Private messages from around a dozen adjuncts and former professors at Tarrant County College (TCC) convey a consistent message. The community college’s leadership, as we’ve been told this year alone, protects inept employees while mistreating loyal longtime teachers, many of whom work on starvation wages.
The bulk of the problems stems from the college’s HR department, headed by Gloria Maddox-Powell. Several former HR employees allege that Maddox-Powell is a “bully” who rewards allies with pay raises (“ Double Secret Probation,” April 20). Despite the damning first-hand accounts by former workers who spoke on the record about their mistreatment by Maddox-Powell, TCC’s leaders have renewed their commitment to keeping the HR leader who is now tied to what could become a second scandal.
Two whistleblowers with intimate connections to TCC’s Northeast Campus provided us with copies of emails from TCC attorney Carol Bracken and other employees along with three internal investigation reports of alleged mistreatment of campus students between 2017 and 2018. The whistleblowers, who asked to remain anonymous to protect their privacy, allege that when the first of the three investigations found widespread misconduct by teachers and administrators, TCC leadership ignored the results and commissioned a second investigation that the whistleblowers believe was intended to cover up evidence of student abuse.
Prompting the first investigation, according to the whistleblowers, were incidents in 2017 and 2018 of one instructor abusing special needs students at TCC’s Skills, Training, and Enrichment for Promoting Success (STEPS) program.
“We had an instructor abuse four of our special needs students,” said whistleblower Jill (not her real name). “There were five or six of us [teachers] who kept complaining over and over. Our supervisor kept saying, ‘Give her grace,’ ” referring to the instructor.
Jill alleges that the instructor would degrade and mock the students, the majority of whom were autistic. The mistreatment, according to the whistleblowers, was constant and relentless and often left the 18- and 19-year-olds trembling.
In a 2019 email from investigator Kathy Fragnoli to Susan Alanis, TCC’s chief operating manager, Fragnoli wrote that she was hired to conduct “fact finding” about mistreatment of students at TCC’s Northeast Campus. Fragnoli reviewed around 200 pages of emails and interviewed 11 employees.
In her final investigation summary, Fragnoli notes that several employees described TCC’s STEPS director at the time, Jerry Zumwalt, as someone who could not be trusted. One employee at the time said Zumwalt was “aggressive toward women” and “lazy.”
Zumwalt “has a problem with strong women who he can’t push around,” another employee told Fragnoli.
The VP of academic affairs at the time reported that she would fire him if he worked under her because demoting him would simply cause problems for whomever he reported to.
Both whistleblowers allege Zumwalt failed to take reported incidents of student abuse seriously. In the report’s final analysis, Fragnoli describes the STEPS program under Zumwalt’s leadership as an “off-key symphony with no conductor.”
Multiple former instructors told Fragnoli they believe Zumwalt fired them for reporting student mistreatment, based on the report. Fragnoli also released a summary of TCC Special Projects Director Debra Sykes-West.
“Because Sykes-West played a prominent role in several problematic issues raised in my first investigation of Mr. Zumwalt, I was asked” to prepare a report on Sykes-West, Fragnoli writes.
Many TCC staffers allege that Sykes-West, a Black woman, gave preferential treatment to Black co-workers.
“The tipping point in this department came when the only white instructors in STEPS were fired after they complained about an African American’s treatment of students,” part of the report reads.
The whistleblowers allege that Fragnoli’s report was concealed by TCC leadership and that HR told employees the matter had been resolved. The whistleblowers learned about the first investigation several months after it was completed and not made public.
In mid-2020, possibly to whitewash the damning findings, TCC attorney Bracken hired Fort Worth labor attorney Jennifer Sweeny to conduct a second investigation into possible employee misconduct on campus.
“I have a few more interviews before I can make any final determination,” Sweeny emailed Bracken a few months after beginning the investigation, “but I have not found any evidence of retaliation” by staff against the complainants. “It is my opinion at this time that [there is] an irrational level of distrust that has developed among STEPS employees.”
In the chain of emails, both Bracken and Sweeny make disparaging remarks about a former instructor who requested an investigation into alleged staff mistreatment of students.
Based on the chain, either Bracken or Sweeny accidentally included one complainant, Shelly Lemman, on the email thread.
“This doesn’t seem appropriate that the attorneys are trying to guide the outcome,” Lemman replied to the thread. “Jennifer Sweeny also indicates that I have an irrational level of distrust. Why would I not? My distrust is justified. I was fired, retaliated against, and mistreated.”
Sweeny then asks Lemman to delete the chain of communications.
“Forgive me, you received that email in error,” Sweeny replies. “This is a privileged communication with TCC’s attorneys. I must request to claw that email back and delete it on your end.”
Soon after, Sweeny notifies Bracken that she is resigning from her role as a third-party investigator. “It has already become clear that Mrs. Lemman will not accept the results of my investigatory findings,” Sweeny writes.
In September 2020, TCC’s legal team hired Employment Practices Solutions, a North Texas firm, to again investigate the complaints. The whistleblowers told us that this third effort appeared to be another attempt to generate a report that painted TCC’s leadership favorably. In a supplement to the report, Employment Practices Solutions’ lead investigator notes that Maddox-Powell alleged that one of the original complainants was calling her office in a harassing manner. In an in-person interview, the complainant who asked to remain unnamed described the HR director as a “fucking liar.”
Despite widespread allegations from several TCC employees of racialized retaliation in the Fragnoli report, the Employment Practices Solutions report rebuffed those concerns.
The information did not “substantiate” that complainants and former employees Lemman and Thomas Quinn were “discriminated against based upon their race,” the report summary reads.
When describing allegations that TCC staffers were paid while not working and that office supplies were purchased for personal use, Employment Practices Solutions’ lead investigator acknowledges that they never interviewed the main complainant behind the allegations.
“They didn’t talk to me, so there had to have been a cover-up,” Quinn told Employment Practices Solutions’ lead investigator. “It’s offensive that the fraud and waste were not investigated.”
This story is part of City in Crisis, an ongoing series of reports on unethical behavior and worse by local public leaders, featuring original reporting.