Testimony emotional during trial involving sexual harassment

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Holly Fesperman Lee

Salisbury Post

In the middle of the afternoon Thursday, as an attorney questioned Laurie Mendiola about getting disability benefits, she started crying on the witness stand.

Judge Kimberly Taylor called for a 15-minute recess, and jurors started to walk out of the courtroom. As the jurors filed out, Mendiola’s sobs got louder.

When the jury was just outside the courtroom door, Mendiola fell to the floor beside the plaintiff’s table and started crying even louder, screaming “No” and “I hate them.”

That scene was the culmination of an emotional day of testimony in the trial involving Mendiola, a former teacher who has sued former Principal Tony Helms for sexual harassment.

Mendiola’s suit, filed in May 2005 against Helms and the Rowan County Board of Education, says Helms forced her to have sex with him and told her she could lose her job if she didn’t.

Mendiola’s suit also claims the school system accepted Helm’s denial that the two were having an affair and didn’t do anything about it.

Helms admits the affair but says the relationship was consensual.

Mendiola took the witness stand shortly after 9:30 a.m. Her voice shook as she answered basic questions from her attorney, B. Ervin Brown.

He questioned her about her educational and work history before she became a teacher with the Rowan-Salisbury School System.

Mendiola said she joined the Rowan-Salisbury system in the fall of 1999 as a special education teacher at Salisbury High School.

After four or five years at Salisbury High, Mendiola was about to get her graduate certificate in Special Education and needed to find another job working with children with different disabilities than those at Salisbury High.

Dr. Windsor Eagle, principal at Salisbury High, told her about a job a West Rowan Middle School that would fulfill her graduate requirements, Mendiola said.

West Middle School’s principal at the time was Rick Hampton and Mendiola interviewed with him for the job.

While she was interviewing for jobs, Mendiola said Helms invited her to work at Knox Middle, and she interviewed for a job at Knox.

“I just thought Mr. Helms was impressed because I was a good special education teacher,” Mendiola testified.

Mendiola said she didn’t take the job at Knox because it didn’t fulfill her graduate certificate requirements. She took the job at West Middle, while Hampton was still principal there.

Mendiola said she didn’t know Helms would become the new principal at West Middle once she started there in the fall of 2003.

Mendiola’s attorney asked if she knew Helms before he became the West principal.

She said she had seen him before at the interview and at meetings with other school personnel that she was required to attend.

Her oldest daughter also attended Knox Middle while Helms was principal.

Mendiola said she got a phone call over the summer telling her Helms was the new principal. The caller also said she was to come to school for a pre-employment meeting with Helms.

Brown asked Mendiola about that initial meeting with Helms at West Middle.

She said she walked in the school office and as others were standing around, Helms commented, “This is the woman who wouldn’t come work for me at Knox so I had to transfer schools.”

When the two went into Helm’s office for the meeting, Mendiola testified he hugged her and didn’t say much otherwise. The meeting was very short, she said.

Mendiola testified she next saw Helms during a meeting for school system employees at Catawba College before the school year started.

One day, during teacher workdays or shortly after the school year started, Mendiola said Helms saw her getting coffee.

Mendiola said she always got coffee before she went to class.

She said Helms asked, “Why don’t you come in early and have coffee with me tomorrow?”

Mendiola said she joked that she was always at school early anyway.

She said she initially felt nervous about the meeting but dismissed the feeling because Helms was friendly with many staff members.

When she arrived the next morning, “I had coffee with him,” she said.

Helms acted completely professional and only talked about work, Mendiola said. After coffee, she got up, went to work and remembered thinking her initial misgivings were ridiculous. “He was just being friendly,” she said she thought.

Mendiola said Helms invited her to meet with him again the next morning.

She arrived and sat in a chair by the door, while Helms sat behind his desk. At some point during the conversation, Mendiola said she got up to look out the window and she turned around to go back to her chair.

“He grabbed me by the arm and pulled me down and kissed me on the mouth,” she testified.

Mendiola said she asked Helms, “What made you think you could do that?”

Helms said he knew he had a fifty-fifty chance, either she would accept the kiss or he would have a sexual harassment suit on his hands, she said.

When she got up to leave, Mendiola said Helms kissed her again and asked her what she was doing that night. She told him she was busy. He asked her about Sunday night, and wanting to get away, she told him she had to go to class.

“I was just in shock,” she testified.

That Sunday night, “I was home alone in my apartment, and Mr. Helms showed up at my door,” Mendiola said.

Helms brought dinner with him, and “I let him in and I had dinner with him,” she said.

