Maryland teachers sue for bullying and harassment

Teachers in Silver Spring, Maryland, are suing their principal and the school board for ongoing bullying and harassment. Unfortunately, this form of abuse toward public school teachers is far from a rare occurrence.

Kate Alexander reports for Maryland Community News Online (link here):

A group of educators at Kemp Mill Elementary School in Silver Spring have filed a lawsuit against the Montgomery County school board and Kemp Mill’s principal, claiming years of systemic harassment, and neglect by the board to do anything about it.

. . . The group claims that since coming to lead Kemp Mill in 2007, Principal Floyd Starnes has engaged in “unabated and outrageous bullying behavior directed toward the Kemp Mill teachers, as well as the administrative and custodial staff,” according to the lawsuit.

The teachers repeatedly took their concerns to Montgomery County Public Schools leadership, but according to the complaint, the Montgomery County Board of Education failed to intervene.

Hell hath no fury like a father whose daughter has been mistreated! The lead attorney, Robert Weltchek, filed the lawsuit after learning about working conditions at the school from his own daughter, Emily, who taught at Kemp Hill:

“It is fortuitous that Emily is my daughter and I’m a trial lawyer,” he said. “When I heard this story, I was sufficiently outraged, as a lawyer and a father, that nothing had been done over all these years. It seemed to me the only hope that these teachers have is litigation.”

Principal bullying of teachers

Principal bullying of teachers is a serious problem.

Education professors Joseph and Jo Blase have documented this phenomenon in their groundbreaking 2002 book, Breaking the Silence, Overcoming the Problem of Principal Mistreatment of Teachers (reviewed here).

In addition, the National Association for Prevention of Teacher Abuse (link here) is dedicated to addressing these behaviors through public education and advocacy.

Echoes of South Hadley, MA

If we need more evidence of this phenomenon, we can look to the aftermath of the 2010 suicide of South Hadley, Massachusetts high school student Phoebe Prince. One of the few teachers to support her was bullied out of her job. As I wrote last year:

After South Hadley, Massachusetts high school student Phoebe Prince took her own life following a brutal campaign of bullying by her classmates in 2010, one of her supportive teachers — Deb Caldieri — was bullied out of her job by principal Dan Smith and other school administrators.

Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen shares the story (link here):

Her name is Deb Caldieri, and she has been driven from the school as surely as Phoebe was hounded to the grave. Her career and her health have been ruined.

This being South Hadley High, she has suffered all this mostly because she had the temerity to question the way her superiors handled the whole mess.

She didn’t follow the party line at South Hadley High, which from the beginning was to blame Phoebe and excuse the bullies. Phoebe was the outsider, the clueless blow-in from overseas who brought all her troubles on herself. That was the party line.

Memphis in May

In May I’ll be traveling to Memphis to speak about workplace bullying to the National Organization of Lawyers for Education Associations, which is associated with the National Education Association. I’m looking forward to the discussion, and I hope it will allow us to explore strategies for dealing with bullying of public educators.

Teachers unions, we need you!

The Silver Springs and South Hadley situations are prime examples of why we need the teachers unions to support the Healthy Workplace Bill, anti-bullying legislation I authored that currently is under consideration in some 13 states. Here in the Bay State, we’ve been fortunate to have support of members of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

***

July 5, 2012 update — As you can see from the Comments, a reader kindly alerted me that the school district’s motion to dismiss the claims has been denied and that the case is slated to go to trial in May 2013. As reported by Jen Bondeson on Maryland Community News Online (link here):

Former teachers of Kemp Mill Elementary School and their supporters hugged and wiped away tears as they exited a Montgomery County courtroom Friday.

Finally, they said, someone is listening.

Minutes earlier, Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Ronald B. Rubin denied Montgomery County Public Schools’ request to dismiss the teachers’ case against Kemp Mill Principal Floyd Starnes and the Montgomery County Board of Education.

In the lawsuit filed in March, six educators accuse Starnes and the school board of intentional infliction of emotion distress, gross negligence and negligence.

The full article goes into more detail about the allegations and legal machinations behind the case.

October 13, 2013 update — I’m tardy in reporting that this lawsuit was settled in May, with terms kept confidential. Donna St. George reported for the Washington Post:

Montgomery County officials have reached an out-of-court settlement with six former employees at Kemp Mill Elementary School who accused their one-time principal of misconduct and retaliation.

The settlement . . . puts an end to a civil lawsuit that, according to court documents, included allegations that the principal escorted unruly children into a closet-size room to calm them down and subjected staff members to unwanted touching, verbal abuse and harassment.

