Ex-Montessori school director says she was fired for reporting child abuse allegations

Lake Hills Montessori school on Cuernavaca Drive (KXAN Photo/Frank Martinez)
Lake Hills Montessori school on Cuernavaca Drive (KXAN Photo/Frank Martinez)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A former school director for the Lake Hills Montessori school in Austin claims she was fired by the school’s owner, Sandra Karnstadt, in retaliation for reporting “ongoing child abuse” to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

The lawsuit states Sharla Monroe had worked at the Austin school, located at 600 Cuernavaca Dr., since 2008. She was promoted to the school’s director in 2013, but early last year, Monroe began getting complaints that a newly-hired teacher was emotionally aggressive toward students and would lock them in a bathroom alone for long periods of time.

Monroe claims she went to Karnstadt, who is accused of ignoring her concerns.

The lawsuit goes on to say, in April of 2016, the situation escalated and the new teacher was investigated internally for hitting a child. Monroe says she urged Karnstadt to report the alleged abuse to state officials, but Karnstadt refused. According to legal documents, Karnstadt kept quiet about the situation and did not notify parents, telling Monroe not to report the abuse.

“If the founder creates an environment where employees are scared to report abusive behavior and are discouraged from reporting abusive behavior that’s going to create a chilling effect and that’s dangerous,” Jason Snell, Monroe’s attorney says.

Court documents show Monroe initially kept quiet for fear of losing her job, but decided she needed to report the abuse to the Department of Family and Protective Services. We checked with DFPS and they say the school was cited for not self-reporting any suspected abuse, but the school is no longer under investigation and any allegations of physical abuse were ruled out on Sept. 20, 2016.

Days later, the lawsuit states Karnstadt fired Monroe. When Monroe asked for the reason, Karnstadt reportedly told her if she had not reported the teacher’s behavior to DFPS, she may “have found a way” to keep Monroe employed. By phone, Karnstadt declined to comment on the reason she fired Monroe, saying it is inappropriate to talk about personnel specifics.

Regarding the state investigation, Karnstadt said, “I think it’s important to look at our history of our school. We’ve been in place for 18 years. We’ve never had anything like this before.”

Parents we spoke with say the school is a great place for their children.

“Regarding what takes place in the school, it really is ran very well, the teachers are extremely loving,” one grandparent, who wanted to remain anonymous said.

Another parent did say, however, he believes the school would defend its reputation over the well-being of the children. The school was cleared of any allegations of abuse by the state.

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