Superintendent fired after allegedly investigating students for not applauding her daughter enough

Screenshot from video of the Poway Unified School District Special BOE Meeting - Report out of Closed Session - April 30, 2024.
Members of the Poway Unified School District board at their Tuesday meeting, at which they voted unanimously to fire Supt. Marian Kim Phelps. (Poway Unified School District)

A San Diego-area school district superintendent was fired this week, nearly a year after students alleged she threatened to ban them from graduation ceremonies after they inadequately applauded her daughter at a banquet.

The board that oversees the roughly 35,000-student Poway Unified School District voted unanimously to dismiss Marian Kim Phelps during a closed-door meeting on Tuesday.

In a statement read by President Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliff, the board said it “has lost all confidence and trust in Dr. Phelps’ ability to continue to serve as superintendent.”

The vote followed a board-launched investigation into Phelps’ actions that began Nov. 15 and concluded April 18.

“The investigation brought to light previous unknown evidence with witnesses with direct first-hand knowledge that contradicted Dr. Phelps’ statements and assertions to the board, district staff and the public,” the board’s statement said.

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The board said it would not comment further or provide additional information regarding the investigation, since minors were involved.

The school district did not respond to an email or phone call seeking further comment this week. A phone call to a number listed for Phelps was also not returned.

Players, coaches and parents allege that Phelps bullied and harassed members of the softball team at Del Norte High School, a Poway Unified campus in San Diego, during an after-season team banquet on May 30, 2023. Phelps, players alleged, was upset that her daughter, who was named team MVP that evening, did not receive applause from her teammates Phelps deemed adequate.

The perceived slight, players alleged, prompted Phelps to launch an investigation — and threaten to bar seniors from participating in their graduation ceremonies.

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Parents, a player and two softball coaches raised the issue at the school board's Nov. 9 board meeting — alleging some wrongdoing by Phelps. The board subsequently launched its investigation.

Senior shortstop Miranda Mosqueda was flanked by six teammates that evening as she described the banquet initially as the best she had ever attended.

Mosqueda said the superintendent-led investigation “made life hell for 10 seniors, threatening to bar them from their own graduation” unless they said they deliberately didn’t clap for Phelps’ daughter. She said no one realized any player “didn’t get enough claps.”

Then-Del Norte softball coach Tom Peronto called the Phelps-initiated investigation "flawed," and questioned how it could be considered legitimate or comprehensive.

“As coaches presenting awards, we had the best view of the events of the evening,” he said at the Nov. 9 meeting. “Yet, not a single coach was consulted about the events of that evening.”

One unnamed minor student sued Phelps, the high school, school district and the board in San Diego County Superior Court, alleging intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, negligence in properly training district employees and a violation of her 1st Amendment rights.

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The student alleged that she and Phelps’ daughter were competing for the same position on the softball team. Phelps and her daughter felt slighted when they thought members of the softball team cheered harder for other players than for Phelps’ daughter, the lawsuit alleges.

Phelps believed there was a conspiracy against her daughter to withhold applause, according to the lawsuit.

The banquet ended that night around 9. Phelps texted one player about two hours later and spoke with her for more than half an hour, trying to prove her theory, the lawsuit alleges.

That summer, according to the lawsuit, Phelps followed social media accounts for private travel softball teams the plaintiff also played for, which eventually led to those squads blocking Phelps.

The end result of Phelps’ investigation, the lawsuit states, was to offer the plaintiff an opportunity to admit she bullied Phelps’ daughter or else be banned from the high school softball team for her senior year.

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Phelps allegedly followed through on that threat. Included in the lawsuit is correspondence from Del Norte's principal to the plaintiff on Aug. 15, which said she was being banned from extracurricular activities for not signing an "Other Means of Correction" document, in which she would agree to refrain from "bullying, intimidation, harassment, threats and derogatory statements."

Eventually, the plaintiff said she signed the form under duress to rejoin the team.

Phelps was placed on paid administrative leave in February. The district appointed Associate Supt. Greg Mizel to the position on an interim basis the same month.

Phelps was hired at Poway in 2017, after four years as superintendent of the Westminster School District.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.