Both sides signed a confidentiality agreement that bars release of the terms of the settlement . . . . A joint statement from attorneys in the case said only: “This case has been settled to the satisfaction of all parties.”

23 responses

  1. Dear Sir,

    Thank you posting this. Would it be possible to see the contents of this Healthy Workplace Bill?

    Please inform, and looking forward to hearing from you.

    Andrew

  2. I’m quite interested in the approach the attorneys will take on this case. Where there are not laws against bullying, I’m wondering what the legal grounds will be for this lawsuit. Will they focus on sexual harrassment and mistreatment due to sex/gender? If so, then would it really be a lawsuit based on discrimination due to sex? Or, perhaps they’ll focus on violation of policies? When I was experiencing bullying, more than one person with knowledge of the legal system said “Unfortunately, it is not illegal to be a jerk or a bully.” The person who bullied me is now bullying another person – 3 people including myself could easily attest to this person’s bullying behavior. Anyway – I’ll be paying attention to this case.

  3. Dear Mr. Yamada,

    Thanks very much for the link to your paper. I always look forward to seeing more of your insightful posts, having been myself a victim of mobbing at my university workplace as well as repeated harassment.

    I applaud your efforts at shedding light on an important subject.

  4. Oh, my Lord: I never thought I’d see the day. My husband’s career was practically tanked by a headmaster who arrived at the school, installed a wine cellar at his new residence, and proceeded to purge all the senior faculty. All of them. And they were, on the whole, a terrific bunch, devoted to the school and students, conscientious, highly skilled, and ethical. Lovely people he and I will always be proud to know… None of them “worked things out” and managed to rebuild their careers to where they’d been. Tragically, one person, a mother and career educator who moved away right after the debacle, hanged herself in a matter of months.

    Midway through El Presidente’s first fall term, at the start of his own fourth year, my husband had asked for accommodation, as someone with a disability. He’d requested an extra grading day each term, as he was a high-school English/Writing teacher, and has serious OCD. (Month’s inpatient stay at top OCD clinic, out of state; longtime treatment by leading specialist; etc. All documented well and promptly.)

    No accommodation was ever made, and things got progressively harder, until the school year ended. By then my husband was convinced there was no way out, and was appalled by the way some of his colleagues had been treated. Thank goodness, he got the picture in time, being trusting to a fault. He found a partner at a top-notch employment-law firm to represent him, and filed an EEOC complaint.

    The headmaster and his supervisor fought it almost all the way to court, finally agreeing to a piddling settlement. At least, there WAS a settlement. The headmaster did much worse to all the other senior teachers fired that summer. He even harassed the most-talented, sweetest educator my husband had ever worked with: specious allegations, personal slurs, an entire smear campaign. (Some of the statements were recounted to that teacher by people he knew and trusted.) The teacher had spent 14 years at the school, even changing tracks from Science to Phys. Ed. when the school had an unexpected vacancy. He ran school trips, volunteered at dances, the whole nine yards. He was also a fine person. Not surprisingly, in his entire file, there wasn’t a single criticism or negative remark.

    That teacher and two others finally filed an age-discrimination complaint, reluctantly. Together and separately they researched, brainstormed, sought advice, collected evidence, reviewed their case, rehearsed statements, and wrote checks. Lots of checks, for a very long time. Naturally, my husband did his best to pass along insights or suggestions. Mainly, though, we both offered what emotional support we could, initially, and as things dragged on for him and his companion plaintiffs.

    It was something to see. With each discouraging month, my admiration for the man grew: he kept his attitude so remarkably positive. There he was, at the age of 54, cast out of a very good school he’d worked hard to join and remain in. He was teaching basic science to inner-city kids who had serious behavioral problems, like a history of violence toward authority figures, hyperactivity plus moderate autism, etc. As if that weren’t enough, his wife was struggling after years of working for a bully. She was a social worker employed by one of the nation’s wealthiest communities,but there’d been a long string of firings and coerced resignations in her department. (Someone else finally sued the town over those and other shenanigans by her boss, and won handily.) Given our teacher friend’s phenomenal grace and resultant composure, my husband and I were dumbfounded a year or two later, when a suspiciously uninterested judge managed to thwart the trio of plaintiffs.

    At that point, it seemed all the more remarkable that my husband had received a settlement. For that I credit my husband’s gentle demeanor, serene countenance, and sharp-as-a-tack attorney. His lawyer couldn’t do anything, though, about all the times Hubby’s supervisor got him blacklisted. After that school year ended, the offer of a lifetime went up in smoke, like other offers and overtures then and since. Wonderful Academy had assigned him a classroom, and fall courses. He’d provided a syllabus of the various books he planned to teach that term. A contract awaited his signature; then, suddenly, it didn’t.

