Judy Luttrell, associate director of the United Educators Association, said last week that she has been stunned at the extent of the workplace bullying reported to her group in recent years by Fort Worth school district employees. “It’s an epidemic,” she said.
The extent of the problem was apparent in the response to a Fort Worth Weekly story (“School Bullies,” July 27, 2011). More than 80 comments have been posted on the paper’s web site, most expressing gratitude for the light being shone on years of workplace abuse that was ignored or covered up by previous administrations.
Almost as stunning to Luttrell and others has been interim Superintendent Walter Dansby’s quick response to the abuse charges.
Dansby, who has been on the job since June after replacing former Superintendent Melody Johnson, took immediate action to address most of the more serious allegations. “I can assure you, all of those that were reported [by the Weekly] or were brought to me [by employees], I have made an effort to resolve,” he said.
Luttrell, who taught for years before co-founding UEA with Larry Shaw, concurred. “He’s been very proactive toward employees,” she said.
Dansby said some of the allegations have already been addressed and the situations improved. Those cases were the result of “expectations set too high” or “simple mis-assessments of the situation” by the person reporting the abuse, he said. They were quickly resolved.
“Some of these cases, to a lot of people, may be simply issues of perception,” he added. “However, to the person who feels he or she is being bullied, the issue is real. That is why I am looking into each and every one. … The thing I do not want to happen is for anyone to fear coming to me. My door will always be open.” The bottom line, he said, is that “We must get these issues resolved and put behind us so that we can concentrate on the children.”
Other situations have proved to be more difficult. In one case of alleged sexual, verbal, and physical abuse, Dansby has brought in an outside investigator after discovering that the previous administration closed the case without a resolution and was planning to return the alleged victim to the school where she would have to keep working with the person she accuses of abuse. Dansby stopped that and transferred her to another school. The new investigation, which began two weeks ago, is being conducted by Rachelle Weathersby of Employment Practices Solutions, an employment law consulting firm. UEA is representing the accuser.
“I wanted to do the fair and right thing for [the employee] and the district,” Dansby said.
The case is highly sensitive: The employee at a high school, (given the pseudonym “Rhonda” in the Weekly’s original story) alleges that during the previous school year she was repeatedly sexually and physically abused by a male co-worker and threatened with harm if she reported him. At least three other women have suffered the same fate, she said, but are afraid to come forward. Rhonda also charged that several teachers at the school routinely used abusive, vulgar language with certain students, frequently dropping the “f” word and making sexually derogatory remarks about their mothers.
“They laugh at some of the poorer kids, make fun of their clothes, tell them they stink and won’t bathe, things like that,” Rhonda said. “I asked Dr. Johnson in a letter to open an investigation into the school and into how bad the students were being treated. I never got an answer.”
Rhonda brought her allegations to Sharon Herrera, who was formerly the district’s diversity and sexual harassment trainer and the person to whom many of the alleged abuses were first reported. Herrera advised Rhonda to report the abuse to Michael Menchaca, head of the Office of Professional Standards, the district’s official investigative body. However, that investigation was soon dropped, Rhonda said, after she refused to cooperate because of what she called the “hostility” of the investigators’ questions.
“It was like an interrogation. I felt like I was the one who was guilty. I knew they didn’t believe me,” she said. Rhonda also told the Weekly that she asked more than once to have Herrera with her during the questioning, but her request was denied.
Herrera said the investigators in Menchaca’s office are mostly former police or probation officers. “They are used to dealing with criminals. These folks [educators] aren’t criminals,” she said. Menchaca did not return calls or e-mails seeking comment.
When the new investigation was opened, Luttrell said that Dansby did not hesitate to allow Shaw as a UEA representative to be present during Rhonda’s questioning. He also allowed the sessions to be recorded by a court reporter. Rhonda, however, was embarrassed to speak of the details of the sexual abuse in front of a man and clammed up. Shaw left and called in Luttrell.
“Everyone should know this,” Luttrell said. “If a woman is being questioned about sexual abuse with a man present and appears uncomfortable, get a woman in there.”
Herrera and others would like to see an office created to hear employee complaints, with reports going directly to the superintendent with strict confidentiality. Employees would be empowered to report abuse to this office, she said, without having to go through several bureaucratic layers. Currently, the system requires employees to file complaints with their supervisors, who in many cases are the alleged abusers. The cases then work their way through a series of hearings until finally being heard by the school board, a very long process.
“Many of these cases could be resolved quickly through an independent office,” she said. “Most employees do not want to file a grievance. They simply want the situation they are in to change; they want someone to hear them.”
(Before the end of the school year, Herrera was transferred to a job scheduling student events, after many of the cases she reported to her supervisors were publicized, including the hostile work environment at Arlington Heights High School and the firing of the school’s former assistant principal and whistle-blower Joe Palazzolo.)
Shortly after the Weekly story published, Rhonda said she was called by the district’s head legal counsel, Bertha Whatley, who asked to meet her at the school to discuss her case even though by then the case had been closed. When she got there, Rhonda said, there were three other women with Whatley, none of whom she knew. Instead of going into the building, Rhonda said, they stood and talked in the parking lot.
Whatley responded in an enigmatic e-mail, “I believe you have assumed the facts are as [Rhonda] reported them. … At best, she is mistaken.” A parking lot meeting “did not occur” she wrote.
Rhonda, however, insists the meeting did occur and that Whatley was involved.
“I was very frightened because I didn’t know why we were in the parking lot, why we didn’t go inside and sit down,” Rhonda said. She said that she was told that she needed to drop the allegations of sexual harassment and go back to work at the school. “Ms. Whatley said that they would fix it so that I would always work on one side of the building and [the sexual harasser] would work on the other, and we would never have to meet,” the employee said. “I knew that wouldn’t happen, and I was scared. Then they began to ask me questions about what I had told other people, including reporters. They said I had to answer because I had already talked to the media, but I didn’t answer.”
“Such tactics wouldn’t happen with an independent office to hear employee complaints and maintain their confidentiality,” Herrera said.
It would not be the first time that Whatley has been accused of questionable tactics. A witness for Palazzolo in an appeal hearing has said that, following his testimony on behalf of Palazzolo, the witness was taken into a room by Whatley and three other attorneys for the district and threatened with termination because he admitted to having been arrested at 17 for “kicking a car” and did not report it on his job application.
Since the investigation began, Rhonda has been put on medical leave due to a serious illness. She is continuing to cooperate in the investigation, Luttrell said
Dansby’s actions so far have been hailed by Luttrell as “a very positive move” toward changing “the culture of the district” as he promised to do in an earlier interview with the Weekly.
She said she is especially encouraged by his reopening of the “Rhonda” case.
“In all the years I have been with UEA and dealt with many superintendents, Walter is the first one I have ever written a thank-you note to,” she said.