Was there an immediate threat related to the need to clear out the board room? I didn’t see that and the police didn’t see that.”

Rather than have the police come in and disrupt the board meeting, Betando and the officers believed it was more appropriate for the trustee to step outside and talk to police in the parking lot behind the meeting room.

Betando went to Badillo on the dais and quietly asked him to step outside through the back door to meet the officers. Instead, Badillo hurried through the crowded room to the front lobby. One police officer briskly followed Badillo through the meeting room into the lobby, tripping over a child. A second officer ran around the building to the lobby’s front door to cut Badillo off. Badillo was taken outside by the officers for questioning.

The citizen who initiated the call told Morgan Hill Life they were concerned about potential violence because of Badillo’s previous aggressive behavior toward board members, teachers, parents, administrators and district staff as well as his domestic violence incident. The individual said they were aware Badillo owned guns and they heard from several sources the trustee claimed to have a concealed weapons permit. Morgan Hill Life confirmed that Badillo does not have such a permit.

Prior to the Feb. 2 incident, the citizen confirmed with a Santa Clara County sheriff deputy that Badillo does not have a permit to carry a concealed weapon. The deputy told the citizen that if the safety of the public might be in question with the possibility of Badillo carrying a firearm, they should call the police immediately, the citizen said.

At the Feb. 2 meeting, the citizen observed a “bulge” in the back of Badillo’s waist. Thinking it might be a gun and believing public safety might be at risk, the individual made the decision to contact the police.

Badillo told fellow trustees that he will continue to carry to school board meetings in his back waistband his Leatherman utility tool.