'Acting like lovers' Witness says daughter saw former teacher, principal in tryst at school

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Holly Fesperman Lee

Salisbury Post

The mother of a former West Rowan Middle School student testified Tuesday about what her daughter told her she saw going on at school between a teacher and her principal.

Kathy Gray said her daughter told her she was walking toward Tony Helms’ office. The door was cracked and she caught a glimpse inside.

“She noticed his hands were up Ms. Mendiola’s clothes,” Gray testified.

Gray also testified that her daughter told her she saw Helms and Mendiola in the school office a couple of times “acting like lovers.”

That testimony came out of the presence of the jury.

Laurie Mendiola, a former West Middle School teacher, is suing Helms and the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education.

She says her affair with Helms was non-consensual and the school system was aware of the situation but failed to investigate.

While the jury was in the courtroom, Kathy Gray wasn’t allowed to testify about anything her daughter told her she saw, only what she saw or told someone first hand.

Mendiola’s attorney, B. Ervin Brown, made a motion asking Judge Kimberly Taylor if Gray could testify on the record about what her daughter told her, without the jury present.

That motion was granted.

Gray testified that her daughter turned and walked away from the office, unsure if Helms had seen her.

Gray said Helms must have seen her daughter, because after that incident he charged her daughter with multiple disciplinary infractions and eventually sent her to another school.

Gray admitted her daughter had discipline problems at school before she ever saw Helms and Mendiola.

Gray testified that she didn’t believe her daughter at first. She said she thought her daughter was just trying to get back at Helms for disciplining her.

Brown asked Gray what changed her mind about her daughter’s story.

Gray replied that a teacher, “Ms. Blackwell,” called her and told her that her daughter was telling the truth.

Gray did give some testimony that jurors were allowed to hear.

She first testified that her daughter was accused of putting her hands up a boy’s clothes on the school bus and then being “out of control” with a teacher.

Gray said she went to see Helms about her daughter’s discipline matters, but got no satisfaction.

Gray also went to the office of former Assistant Superintendent Dr. Robert Heffern to talk to him about her problem. Gray took her daughter with her.

Gray testified that she told Heffern what her daughter told her and her daughter also tried to tell him what she’d seen. Gray testified that she told Heffern she thought Helms was treating her daughter unfairly.

When Brown asked Gray what Heffern said, she replied, “Well, he didn’t believe us.”

Gray also testified that she wrote Heffern a letter about the situation and dropped it off at the Long Street school offices. She said that in the letter, she wrote about planning to sue the school system for her daughter’s mistreatment.

Later, she went to see Dr. Wiley Doby, but he was out of the office. Doby was superintendent.

Gray said she left her name and telephone number but never got a call from Doby.

During cross-examination, Helms’ attorney, Todd Paris, asked Gray if the woman with her in the courtroom was from a law office in Fayetteville.

“Yes,” Gray said.

Paris asked Gray if she had hired an attorney from Fayetteville to represent her.

Gray said she had.

Mendiola’s family physician, Dr. Lester Brown, also took the stand Tuesday.

Brown testified that Mendiola mentioned that her job was stressful, but said he didn’t remember anything more specific about problems at work.

Mendiola’s attorney asked Brown if she became more depressed, emotional and tearful following her first visit in February of 2003.

Brown replied that over time, but not immediately, Mendiola did become more depressed.

“Did she ever say … why she was upset and tearful?” Mendiola’s attorney asked.

“No,” Brown replied.

Mendiola’s attorney asked Brown if it was his observation that something specific was causing Mendiola’s depression. “Other than the stressors of everyday life, no,” Brown replied.

He said Mendiola never told him anything specific about was happening with Helms.

But Mendiola testified last week that she went to see Brown and told him what was happening at work and that she was having panic attacks.

When Ken Soo, school board attorney, cross-examined Mendiola, he asked her if she saw Lester Brown in December of 2003 to raise her issues with Tony Helms.

“Absolutely,” she said.

Also during testimony Tuesday, Dr. Wiley Doby, former superintendent of the Rowan-Salisbury schools, corroborated Heffern’s earlier testimony about what steps central office took to investigate rumors of the affair.

Doby testified that he first learned of a possible affair in December of 2003.

“What I heard was there was some possible favoritism … being given by a principal at West Middle to a teacher” and it was causing dissension among staff members, Doby said.

Doby confirmed that he sent Dr. Alan King, assistant superintendent, and Heffern to interview Helms about the rumors.

As Heffern testified Monday, Doby said Helms assured the two that nothing improper was going on.

Brown asked Doby if Heffern and King ever interviewed anyone else.

“I don’t believe so,” he said.

No one from your office ever contacted Ms. Mendiola? Brown asked.

Doby said that was correct.

Soo asked Doby to testify about what steps he had taken as superintendent to protect employees from sexual harassment.

Doby said the school system held a seminar for principals dealing with sexual harassment and also gave each employee a form telling them about the school board’s policy against sexual harassment.

Doby testified that the next time he heard anything about a possible affair was when he got the anonymous letter that was forwarded to him by Heffern in November of 2004.

Soo asked Doby to tell what the letter said about Mendiola. “It said that she has been involved in adulterous affairs with at least two married fellow staff members,” Doby said.

The letter was also accompanied by a copy of the school board’s policy relating to grounds for dismissal. Highlighted was the portion relating to immorality, Doby said.

Heffern testified previously that immorality is grounds for dismissal from the school system.

“Now Dr. Doby after you received this letter … what did you do?” Soo asked.

“We set up a meeting with Mr. Helms,” Doby replied.

He said in the meeting he and other school officials discussed with Helms allegations of the letter. Doby said Helms again assured the school officials there was no improper relationship.

Doby testified that he told Helms he planned to speak to Mendiola about the allegations and asked him not to say anything to her or contact her.

Doby said he asked this because he wanted to talk to Mendiola from a “fresh standpoint.” The next morning, Mendiola called Doby’s office and asked for a meeting.

She came for the meeting and refused to talk because Dr. Becky Greer, director of personnel at the time, was present, Doby said.

Mendiola told Doby she thought she needed a witness, as well, if he wouldn’t meet with her alone, Doby said.

Doby testified that a few days later he hadn’t heard anything from Mendiola but he received a letter from her attorney, Trippe McKeny.

Soo questioned Doby about the letter’s contents.

“The letter is referring to a sexual relationship between Ms. Mendiola and Mr. Helms. It states that they had sex despite my client’s spoken resistance,” Doby testified.

After he got the letter, Doby said he instructed Heffern and King to meet with Helms. Brown asked Doby why he didn’t meet with Helms himself.

He replied that he had a meeting with new school board members that morning and felt both could be accomplished in the same day.

Soo asked Doby why he wanted King and Heffern to meet with Helms that morning rather than waiting until the afternoon when he could meet with Helms himself.

“Because I wanted to get it taken care of as quickly as possible,” Doby said.

During that meeting with Heffern and King, Helms resigned. Soo asked Doby what he instructed Heffern and King to do if Helms did not resign.

“Suspend him immediately pending our investigation,” Doby said.

Soo questioned Doby again about when he heard rumors relating to an affair between Helms and Mendiola.

From early December 2003 to the time he received the anonymous letter from Heffern, “What had you heard about a relationship between Tony Helms and Laurie Mendiola?” Soo asked.

“Nothing,” Doby testified.

Contact Holly Lee at 704-797-7683 or hlee@salisburypost.com.