    Flummoxed, he called his ex-department head. Perhaps the fellow didn’t realize that he was still job-hunting, and thought he’d already accepted an offer somewhere else. No, El Señor Department Head retorted; he knew. But, he added spitefully, contrary to his (glowing, two-page) letter of recommendation — which echoed the key points of each of my husband’s other letters — he’d torpedoed my husband’s chances whenever someone called for a reference.

    That was not a good time for our family, to say the least. My firm had been bought out the year before, and I’d declined an offer to join the new company at their headquarters, complete with a raise and a boss who seemed she’d be great to work for. (We’d done projects together, by email and phone. Later, she joined a division run by one of my sister’s friends, who’s confirmed my every impression of her.) I’d said no because my husband hadn’t liked living in New York; we’d been there for six years. Initially I’d been sure I could find another good job, but then my industry pretty much collapsed. I’d looked for work everywhere, in that field and others, to no avail, and wound up clinically depressed. My husband was even more discouraged after the call to his ex-boss: he came home and asked in all seriousness if I’d consider a suicide pact.

    We got through that, and that summer he managed to find another job. But we had to move to an island that was hours away; it was his only decent offer. I found work there, and things started looking up, though somehow every term he was assigned different classes, with little notice. It was a struggle to read all the texts in the time allotted, not to mention drafting syllabi and a game plan, assembling and designing assignments, writing quizzes and tests, etc. Also, in early March of his second year, a teacher’s assistant complained to the department head that my husband had left his classroom unattended, but he’d explained that he’d been in the room then, jotting notes on the spare blackboard at the back end of the wall with the door; he thought that settled the matter.

    Besides, our luck seemed to turn in May. My husband won of the beautiful, brand-new apartments that were offered in the first teacher-housing lottery. We couldn’t believe our luck when we saw it. Nearing completion, the units built to help attract and retain teaching staff. The rent was so heavily subsidized, it was a deal you couldn’t get for the most-wretched apartments.

    But within six weeks, that job, too, shriveled on the vine — ostensibly due to “dereliction of duty”, as claimed by the TA. (Who happened at the time to be angling for a free degree at a state-run vocational program, courtesy of the island’s schools.) Apparently she’d been recruited by the Principal or Superintendent. Those two excoriated my husband at the nastiest meeting I’ve ever seen, after he’d asked for an extra day for grading final exams.

    I don’t remember why I was allowed at the meeting; it was probably because some years earlier I’d copy-edited books at Aspen/John Wiley, and because I’d done a lot of the legwork for the EEOC complaint. In any case, I was working at my husband’s “new” school at the time, as a substitute teacher, tutor and test-administrator; and it was clear that, as usual, his colleagues and students liked him fine. Pretty much everybody I knew there, except, apparently, the principal and T.A., seemed to agree.

    For most of their year together, it seemed, the T.A. hadn’t faulted him, except once in March, when the department head said the gal had claimed he left the classroom unlocked. In fact, my husband had been seated inside at a student desk, down the wall from the door, and said so. He was cooking up assignment ideas and writing instructions to students on the “spare” blackboard. (Besides, being Mr. OCD, he locks everything, all the time. I can’t get out of the driver’s seat in my car without his asking if I’ve locked the door.)

    For awhile, my husband and I clung to our hopes. After all, he had two eloquent supporters. Both were dear friends; we’d lived in their guest house when we first moved there. One was a longtime member of the School Committee, and respected medical professional. The other was the person’s spouse, this school’s longtime Guidance Counselor (formerly, the school nurse). If not for them, there’d have been no response to the complaint that he finally felt compelled to file. In fact, there’d have been no settlement offer, period. At this job, as at the last, asking for an accommodation, then calling upon the help of an outside authority, had been his very last choices. Apart from the mess at his last school, he’d never filed a complaint about any person or organization — nor has he since. My husband hates confrontation, and has always bent over backward to avoid it.

    Again we relocated, yet it seemed the long shadow of Señor Department Head pursued him. My husband had never regretted his career change at 37, or taking three years to restart and finish his Bachelor’s degree, or taking another year to attend the top graduate program in Education. By the time of this second unplanned move, he’d logged nine years at some of the country’s better schools (private and public), not to mention surviving a year at a $16 million Bronx magnet school. Most New York City teachers then left the profession within seven years, but that school was especially disheartening. (For instance, all the brand-new computers and peripherals for the students vanished from the loading dock on delivery day, and were never replaced. From early October, the student bathrooms had no running water, ever: the head custodian shut it off, due to “all the splashing.”)

