A former administrator at Lake Hills Montessori Cuernavaca filed a lawsuit April 17 in Travis County District Court claiming she was fired by the school’s founder for reporting the physical abuse of children in the school’s care.
Lake Hills Montessori is a school for children ages 2 to 6 years old, serving approximately 100 students at any given time. In April 2016, staff at the school discovered that a newly hired employee, only identified as “Ms. S” in the suit, had struck a student, the lawsuit states. School administrator Sharla Monroe, an employee of the school since 2008, investigated the incident with another employee and reported it to the school’s founder, Sandra Karnstadt.
“Shockingly, instead of properly reporting Ms. S’s actions, Karnstadt placed the Lake Hills Montessori’s reputation above the safety and welfare of the very children it purports to foster and protect,” the lawsuit states. “Karnstadt refused to report the abuse to either [student’s] parents or to [The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services]. Further, she instructed Monroe not to report the abuse. For fear of losing her job, Monroe kept quiet.”
Monroe herself described Karnstadt as “unconcerned” about the alleged abuse.
“It was very clear the entire time that she was upset and angry with me for making a stance against this,” Monroe said. “She felt I was blowing it out of proportion - just making a big to do about something she felt was not a big deal.”
Karnstadt herself responded that she has “nutured and cared for every child” for the decades she’s worked in education.
According to the suit, Ms. S. was eventually fired after repeated complaints about her by other staff members. After Ms. S’s termination, Monroe discovered that more than one student had been subjected to abuse by Ms. S, the lawsuit states. This prompted Monroe to report Ms. S’s abusive behavior to TXDFPS against the written and oral direction of Karnstadt, according to the suit.
“Furious about the report, in writing, Karnstadt emailed Monroe and exhibited a greater level of frustration with the forthcoming investigation than with the underlying events giving rise to the report,” the suit states.
In August, TXDFPS found the school had violated Texas law for failing to report concerns about potential abuse to the student’s parents.
“We fully cooperate with any investigation that’s ever happened at the school,” Karnstadt said. “It’s very rare. This was one of those. We cooperated, it was investigated, and we were cleared of any alleged abuse.”
Ten days after TXDFPS reported its findings, Karnstadt abruptly fired Monroe, the lawsuit states, dismissing her from the campus with no advance notice. The lawsuit states that Karnstadt told Monroe verbally that Monroe was being fired at least in part because she reported the abuse of a student to state authorities. In a letter to Monroe sent after her firing, Karnstadt referred to a “shift in loyalty.”
“Her original statement was that financially she couldn’t afford to give me the raise she’d been promising me for years … but if this wouldn’t have happened with the teacher and reporting, she would have ‘found a way to keep me’ regardless of the money,” Monroe said.
Attorney Jason Snell, representing Monroe, said that he and his team interviewed several teachers at the school who corroborated Monroe’s story of the abuse and the reason she was fired.
“We’re pretty shocked this kind of behavior could happen,” Snell said. “The law specifically prohibits this kind of retaliation and encourages reporting. That is all to protect the children … We’re going to make sure that a Travis County jury appreciates the gravity of what did occur to discourage this from happening not only at this school but anywhere else.”
This story has been updated.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Sharla Monroe was fired from the Cuernavaca campus of Lake Hills Montessori, not the Bee Cave campus. Monroe was sent a handwritten letter, not an email, alluding to her dismissal from the school.