Former teacher sues Jefferson City School District

Journalism instructor alleges discrimination, harassment by administrators

A former Jefferson City High School journalism teacher has sued the district, alleging she was subjected to age and sex discrimination and harassment by the school’s administrators.

In the lawsuit, Karen Ray — who is now employed as a teacher in Nixa, but taught newspaper and yearbook classes at JCHS until the spring of 2013 — alleges she witnessed “the school administration use tactics of bullying, lies and intimidation to force out veteran, experienced and quality teachers.”

The lawsuit alleges Ray resigned “because of what she felt was a hostile work environment, because of her gender, female, and age, which is over 50.”

The suit was filed Tuesday in the Cole County Circuit Court.

As of 4 p.m. Friday, Superintendent Brian Mitchell had not had a chance to read Ray’s petition for damages.

“Until I have a chance to review it, and a chance to get it to our legal counsel to look at it, there’s not really much I can comment on,” Mitchell said.

He noted Ray’s charges were investigated by school administrators internally and by the Missouri Human Rights Commission.

“The Human Rights Commission closed that case with no findings of wrongdoing a few months ago,” Mitchell said.

According to the suit, Ray was employed as faculty member — teaching all journalism classes from beginning to advanced and serving as the faculty adviser for the school newspaper and yearbook publications — when Principal Jeff Dodson stated on Jan. 25 that she was being replaced as newspaper adviser to “relieve some of the stress” of the job.

Ray contends, under her leadership, both the newspaper and yearbook won numerous state and national awards, including an award as one of the Top Five High School Newspapers in the nation from the Associated Press.

According to Ray’s suit, Dodson stated he was giving the newspaper to a male teacher, Brian Hodge, who had never taught journalism before and did not have certification, without providing any reason for doing so.

Ray contends the changes meant she was losing not only the right to teach the scholastic yearbook class, but the $4,300 stipend it provided.

Other contentions of the lawsuit include:

• Dodson stated to Ray, in the presence of another veteran teacher, Laura Cooper, that he needed to get rid of “old, dead weight around here.”

• Ray is currently employed in Nixa at a salary $10,000 less than her Jefferson City salary.

• Two vice principals, Jeff West and David Wilson, told her she must train Hodge for the rest of the school year. She responded by telling them it would not be helpful to her students, or to Hodge, to observe her classes because the yearbook had already been delivered and the last newspaper had gone to press.

• Dodson repeatedly threatened to report to her future employer that she was a troublemaker.

• On April 12, Dodson “demanded” she submit a written letter of resignation, which Ray did. Four days later, he sent to Ray an email stating she was “simply the best.”

• In mid-May, during a situation when Ray began crying and attempted to return to her classroom, Wilson put his hand on the door, and shut it, telling her, “You’re not going anywhere!” A day later, Wilson summoned Ray out of class, yelling “You are the cause of all this sh—!” and throwing a paper — a written reprimand which stated she was “almost insubordinate” for not training Hodge — at her.

Attempts to reach Dodson, Wilson and West via telephone were unsuccessful Friday.

In an exit interview, Ray reported she felt bullied and harassed and perceived Dodson’s threats as direct, embarrassing and intimidating.

Citing a violation of the Missouri Human Rights Act, Ray’s petition notes the school district knew or should have known of the harassing conduct by its employees, but failed to take reasonable steps to prevent it.

Ray is asking for punitive damages in an amount sufficient to punish the district or deter it and others from similar conduct and the recovery of her attorney’s fees.

Tom Mickes, a St. Louis-based attorney who specializes in education law and who represents the school district, said when the matter was filed with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights, the district provided position statements, affidavits and other records to that body.

“After the review, the commission closed the case without making a determination,” Mickes said on Friday.

Mickes also noted multiple opportunities were provided to Ray to meet with Penny Rector, the district’s human resources director.

“Most were declined,” he noted. “And so, there were multiple opportunities while she was still an employee to seek resolution for what she thought was unfair.”

He also said when Ray sought another job elsewhere, she was given positive references.

“When a complaint is filed, that is one version of the facts,” Mickes said, adding the district will likely answer Ray’s petition in the next 30 to 60 days.

Mickes said the district’s actions were not intended to replace Ray with Hodges. Instead, administrators sought to expand and enhance a program they thought was working well with increased course offerings and additional teachers, he indicated.

“Before anyone rushes to judgment, we hope they will hear all the facts,” he said. “This district is committed to providing equal education opportunities and work opportunities to everyone.”

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