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Torrey Pines Elementary principal leaves amid allegations of harassment, discrimination and campus bullying

Nona Richard was named principal of Torrey Pines Elementary School in La Jolla in November 2018.
(File)

To mixed responses from parents, Torrey Pines Elementary School Principal Nona Richard has left her position amid accusations from some parents of harassment, intimidation, discrimination and failing to address student bullying.

Richard, who was named the La Jolla school’s principal in November 2018, told the La Jolla Light on June 15 that she is no longer with the San Diego Unified School District and referred all questions to the district’s communications department.

District spokeswoman Maureen Magee said June 21 that “the district does not comment on pending claims or litigation” but that “the health, safety and well-being of all students and staff remain a top priority for the district.”

In a message to Torrey Pines Elementary parents, Richard wrote: “I wanted to let you all know that I am exploring other leadership opportunities and won’t be returning to Torrey Pines for the upcoming school year. I am sharing this with you now so the recruitment process can begin. … Thank you to all of the students, staff members, parents and community partners who have made my years at Torrey Pines so memorable.”

She said former TPES Principal Jim Solo, who left the position in 2013, will serve as interim principal during the search for a permanent replacement.

The move came days after a claim was filed with San Diego Unified regarding Richard’s conduct on campus.

One family filed a demand letter (a formal request to settle a dispute before proceeding with a lawsuit) with district Superintendent Lamont Jackson on June 13, asking for an undisclosed amount of money.

The family members’ names are not being published because the child involved is a minor.

The family’s letter accuses Richard and her staff of “unspeakable and illegal harassment, intimidation, segregation, bullying and discrimination” against their son because he has a medical condition that prohibits him from wearing a face mask. Until April, masks were required indoors at all district campuses as part of COVID-19 protocols, though an off-campus independent study option was available.

The boy “was provided a medical exemption from wearing a mask from a licensed medical doctor … for issues he has had since 2019,” according to the letter. When he arrived at school, Richard told the boy’s parents to pick him up “and threatened to call the police,” the letter states.

The boy’s father added that for 20 school days, the student was kept out of his classroom and was seated at a table outside for independent study. The letter also accuses Richard of “moving her body to block” the student from entering the classroom.

The letter claims the boy “is fearful of any interaction with Ms. Richard” and “is afraid to get out of the car when Ms. Richard walks by.”

The same letter accuses Richard of not addressing incidents of student bullying on campus. It says the family’s daughter was the subject of bullying “by two students on four separate occasions” because “she did not pull up her mask” when asked.

The letter alleges the girl was hit on the face and punched in the stomach and that the school administration “did not fully reprimand the students.”

A family who has pulled their child from Torrey Pines Elementary accused Richard of not addressing bullying against their daughter.

The girl’s parents said she found a paper airplane with “a death threat” written on it when she was a student at TPES. Another student admitted to writing the note but went unpunished, the girl’s parents say.

“[Richard] tried to say our daughter was actually the bully,” the girl’s mother said. “This same boy hit our daughter, but she stood up for herself. She told the teacher and no one told us.”

In the weeks afterward, the girl went from loving school to hating it, her mother said. “It became a chore to get her out of bed and off to school.”

The family decided to pull the girl from TPES and enroll her in another school.

Her father said he believes that cases of bullying were “swept under the rug” to “make the school look better.”

However, other parents said Richard will be missed.

“Nona brought a wonderful mix of passion for the students, energy and administrative savviness to the job,” said Claire Adida, the TPES Foundation president when Richard started as principal. “She came after a difficult time of transition: We had had three or four interim principals as we carried out the search. I very much enjoyed working with her, and I know she will be missed by many. I wish her the best in this next step of her career.”

Parent Heather Lang said that throughout the pandemic, “I appreciated Dr. Richard’s willingness to hear all parents’ points of view and carefully consider how best to keep students, teachers and staff safe at our school. She consistently upheld district policy, and she acted in line with the best practices for schools. ... For our family in particular, she was responsive to concerns from parents, and she helped in getting our child admitted to school again last spring despite the fact that we’d initially opted to keep our kiddo home through the school year.”

Another parent, Alexis Wiktorowicz, said: “My children go to TPES and we know Dr. Richard well. She enforced district rules and kept my children safe during the pandemic, ensuring they had a great education. My children love her; she was always greeting everyone at drop-off, she was incredibly involved and respectful. We are very sad to see her go. She was the best principal we had at TPES. We wish her well.”

When Richard took the job 3½ years ago, she told the Light that the principal’s role is to have a “bird’s-eye perspective.”

“I’m not in the classroom with the teachers, I’m not a parent who trusts their child to this school, I’m not a staffer scheduling the calendar, I’m a little bit of everything,” she said. “I need to make sure all those voices are considered and facilitate a place where all those voices are brought to the forefront. I can be the go-between for supporting teachers’ needs to grow professionally and children’s knowledge-building.”

Before coming to TPES, the Alpine native was principal of San Diego’s Hancock Elementary School. Earlier, she got a teaching credential from National University in 2006 and taught elementary school in the El Cajon and Vista school districts. She earned an administrative credential from San Diego State University in July 2016 and became Hancock’s principal soon after. ◆

Updates

1:17 p.m. June 21, 2022: This article has been updated with additional information and comments.