Counseling for Controversy
Carolyn Turner and Nelder Stewart say the problems began for them in August 2008. For colleague Raul Duran, it felt like a new front in the fight he’s been waging off and on with the Fort Worth school district for a decade.
August 2008 was when the district’s prevention and education department was placed under the direction of Kathryn Everest, the current director of guidance and counseling.
Turner, Stewart, and Duran are longtime district employees and former prevention and education specialists. Such specialists, Duran said, are state-certified, highly skilled trainers who teach parents, students, district employees, and community groups about drug abuse, violence prevention, and how to stop and prevent bullying. They teach from a curriculum approved by the federal government.
But during that first week of school in 2008, instead of attending the standard professional development meetings, the six employees who made up the prevention and education department were given another task: cleaning out a storage room.
“I thought it was kind of cruel for us to be doing that since they have maintenance staff.” Turner said. “That’s how they treated us.”
“Basically, she made us all manual laborers that week,” said Duran. “We were insulted by it.” What’s more, Duran said, the room they cleaned out was filled with thousands of dollars’ worth of workbooks and manuals, all of which got trashed.
“She [Everest] said in our first meeting that we had been parading around as counselors, but we were not counselors,” said Stewart. “She let it be known that she was out to discredit us.”
The problems between Everest and the prevention and education department would devolve into layoffs, employee grievances, racial remarks, the hiring of Everest’s alleged personal therapist, and a complaint being filed with the Texas State Board of Social Work Examiners.
From the first, Everest treated the prevention and education specialists differently from the rest of the department, the former workers said.
Turner remembered Everest saying that she didn’t need a prevention staff, because she could buy metal detectors and call that prevention. “We felt unworthy in her eyes,” said Turner. “Every meeting we had, she was tearing us down.”
At one meeting, Turner recalled, prevention and education specialist Paula Matthews told Everest, “I feel like I’m being treated like the black sheep of the group.”
“Oh no, Nelder is darker than you,” Turner said Everest replied.
“I was beyond speechless,” said Stewart, an African-American. “I think I forgot to breathe.”
“I was so embarrassed for Nelder,” said Turner. It wasn’t a statement about race, she said, but a description of how Matthews was being treated.
“Everyone was appalled,” Stewart recalled.
Prevention and education employees figured they could see the handwriting on the wall. Over the next two years, two of the six transferred out, and a third retired. That left Turner, Stewart, and Duran — who indeed received letters in March 2010 stating their jobs would be terminated at the end of that school year because the Safe and Drug-Free School and Communities grant money, which funded their positions, had been eliminated.
Since then, neither Turner nor Stewart, who are both 62, has been able to find a full-time job. Duran, 56, found a position with a nonprofit organization.
While their jobs with the district were in jeopardy, however, one new person was hired — Cynthia Bethany, brought on at the beginning of 2009. She was given the title of critical incident specialist IV, a new position created by Everest after one of the prevention and education specialists retired.
According to district documents, the critical incident specialist “will be the point person to field, manage, and deploy trauma response assistance as needed throughout FWISD.” The job also includes consulting, referring, responding, deploying, tracking, and evaluating critical incident response within the district. And like the prevention and education specialists, this position educates students and faculty about current “safe school initiatives.”
Bethany’s starting salary was $62,000 a year. When Duran got laid off after 18 years with the district and eight years with the department, he was making $50,000. Bethany has a master’s degree in social work and is a licensed clinical social worker. She also has a broader range of responsibilities as a critical incident specialist. But those aren’t the only disparities between Bethany and the rest of the prevention and education department.
“We noticed that Cindy was being treated differently than us,” said Duran. “Then things just started slipping out.”
Those “things” involved information about the two women’s previous relationship and continuing social relationship outside of work.
Everest told the others that Bethany was her personal therapist, Turner said. According to Turner, Stewart, and Duran, Everest had begun seeing Bethany for counseling after Everest worked with students and faculty affected by the 1999 Wedgwood Baptist Church shooting.
How long that patient-client relationship lasted and whether it’s still ongoing is not known. Calls to Everest and Bethany were referred to district spokesperson Clint Bond.
Bond said Duran has signed an agreement with the district involving settlement of a previous discrimination complaint, “so we can’t talk about those details.”
Fort Worth Weekly’s questions had little to do with Duran’s earlier complaint, but no further response was provided.
What’s more, Duran said that there is no provision in the settlement of that earlier case that prevents either party from discussing it.
