Sexual harassment trial continues Testimony focuses on former teacher's mental health

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Holly Fesperman Lee

Salisbury Post

Attorneys sought to raise suspicions Monday that Laurie Mendiola may be suffering from borderline personality disorder, an illness that can be confused with post traumatic stress disorder.

The former teacher is suing former Principal Tony Helms and the Rowan County Board of Education.

Mendiola says Helms forced her to have sex with him and that school officials knew about the relationship and didn’t do anything.

Dr. Stephen Hebert, a Winston-Salem psychiatrist, testified that people with borderline personality disorder may see a person as very good one minute and very bad the next.

Rebecca Carli, Mendiola’s best friend, testified Friday that she helped Mendiola look for a house shortly before her second daughter was born in 2004.

Carli testified that Mendiola went back and forth on what to do with an extra room in her new house. One minute Mendiola would say, “This could be a study for Tony,” and then moments later she would say she didn’t want Helms in her house.

Hebert also testified Monday that additional symptoms of the disorder include unstable relationships and an unstable self-image.

Hebert said he diagnosed Mendiola with post traumatic stress disorder because the key factor in borderline personality disorder is lifelong symptoms that aren’t affected by different events.

Mendiola’s symptoms seem to be related to her non-consensual affair with Helms rather than a lifelong pattern, Hebert testified.

Hebert also said borderline personality disorder has to be present by age 18.

Ken Soo, an attorney for the Rowan County Board of Education, asked Hebert if he reviewed any of Mendiola’s records from Salisbury Psychiatric Associates before he made his diagnosis.

Hebert said he hadn’t.

Hebert said Mendiola told him her first marriage ended because her husband got interested in Internet pornography.

Cynthia Baubach, Mendiola’s former therapist at Salisbury Psychiatric Associates, testified Friday that Mendiola said her first marriage ended because she had an affair with a 19-year-old.

Soo asked Hebert if self-mutilation was a characteristic of borderline personality disorder.

“Yes,” he replied.

Soo handed Hebert a copy of a psychiatric evaluation form from Salisbury Psychiatric Associates, filled out when she first saw a therapist in 2000.

Hebert confirmed that the form indicated Mendiola cut her wrists as a youth to seek attention.

Soo then asked if people with borderline personality disorder have problems with alcohol.

Hebert answered yes and confirmed that, according to an evaluation form, Mendiola had problems with alcohol in her past.

Soo asked if another hallmark of borderline personality disorder was fractured, unstable relationships with others and poor relationships with other family members?

Hebert again replied this was true.

He confirmed that the evaluation sheet said Mendiola characterized her mother as “a lunatic” and said their relationship was poor.

Mendiola also told Hebert she was sexually abused as a child by her father, also a therapist, until she left home at 14.

Soo also asked if an unstable self-image, a symptom of borderline personality disorder, could cause a person to think they are heterosexual at one point and homosexual at other times.

“Yes,” Hebert testified.

Mendiola testified Thursday that she left Salisbury Psychiatric Associates because, “I thought I had developed feelings for Cindy (Cynthia Baubach, Mendiola’s former therapist). Like I was in love with her or something.”

Baubach testified Friday that Mendiola confronted her and demanded to know if she had feelings for her. Officials with Salisbury Psychiatric Associates terminated their relationship with Mendiola and referred her to another therapist.

Hebert testified that Mendiola told him she stopped going to Salisbury Psychiatric Associates because Baubach developed feelings for her.

Even though Hebert maintained he didn’t think Mendiola had borderline personality disorder, he testified in his earlier deposition that he considered the possibility.

Soo asked Hebert to confirm that in his deposition he testified that it was hard to tell if Mendiola had borderline personality disorder because he hadn’t seen her before the incident with Helms.

Soo asked if borderline personality disorder and post traumatic stress disorder can be confused.

“Yes, they can,” Hebert said.

Mendiola’s attorney, B. Ervin Brown, asked Hebert if anything in Mendiola’s records from Salisbury Psychiatric Associates would cause him to change his option.

No, he answered.

Soo asked Hebert if it was true that psychiatrists should rule out malingering in cases involving disability benefits and financial gain.

“What is malingering?” Soo asked.

“Making up symptoms,” Hebert said.

Mendiola testified Thursday that she has a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

Hebert later testified that he’d seen no evidence that Mendiola was trying to make up symptoms. He’s been treating her for about a year and a half.

Dr. Robert Heffern, a former associate superintendent with the Rowan-Salisbury School System, also took the witness stand Monday to tell what he knows about the affair between Mendiola and Helms.

Heffern is the first school official to testify.

Heffern said he first heard rumors that something might be going on between Helms and Mendiola when a parent came in for a conference in December of 2003

The parent, Kathy Gray, had a child in Mendiola’s class. Helms suspended the child for 10 days after Mendiola said he slapped her on the back.

Gray alleged that the only reason her son got such a severe punishment was because there was some kind of romantic involvement between Helms and Mendiola.

Heffern said he also heard from a school system staff person that rumors were circulating.

Heffern scheduled a meeting with Helms on Dec. 4, 2003 to inform him that people were talking and ask him to explain.

Heffern testified that Helms denied any unprofessional relationship and that Mendiola was in and out of his office a lot. Heffern said Helms told him he could see how someone could mistake that for something inappropriate.

“You took his word for that, didn’t you?” Brown asked Heffern.

“Yes, sir,” he replied.

After that meeting, Heffern confirmed that he sent Helms a letter telling him that if the allegations were found to be true it would be grounds for dismissal. Even if the allegations were untrue, the letter told Helms they hurt his administrative effectiveness, Heffern said.

Brown asked Heffern if he thought the affair was consensual at that point.

“At that time I didn’t know there was an affair,” Heffern said.

“And no one from central office ever contacted Ms. Mendiola?” Brown asked.

“I did not,” Heffern replied.

He testified that he talked to Sheila Jenkins, an assistant principal at West Middle School, about the issue.

He asked her to keep an eye out and, “If this didn’t stop to let me know.”

Soo asked Heffern if he heard any other complaints directly from parents or employees.

“I don’t recall any,” he testified.

Heffern testified that almost a year later, in November of 2004, he got an anonymous letter making allegations about Helms and Mendiola. Heffern said he immediately sent the letter to Dr. Wiley Doby, the school system’s superintendent.

Doby and other school officials called Helms in for a meeting in late November.

Helms resigned shortly after that meeting, in early December.

Contact Holly Lee at 704-797-7863 or