    After the second job fell through, each of my husband’s placements was worse than the one before. So many things soured for him at work that I grew convinced that everyone who’d hired him did so with misgivings, that Señor Department Head’s “recommendation” not only hurt his odds of finding work, but caused employers to look upon him as damaged goods, as a troublemaker, or worse. Things only improved once he switched to teaching college, where results, commitment and professional conduct were much easier to prove.

  5. Mr. Yamada: You are writing as if this were all true fact, deliberately not using the word “alleged,” when you have no proof of any of these allegations. You better watch it, your lible to get yourself sued for libel and charater defamation. Very irresponsible of you.

    • Gladys,thank you for your comment. The blog post makes clear that it’s drawing upon a news report on a filed lawsuit, which by its nature is a set of allegations. The rest of the piece puts the topic in context. I’m not claiming to have independently investigated the events in question, and certainly would clarify that I have not.

      • Thank you, Mr. Yamada, for the work you are doing to end abuse in the work environment. It is extremely difficult to come forward and share the truth about these abuses. I know of no teacher or person who wants to open up their life to public scrutiny and give up his/her career (for the time it takes to move through the judicial process) unless there is firm evidence of the abuse that has been inflicted upon themselves, as well as others. AND, there is a long list of others. It is important to point out that the school administration responds in much the same manner that Ms. Gladys Brownstein did, in her comments above “You better watch it”.
        MCPS/ BOE is a political entity and their pattern is to protect their administrators to the detriment of their teaching staff, students, and parents. There are several other schools in their district with the same patterns of abuse toward teachers. In MCPS, compliance to your administrator is the rule of law, no matter what he/she does. If you do not comply, you will be severely punished. As teachers, we are child advocates, and if the practices of an administrator are harmful to our students, we must speak up. MCPS/BOE should be more mindful of why they have their jobs…… THE CHILDREN! Hopefully, this lawsuit and others like it, will encourage school districts to STOP the bullying in their schools.

  6. Hi Mr. Yamada: I am trying to locate a good employment lawyer to give me a consult about an employment issue in Massachusetts. I know that workplace bullying is not illegal, but some of the other situations around the bullying may be. Is there anyone I could contact for a consultation? I really need help.

    • I’d suggest doing some window shopping at the website of the Massachusetts Employment Lawyers Association, http://www.massnela.org, which contains membership and directory links to many of the leading employment law firms representing workers. In addition, the Need Help section of this blog may provide you with some helpful resources.

      Good luck with your situation,
      David

  7. MY own husband has been the victim of teacher bullying by a principal who consistantly gave him overcrowded classes, he had 35 middle school students per class while the remaining teachers on his team had class sizes of 18 to 24 students. They loaded every student with a behavioral problem in his class until even the parents were suspicious as to why their own so called “problem child” was crammed in a class full of other students know to have behavior issues. It got so bad he left the profession and refuses to go back. He was an excellent teacher. We run into his former students all the time and they always praise him for being the best teacher they have ever had. My husband was the victim of a principal who played favorites and punished teachers who refused to kiss her behind. How many good teachers will we lose until someone stands up and says enough is enough. The worse was the union they did absolutely nothing, it was like they were move supportive to the administration that my husband. In the end he just left, I wanted to him to fight harder, but I think he was just ready to move on. I still feel like we could have done more but he said life was too short and he wanted to cut his loses and get started on his new career. I’m glad someone is taking this fight to the next level it makes me feel less upset about not pursuing our own.

  8. Mr.Yamada
    Thank you for providing this outlet,some time when i am overwhelmed with anxiety and stress,writing is an exit. my situation at work has gotten the best of me,to the point i have become very withdrawn and slightly Anti-Social,jsu the other day after an outburst on my wife after experiencing a panic attack,she bought too my Attention,how much i hav changed and said i shoud do something about it before i have a nervous breakdown or worst a Heart Attack.

    I have addressed the issue with HR,My manager and the company,on a few different occassions,to no avail. My situation is not an isolated incident,there are others affected by the actions of the same indiviuals,for some reason,this Company,is has been willing to turn the other check,when certain issues arise.

    I also need some directions,who can i speak with regarding legal action for the Emotional,Menatal and Phycsical strains, i have endured over the past 4 years. I cannot afford to walk away and seek a new start,besides,i’m not well enough at this point to be productive to any orginization,until i get better.

    • I’m sorry to hear you’re going through such a rough time.