During dinner at her apartment, Mendiola testified Helms acted normal and never tried anything. They again talked about school related issues, she said.

Mendiola said she thought he realized what he did, and “that was his way of apologizing.”

Brown asked Mendiola if she asked Helms to leave.

“No. I was terrified,” she replied.

Some days later, Mendiola said Helms showed up at her door again without calling. “He knew I lived alone,” she said.

At the time, Mendiola’s oldest daughter was living with her father in Texas. Mendiola and her ex-husband divorced around 1998.

Mendiola said she answered the door and let Helms in. She said she sat down on the couch, and there was no conversation.

Helms started taking his clothes off, Mendiola testified.

She said she asked, “What are you doing?”

“I’m your boss,” he allegedly told her.

Then, “he took my clothes off. He pushed me down on the couch and had sex with me.”

Afterwards, “I just started crying,” she said.

“I told him this is wrong,” she said, because he was a married man and her boss and she wasn’t on birth control.

“He said I had a vasectomy,” Mendiola said.

Brown asked Mendiola if she reported the incident to the police or anyone with the Board of Education.

She said she hadn’t, and Brown asked her why.

“I was terrified,” she replied. “I thought he would leave me alone. I thought I could handle it myself.”

The two first had sex was in August 2003, she testified.

One day during the same fall semester at West Middle, Dr. Robert Heffern, then an assistant superintendent, and Dr. Becky Greer, the school system’s director of human resources, came to West to meet Helms.

That same day, Mendiola said she was walking in the hall, and Helms grabbed her arm. He was furious, she said, and told her Heffern and Greer had questioned him about the affair.

He told her he denied everything, and they believed him, she testified. He also told her to deny everything or lose her job, she said Thursday.

“I’ll never lie for you,” Mendiola said she told Helms.

Mendiola testified she had not talked to Heffern at that point, but she saw him in the hallway — the day was unclear — and asked, “Could I talk to you about some problems I’m having?”

Heffern told her, “My door is always open.”

“But I never went to talk to him,” Mendiola testified.

Why not, her attorney asked.

She said she was scared school officials would put her on some sort of leave. She was a single parent and worried about not having a paycheck. She was also afraid they wouldn’t believe her, she said.

Mendiola said Helms started coming to her apartment in the mornings before work, always around 6 a.m. She started leaving very early to avoid him. She testified she started going to Hendrix for breakfast or to friend Becky Carli’s house.

Mendiola described an occasion when she was home sick from work. She said she called in sick because she was overwhelmed with all the stress.

At this point, her oldest daughter hadn’t returned from Texas.

“Mr. Helms called my house,” she said.

Mendiola said he asked her if he could bring her anything.

“No. Please don’t come over here,” Mendiola said she told Helms.

“He came over anyway,” she said.

Mendiola said she was lying on the couch and Helms sat in a nearby chair and was on the phone talking to someone.

“He got off the phone and said where do you want to have sex?” Mendiola testified.

She said she told him she didn’t want to have sex.

Mendiola said Helms told her, “That’s not what I asked you.”

Brown asked her if she remembered having sex with Helms.

Mendiola said she knew she and Helms did have sex, but she couldn’t remember the details.

Mendiola described another time Helms came to her apartment in December 2003, shortly after her oldest daughter, a teenager, came home from Texas. Mendiola said she had just learned she was pregnant with Helms’ child.

She testified her daughter was in a back bedroom, adjacent to the living room and Helms came in.

“He had a key to the apartment at some point,” she said.

(Mendiola said she was always loosing her keys at West Middle School and sometimes left them in the office.

She said she had two keys to her apartment on her key ring, and at some point, one went missing.)

In the living room, “he undid his pants…and tried to push me down to make me give him oral sex,” she said.

Brown asked her if that was the last time she had sex with Helms.

No, she said. The last time was after her child was born and she moved into a bigger house on Craige Street in Salisbury.

Mendiola gave birth to her second daughter in August 2004.

Mendiola said she finally made an appointment to speak with the school system’s superintendent, Dr. Wiley Doby, in December 2004.

Mendiola said she went to Doby’s office planning to tell him everything, but when she got there, Greer was present.

Mendiola said she didn’t want to talk in front of Greer, and Doby refused to meet with her alone. Doby did seem like he wanted to talk with her, and they decided she would come back when she had a witness.

Mendiola’s attorney asked if she ever got back to Doby.

“No,” she said.

After the meeting with Doby, “I stopped going to work,” Mendiola said.

At some point in the affair, Mendiola said she was trying to find a local attorney to give her advice on the situation, but no one seemed willing to talk to her because her problem involved the school system.

