HOUSTON (CN) - A superintendent who refused a state order to shut down her charter school claims a Disney TV station defamed her in news stories that suggested she stole more than $3 million in state money intended for the school.
In her federal complaint, Theaola Robinson says she founded Benji's Special Education Academy in 1980 to care for her disabled son, and other "similarly needy young children."
By 1996 the school had 140 students, and in November 1998 the Texas State Board of Education granted Benji's a contract to convert its operations "into an open-enrollment public charter school," Robinson says.
"Beginning in 2008, Benji's became subject to close monitoring of all aspects of its operations, with particular emphasis on its special education programs for disabled students," through appointment of Texas Education Agency conservators to manage its operations, Robinson says.
During state education officials' ensuing audit, "personality conflicts developed" that resulted in "TEA launching a personal vendetta aimed solely at Mrs. Robinson," she claims.
Robinson says the agency's "plan went into effect in August 2010, and resulted in the appointment of an interim board of managers and interim superintendent on September 3, 2010, displacing Mrs. Robinson from an active role as superintendent."
Robinson claims she cooperated with the interim board's efforts to overhaul her school, including "a significantly reduced role and salary for herself," but it voted on Sept. 13, 2010 to close Benji's, and the next day gave notice of its immediate closure to students, parents, and staff, along with a list of other schools where the students could enroll.
In defiance of the state order, Robinson says, "Mrs. Robinson vowed that Benji's would remain open, the teachers agreed to continue to report, the bus drivers to transport the children, and the parents and students to continue to come to school, all in peaceful disobedience to the grossly unlawful, arbitrary and malicious conduct of the TEA," Robinson says.
She describes his as being "In the finest tradition of American citizenship, with the displaced administrator, Mrs. Robinson, leading the fight ... [against] this grossly unlawful action."
Robinson says the school's peaceful defiance "appeared to surprise the TEA" and "A new plan was immediately hatched to quash the peaceful and exemplary defiance of the State's arbitrary and malicious action."
She claims: "The first prong of this plan was aimed at quashing public support for Mrs. Robinson's leadership of the school family's peaceful defiance. This prong of the plan was so cynical in formulation and execution that it is hard to imagine any responsible persons charged with carrying out the public trust with even having thought of it, let alone of pursuing it. This prong of the plan was aimed at destroying Mrs. Robinson's reputation in the community at large as a means to undermine her support, and provides the basis of the claim in this action.
"The plan was simply to report to the major news organizations already involved in covering the story of the abrupt closure of the school and the defiance thereto that over $3 million in public funds given to Benji's over the past year, i.e., the entire annual budget for operations, was unaccounted for, with the clear intent to give the impression to persons of ordinary intelligence that Mrs. Robinson had stolen this vast amount of public money and that Benji's was in effect nothing more than a scam being conducted for the personal benefit of Mrs. Robinson."
Robinson says the alleged plot "only arose after it became clear that Benji's was not going to 'take it lying down' in regard to the arbitrary and unlawful decision to immediately close the school."
Robinson claims the Walt Disney Company's Houston affiliate, ABC Channel 13, KTRK, took the story and ran with it.
On Sept. 15, 2010, the complaint states, KTRK aired a news segment in which its reporter said, "According to the state millions, in tax payer dollars cannot be accounted for."
The same reporter published a story on KTRK's website and wrote, "For the state the issue is simple - where is the money? They say millions of taxpayer dollars are unaccounted for ... The state closure is based on a lack of sufficient financial records, meaning the state doesn't know where the more than $3 million of taxpayer money given last year has been spent."
Robinson says the Houston Chronicle and CBS's Houston affiliate KHOU ran stories about the school's issues on the same day, and their coverage "reported that Benji's receives more than $3 million annually from the state, but neither report by these other news organizations suggest the entire amount of public funds received by Benji's over the preceding year were unaccounted for and had been misappropriated."
Then on Sept. 22, 2010, a Texas Education Agency official "recommended the continued suspension of [Benji's] charter operations and funding, based not on the financial condition of the school, not on $3 million being stolen, but on the civil disobedience led by Mrs. Robinson following September 13, 2010, of simply continuing to keep the school open, having endangered the safety, health, and welfare of the students," Robinson claims.
KTRK aired a follow-up story on the school's troubles on Sept.25, which it also published on its website, with an accompanying story in which its reporter wrote: "Where is taxpayer money going and how is a taxpayer-owned building being used? ... The Texas Education Agency says it doesn't know how Benji's spent $3 million of taxpayer money, and a lease agreement obtained by Eyewitness News raises even more questions," according to the complaint.
Several parents of Benji's students filed a federal complaint on Sept. 27, 2010, seeking an order to keep the school open.
This prompted KTRK to broadcast another story, and publish another accompanying print version, and its reporter continued to imply Robinson's guilt by writing: "The Texas Education Agency doesn't know how the academy spent $3 million of state money," according to the complaint.
Robinson claims KTRK's coverage generated negative publicity for her, evidenced by comments posted to the station's website about the story. An example: "Ms. Robinson should be arrested, not because she's black, because she's a thief!"
KTRK subsequently broadcast and published two more stories on Benji's, and continued reporting that "Benji's did not provide proper financial records to account for over $3 million in state funding for the past year," Robinson says. "The series of stories broadcast by Defendant, The Walt Disney Company, are untrue and are libelous defamations as defined by Texas law," Robinson says.
Robinson says that KTRK's reports "were capable of defamatory meaning" because as demonstrated by the more than 50 comments posted to the station's website in response to its coverage the public "understood that [KTRK's] statements referred to (her.)"
She seeks punitive damages. She is represented by Houston attorney Barry Bowen.
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