Last year the district paid Duran $250,000 to settle Duran’s allegation that, due in part to racism, he had been denied a promotion in 2007 to coordinator of equity and advocacy despite being the top candidate for the job. As a condition of the settlement, Duran dropped his complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and agreed not to apply for future jobs with the district. However, the settlement didn’t affect the job Duran had at the time the settlement was reached — at least not on paper.
“I think this is one person trying to dig up the past, and it’s shameful,” said school board member Carlos Vasquez. “Raul decided to take that settlement — he could have kept fighting or gone to court.”
Six months after getting laid off, Duran filed a new EEOC complaint, based on the loss of his prevention and education specialist position. He’s convinced that he was laid off in retaliation for his earlier complaint.
Duran has also filed another complaint, this one with the Texas State Board of Social Workers. He alleges that Bethany has maintained “an unethical dual relationship and conflict of interest” with Everest.
Because social workers, like other kinds of therapists, are likely to have influence with their clients, the ethics of their profession frowns on situations in which, for instance, a social worker would date or enter a business arrangement with a client. Working for a client would seem to fall into the latter category.
Some social workers believe in avoiding dual relationships completely, while others believe the prohibition is more flexible.
Vicki Hansen, executive director of the Texas chapter for the National Association of Social Workers, said that typically a licensed clinical social worker should do everything reasonable to avoid a dual relationship with a client or former client. A big part of the reason, she said, is to avoid power differentials.
“The best-case scenario is to avoid those dual relationships,” said Hansen. But, she added, “It always boils down to specific situations and people.”
Licensed clinical social worker Claudia Dewane wrote in Social Work Today that it’s the potential for exploitation or harm to a client (or former client) that makes dual relationships problematic. “Dating, bartering, and entering into business arrangements with clients represent examples of situations that are best avoided,” she said.
In February 2010, a month before federal funding for the prevention and education department ended and the department was cut, Bethany and her critical incident job were transferred to the guidance and counseling department.
According to documents received through an open records request filed by Duran, Bethany’s job was reclassified to be paid for with general district funds, but her title remained the same.
“They didn’t offer to do that for any of us,” Duran said. “They kept the person that was being paid the most … with the least seniority.”
Turner said, “We were treated like peons that didn’t matter; she [Bethany] was treated like an executive.”
Austin attorney Martha Owen, general counsel for Texas American Federation of Teachers, said Texas teachers’ unions have seen a lot of this type of manipulation of funds and jobs in recent years, as districts deal with continuing financial crises.
“I think it’s really a shame,” she said, but it’s not illegal.
Like Bethany, Turner has a master’s degree in social work. She had been with the district for 16 years.
“I kind of feel like I was blackballed because I asked too many questions,” said Turner. “I am a licensed social worker working for minimum wage washing tables and sweeping floors.” If she hadn’t gotten laid off, she would have been able to retire next year.
“I got booted out without being able to retire … . That really hurt,” she said.
Turner said her old position as an intervention specialist is open right now at the district, “but they won’t put me in it.” This is the third time in two years that she’s applied for that same job. And she has a feeling that Everest is “swaying the hiring process.”
“I’m sure she does sway the hiring process,” said Vasquez, the schools trustee, laughing. “I’m not going to hire somebody who hates me. … No business would do that. Why should we do that in our schools? When people are in positions where they get to hire people, people are going to hire who they think is going to be loyal to them, who is going to work hard, and who they can trust.”
Vasquez said that, having worked with Everest when he was a school principal, he does not believes she is racist.
The district has no legal obligation to hire back an employee who’s been laid off, Owen said. But she also said it doesn’t make much sense for a school district to go to the expense of retraining new workers when someone is available who is already trained.
Stewart said that over the past two years she has applied for more than 40 jobs with the Fort Worth district and been called in for interviews fewer than half a dozen times.
“My 16 years of experience was just slipped under the carpet,” she said. “It was kept really quiet what they had done.”
Like Duran, Stewart filed an EEOC complaint but couldn’t afford to hire an attorney to represent her.
She wasn’t surprised to hear that the district had declined to comment on her situation. “It’s like opening up a can,” she said. “It’s going to [show] what kind of district they are.”
Vasquez acknowledged that in the past there has been a “culture of fear and intimidation” in the district and that supervisors played favorites. But things are different now, he said.
Stewart, Turner, and Duran don’t see much change in that culture.
“You’re dealing with children every day and teaching them right from wrong, and here we are,” Stewart said. “We’ve been bullied and treated as less than what we are.”
Fort Worth freelancer Sarah Angle writes for national and regional publications.