P.G. Gazette: Employees sue Prince George’s school board for discrimination.

Published: Thursday, August 25, 2011
Employees sue Prince George’s school board for discrimination by Abby Brownback
Staff Writer

Hearings in the cases of 16 employees of Prince George’s County Public Schools who are suing the school board for $5 million each, alleging they faced discrimination and hostile work environments, are slated to begin Oct. 18 and continue into November in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.

Eleven of employees work or worked at Largo High School.

The cases show “a pattern of this type of thing going on throughout the school system,” said Bryan A. Chapman, the Washington, D.C.-based lawyer representing each of the plaintiffs.

In each complaint, the plaintiffs describe discrimination, intimidation and retaliation from superiors in county high schools based on race, age, national origin or their support for another teacher.

“We plan to vigorously oppose each lawsuit as we do not believe any of them have merit,” Briant Coleman, the school system’s spokesman, wrote in an email to The Gazette. “These cases are not an indicator that PGCPS has a problem with discrimination lawsuits. Given that there are 18,000 employees, lawsuits filed by 16 individuals is not a flood.”

Five of the cases name the Prince George’s County Educators Association, a union, as a co-defendant.
Christopher Feldenzer, a Towson-based attorney representing PGCEA, said the union denies the allegations. Feldenzer has filed motions to dismiss each of the cases.

Many of the cases can trace their origin to Jon Everhart, a white man who taught English at Largo High starting in 2003. Then a gym teacher and now the principal, Angelique Simpson-Marcus made racially derogatory comments about Everhart, Chapman said, and moved him from teaching upper-level English classes to freshman classes.

Three former Largo High secretaries filed lawsuits alleging Simpson-Marcus called them graphic and offensive names such as “hood rat” and “chicken head.”

Other school employees allege they were harrassed by Simpson-Marcus for supporting Everhart, Chapman said.

Simpson-Marcus referred a request for comment to Coleman.

Thirteen of the complaints were filed as a single case Nov. 22 in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, but Judge Peter J. Messitte dismissed the case, telling Chapman to file them individually, which he did in May.

In addition to the 11 cases involving Largo High, five other cases have been filed by employees who worked at Bladensburg High School, Central High School in Capitol Heights, Crossland High School in Temple Hills, DuVal High School in Lanham and Laurel High School.

Greenbelt-based Thatcher Law Firm LLC, which is representing the school system, did not return a call for comment by Tuesday morning.

Josephat Mua, who was the information technology coordinator at Laurel High, said he observed in 2008 teachers failing to sign the required contracts to check out equipment and the improper use of school-based funds to purchase computer equipment. When he complained to the school system’s internal audit department, he was demoted to the position of IT coordinator for six elementary schools.

Laurel High Principal Dwayne Jones declined to comment.

At one of the elementary schools to which Mua was assigned, Columbia Park Elementary School in Landover, he said he allegedly found the Principal Michelle Tyler-Skinner selling jewelry out of an empty classroom. When he complained, Mua, who is originally from Kenya, said he was reassigned to a job as a help desk technician, where he received calls from people who called him an “[expletive] Nigerian.”

“I let them get away with it at Laurel,” he said. “This time I decided to go up to them.”

A call to Tyler-Skinner was not immediately returned Tuesday morning.

Employees are familiar with the administrative procedure for filing complaints about alleged discrimination, Coleman wrote, and the procedure will not change for this school year.

abrownback@gazette.net


© 2011 Post-Newsweek Media, Inc./Gazette.Net

The Washington Post: Prince George’s school board faces a flood of discrimination lawsuits

Prince George’s school board faces flood of discrimination lawsuits

By , Published: August 14

A light-skinned science teacher in Prince George’s County says he didn’t get promoted because his supervisor prefers dark-skinned teachers. An African immigrant in the information technology department says he has been mocked by African Americans.

And there are two teachers who say a young black principal forced them out because they are in their 60s and white.

It’s not unusual for a board of education to face a handful of employee discrimination cases at any given time. But the Prince George’s school board now faces 16.

“Honestly, this is unusual,” said Abbey G. Hairston, a lawyer whose firm represents the county’s Board of Education. “I’ve been practicing 30 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this. And I wish I hadn’t.”

Representing the plaintiffs in all 16 multimillion-dollar cases is a lawyer who is quickly building a reputation as the go-to attorney in the county for disaffected school system employees. Bryan Chapman said he’s using the cases to make a larger point about the Prince George’s education system.

“What we’re seeing across the board is that when people have complained about discrimination, they suddenly become targets of the system,” Chapman said. “And their supervisors are then doing things to throw them out.”

The Prince George’s County Education Association, the teachers union, is named as a co-defendant in five of the 16 cases; the suits allege it did not do enough to address the teachers’ complaints.

Hairston chalks up the allegations to vindictive employees and a lawyer who is “trying to make a name for himself and filing cases willy-nilly.” She has filed motions to dismiss all of the cases, which are scheduled to be heard between September and November.

Still, the suits raise questions about leadership during a time of reform. Both sides agree that most cases resulted from measures by school leaders to try to rein in their schools’ problems in an age of heightened accountability. However, the staff members lodging the complaints say leaders have been unprofessional and ran amok.

In the past eight months, the cases have generated almost 1,000 pages of legal documents.

They stem from a set of complaints at Largo High School. Chapman got involved after a teacher met him while filing a harassment complaint. The teacher then gathered others, mostly from Largo High, at Jasper’s restaurant to explain their case.

The faculty members said that their principal, Angelique Simpson Marcus, routinely called her secretaries names, such as “chicken heads,” “ghetto” and “hood rats.”

The teachers also say they were mistreated for vocally supporting teacher Jon Everhart, who said he thought Simpson Marcus wanted to fire him because he is white.

Everhart said Simpson Marcus told students she would change their grades to ensure that every student passed his class. Also, many of the teachers said, Simpson Marcus said that “the only reason a white teacher would teach in P.G. is that they can’t get a job somewhere else.”

Simpson Marcus did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment. The school system denied the allegations.

In November, Chapman filed a lawsuit in federal District Court in Greenbelt on behalf of Everhart and a dozen others who had allegations of harassment.

In April, Judge Peter J. Messitte dismissed the case but encouraged Chapman to file cases one by one.

Typically, employment discrimination suits are filed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Employees must first file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The commission investigates the claim, then determines whether the individual has a right to sue for damages, capped at $300,000.

Only six of Chapman’s clients have a “right-to-sue” letter.

Chapman is also arguing that the school board violated other parts of the Civil Rights Act that state that organizations receiving federal funding cannot discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin or — in a separate statute — sex. In these cases, there are no caps on damages.

The school system’s liability, he argues, results from its acceptance of federal stimulus dollars in 2008 — around the time of the incidents. All of the suits are in the $5 million-to-$10 million range.

The school system says Chapman’s move is an attempt “to be clever and seek more damages” for cases that should be filed under Title VII.

As he was building the cases involving Largo High, Chapman got calls from more employees in different situations.

Josephat Mua, a Kenyan immigrant, said that his colleagues generated a hostile work environment by calling him “Zamunda,” after the fictional African country in the movie “Coming to America.”

Angela Sator said she and other women were bullied by an assistant principal at Bladensburg High School.

Sally Rogers, who also worked at Largo High, says that she was deliberately given poorly performing students for her Latin classes, then chastised for not being able to get them to perform. She said she became so fearful of the principal that the sight of her made her shake.

“I don’t think I can ever teach again,” Rogers said. “I didn’t want to believe it, but I really felt that I was being discriminated against. And I couldn’t come up with any other reason than the fact that I was older and I was white.”