      If you check the Need Help section of this blog, you’ll find some resources of possible assistance, including legal referrals.

      I wish you the best of luck in addressing all this.

      Best,
      David

  9. This was forwarded to me by a friend. I have also been the victim of ‘bullying in the workplace’. Once hired as a special education teacher, I quickly noticed how unhappy the staff was in this school district. I worked for three years, just one contract shy of tenure, and they were the worst three years of my life. Shortly after being hired, I knew immediately that I was not going to be able to deal with this female administrator and her authoritarian type personality. Over the course of the years working under this woman’s leadership, I witnessed numerous teachers become completely stressed out, break down in tears after a private meeting, quit out of pure frustration, or not have their contract renewed. Things were so bad, teachers and other administrators alike would run in the opposite direction when they saw this toxic personality headed their way. Many careers were ruined thanks to this woman and not once did anyone ever do anything to have her removed from her position, even when it was clearly obvious that something was desperately wrong within the confines of the special education department. When a small department such as this one has a staff constantly moving through the revolving door, something should be done to investigate the person in charge.

  10. Thank you so much for what you are doing. Two years ago I looked into workplace bullying sites but there was only one. It gave advice about how to handle a bully but nothing about legal help. At the time I was looking, I was being bullied at work by a principal who used to be a fellow teacher. I don’t know if she preyed on me because she knew I was non-confrontational or she thought I wouldn’t speak up. I didn’t fight back at first and I came very close to suicide because I knew of no other way to escape. I had been torn down do much I couldn’t even think straight. I was a good teacher who had been in the same building for 11 years. I had 11 years of nothing but positive reviews, praise from parents, and nominations for teacher of the year. Then I was suddenly put on an improvement plan. I went along with it so as not to make waves, but the principal made it impossible to get off the improvement plan. I did everything in the plan that I was supposed to do. The only area I failed in were my observations that SHE conducted to evaluate my work performance. I was bombarded with numerous “suggestions” on how to improve, some of which I was already doing, and then was marked down months later on an evaluation for using the suggested activities. I finally consulted the union for help and they showed me how to grieve my evaluations according to protocol. Things got worse after that. My evaluations went from mere suggestions for improvement (still marked “unsatisfactory”) to abyssmal reports on my supposed terrible work and lack of effort. I was in terrible health from all the effort I WAS putting in. No one in the upper supervisory positions ever did anything other than to uphold whatever the principal decided. I was finally fired a year ago on the grounds that I was an “ineffective” teacher. Of course, this was all done in May so all the students and parents knew something had gone down. Some even thought the worst because many people think teachers can never be fired unless they molest a child or some other heinous crime has occurred. This was further humiliation after already being yelled at like a petulant child in front of the rest of the staff. Many co-workers distanced themselves to keep out of the crosshairs. Everyone was petrified to speak up. I needed so badly for someone to speak up on my behalf. I went as far as the Dept of Ed and they agreed that I shouldn’t have been put on an improvement plan in the first place. If any of you reading this are involved with anti-bullying efforts, PLEASE DONT GIVE UP!!!! We are counting on others to speak up too. People don’t listen when it’s one person “complaining”. Many people need to speak up before someone will actually BELIEVE what is going on!!!

  11. On Friday, June 22, Judge Rubin ruled that the county’s request to dismiss the Kemp Mill/Principal bullying lawsuit was denied. A two week trial has been scheduled for May 2012. There is an article in the Maryland Gazette Newspaper regarding the judge’s ruling.

  12. My friends and I have been going through a similar situation in baltimore city public schools. We would like to file charges as well, would you have any advice for us????

    • You need to find a good employment lawyer in your home state to advise you on the possibilities.

      The website of the National Employment Lawyers Ass’n (www.nela.org) has online referral assistance that may be of help to you.

  13. I found this article when looking for help for my mother who is a teacher in a systematic system of abuse. After changing schools to gain experience for a MA my mother was verbally and mentally abused by her new principal… The district then moved her to a schooled headed by a good friend of the initial abuser who continued the harassment from day one. This principal is obsessed with my mother in a scary way and has showed she will lie every way possible and even accuse my mother of cheating on testing because her consistent good score don’t match the incompetent image the principal is trying to create of her. My mother is a good and older teacher they are trying to push into retirement. She loves teaching and does not want to give up the fight and let this principal ruin her good name and reputation. But the teachers union said they can’t d anything and the district said once a principal starts procedures again you they can’t change your school. It’s gotten to the point this principal is getting desperate to get my mom fired…. And I’m truly afraid what she’ll do next as she seems to try whatever new tactic is in the news

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