She called local attorney Trippe McKeny’s office, and his secretary was very sweet. She went to McKeny’s office for a meeting with him and his secretary.

About a week after her meeting with Doby, McKeny wrote to Doby on Mendiola’s behalf, and not long after, Helms resigned, according to Ken Soo, one of the attorneys for the school board.

In his cross examination, Soo asked Mendiola if she remembered hearing about the school system’s sexual harassment policy at the beginning of each school year.

“I don’t recall that,” she said.

Soo handed her a document and asked her if she remembered signing that policy. She said she didn’t recall signing anything specifically but confirmed her signature on the document.

In response to Soo’s questions, Mendiola confirmed that the policy says sexual harassment is prohibited and tells employees they can report incidents directly to Doby or the school board.

Soo asked Mendiola if she testified at a another time that she never reported her problem to any co-worker or school administrator. She said that was correct.

Mendiola then said she did tell an assistant principal at West Middle, that she was having problems with Helms on one occasion.

Soo asked Mendiola to read her testimony from her earlier sworn statement. In her deposition, Mendiola said she never told another co-worker or school employee at West that she was being mistreated.

“Dr. Doby met with you the same day you called for an appointment, isn’t that right?” Soo asked Mendiola.

“Yes,” she replied.

Mendiola confirmed she didn’t go back to or call Doby’s office.

Mendiola acknowledged she never complained to the school’s resource officer.

A new school resource officer, Christine Brown, came to West Middle in the 2004-2005 school year.

She acknowledged telling Brown that Helms was the father of her baby but said she didn’t remember telling her that was a secret.

Soo asked her about her first visit with an obstetrician when she learned she was pregnant.

Mendiola confirmed the doctor asked if she was having any problems with domestic violence, and she said she was not.

After her baby was born, Mendiola went back to the same doctor and was asked again if she had problems with domestic violence. She again said she was not.

Mendiola said she saw her family doctor, Dr. Lester Brown, in December 2003 because of the problems she was having with Helms.

Mendiola confirmed that the appointment with Brown was a full year before she called for the appointment with Doby.

Soo asked Mendiola if it was the policy at West Rowan Middle that teachers stay with their students at lunch. She said it was and confirmed that at times she didn’t stay with her students.

Mendiola said someone was always watching her students at lunch when she wasn’t there and school administrators knew she wasn’t always with her students.

“You told Mike Wheeler (another teacher), did you not, that Mr. Helms had given you permission to smoke during lunch?” Soo asked her.

Mendiola said she remembered a teacher saying something to her but didn’t think it was their business and told that person administrators knew she wasn’t with her students.

Soo asked her if Helms was part of the West Middle administration and if the school’s campus is non-smoking. Both were true, Mendiola said.

Soo asked Mendiola about another incident sometime during the affair when she came to school in jeans on Friday and another teacher, Davina Stewart, told her teachers were no longer allowed to dress casually on Fridays.

Soo asked her if she remembered telling Stewart, “I’ll see to that.”

“I don’t remember those words,” Mendiola testified.

Mendiola said she asked Helms why teachers couldn’t wear jeans on Friday when it was acceptable at other schools.

Soo asked her if Helms got on the school intercom right after their meeting and told staff that jeans would be acceptable on Fridays.

Mendiola said she didn’t recall exactly when Helms repealed the jeans band, but after their meeting, “teachers were able to wear jeans on Fridays.”

Helms’ attorney, Todd Paris, asked Mendiola about talking to Helms about the school’s casual dress policy.

Mendiola confirmed that she sought out Helms directly to ask him about wearing jeans on Fridays.

“And this is the man you’re terrified of, correct?” Paris asked Mendiola.

“Yes,” she replied. She went on to say that she tried to put a smile on her face at work and pretend like everything was alright.

As the day progressed, Mendiola obviously became irritated with questions from attorneys for Helms and the school system.

Soo questioned her about getting disability benefits from the school system and asked her if she knew how that process worked.

Mendiola started to testify about what school employee who handled disability cases told her.

Soo said he didn’t want her to testify about anything she heard from another person.

She tried to testify again and then got irritated with Soo, asking him how she was supposed to know about the disability process unless someone told her.

Judge Taylor interrupted and told Mendiola she couldn’t ask Soo questions.

Mendiola threw something towards the front of the witness stand and quickly sat back in her chair. After a brief pause, she put her hand over her mouth and started to cry.

The judge called for a recess, and after the jury had left the room, Mendiola fell to the floor sobbing.

Even though she returned to the stand a few minutes later, Mendiola said she didn’t understand many of the remaining questions or said she didn’t remember well enough to answer.