Jefferson City Public Schools faces six active lawsuits, and although three of the suits have been filed since the start of 2019, the allegations made in those and the other suits date back several years — and are part of a total of nine lawsuits filed against the school district in the past six years.
Four of the active lawsuits are employment discrimination cases — three of them filed by three of the district's more than 1,400 employees, and the other filed by a former employee. Since May 2016, JCPS has lost another lawsuit in court and settled two more — and all three of those lawsuits were employment discrimination cases.
Of the seven employment discrimination lawsuits filed against JCPS in the past six years, the plaintiffs in five have had the same Kansas City lawyer leading or as part of their legal representation. JCPS has had some of the same Jefferson City lawyers on its legal defense teams in all of the nine lawsuits filed against the school district in the past six years — two of the active lawsuits were filed by parents on behalf of students.
At least three of the seven employment discrimination lawsuit plaintiffs have alleged, and a fourth has testified in a previous case, that they forwarded complaints to the district's human resources office. At least two of those plaintiffs have alleged and a third testified in a previous case that their complaints were investigated one or more times by the human resources department, but allegedly no evidence to support their allegations was found.
A trial in one of the four current employment discrimination-related suits had been scheduled to start Monday in Cole County Circuit Court. But the trial in Tammy Ferry's suit is no longer on the court's docket and is set to be rescheduled. The court-granted request to take the case off the docket was made by the attorneys for the defendants in the suit — the school district, its superintendent and director of technology.
Here is a timeline of JCPS cases drawn from court documents, past News Tribune coverage and other documents.
July 22, 2014: Karen Ray filed a lawsuit in Cole County Circuit Court against the school district. Ray, a former Jefferson City High School teacher, alleged she had witnessed the school's administration "use tactics of bullying, lies and intimidation to force out veteran, experienced and quality teachers." She said she resigned "because of what she felt was a hostile work environment, because of her gender, female, and age, which is over 50."
Ray, who had taught at JCPS for four years, resigned in April 2013 after signing a contract with JCPS; she withdrew it once she was offered a position at another school district. Her attorneys included Kansas City lawyer Dennis Egan.
Sept. 29, 2014: Laura Cooper filed a lawsuit in Cole County court against the school district. A former English teacher, Cooper alleged the school's administrators discriminated against her based on age and gender and harassed her. Cooper's suit alleged Penny Rector, the district's human resources director at the time, investigated Cooper's allegations and concluded in September 2013 there had not been any discriminatory conduct by administrators.
The suit alleged Cooper, who had worked at JCPS for 18 years, was "obliged to work in an environment that was hostile to female employees" and "this harassment and discrimination was sufficiently pervasive to alter the conditions of Cooper's employment and create a working environment which was intimidating, insulting and abusive." She said she notified the district in March 2014 that she was going to resign at the end of the school year.
Dennis Egan was also one of Cooper's attorneys.
Oct. 1, 2014: Superintendent Brian Mitchell announced his intention to retire at the end of the 2014-15 school year to pursue a private-sector job.
Dec. 19, 2014: The Board of Education hired Larry Linthacum as the district's new superintendent; he started July 1, 2015.
May 10, 2016: The civil trial for Karen Ray's case got underway. By late April, Tammy Ferry had been served a subpoena to testify. Ferry's videotaped deposition was played in court. Testimony by her and others supported Ray's allegations.
Ferry, who has been employed with the district since 2008, testified she had experienced harassment from a former supervisor and a colleague and had pursued her complaints through the district's grievance process. She said the district found no evidence of wrongdoing in either case and that Penney Rector told her nothing could be done to address an alleged sexual assault by one of Ferry's colleagues because there were no witnesses nor video proof.
May 17, 2016: A 12-member Cole County jury sided 11-1 with Ray and awarded her $24,000 for actual damages and $225,000 in punitive damages against the school district, in addition to paying for Ray's legal fees.
May 18, 2016: Linthacum told the News Tribune, "This whole case, we weren't winning either way. If we had won, we still would have lost because through the trial it was apparent staff and former staff have felt like they couldn't report issues without retaliation." He hoped the district would heal and said administration would review the grievance process.
Aug. 22, 2016: A $450,000 settlement between JCPS and Laura Cooper was signed. Cooper was awarded $255,000. The settlement detailed the agreement was a compromise and "shall never be construed as an admission by the parties of any liability, wrongdoing or responsibility on their part," and that "the parties expressly deny any such liability, wrongdoing or responsibility."
Aug. 25, 2016: The human resources director and legal counsel positions at JCPS were split. Rector had held both since July 2011, when then-Superintendent Mitchell had combined the positions for the first time. But from August 2016 on, Rector was dedicated to legal counsel. She later resigned from the district in 2017 and was hired as the chief human resources officer for Springfield Public Schools. Ashley Woods was named interim human resources coordinator from within the department.
Linthacum said the decision to split the positions was not a direct outcome of the Ray trial, but that it was in the best interest of the district and its employees to split the positions. Rector had a legal background of experience, and it would be a conflict of interest to have one person in both roles, he said; the human resources coordinator's role is to act on behalf of the employees, and the legal counsel position is meant to act on behalf of the district.
Oct. 31, 2016: Tammy Ferry filed a charge of discrimination with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights. Ferry received her right-to-sue notice from the Human Rights Commission on Feb. 21, 2017. (See April 10, 2017.)
Nov. 1, 2016: Gretchen Guitard, then-director of curriculum and staff services at JCPS, filed a charge of discrimination with the state's Human Rights Commission. Guitard filed a new charge Feb. 6, 2017, based on discrimination she allegedly suffered because she filed the first charge. She was issued right-to-sue notices Feb. 21, 2017. (See March 31, 2017.)
March 23, 2017: JCPS filed separate lawsuits against Ferry and Guitard and the Missouri Commission on Human Rights, arguing the commission did not have the authority to issue right-to-sue letters to Ferry and Guitard. The school district voluntarily dismissed those lawsuits in September 2017, prompted by a separate Aug. 22 ruling of the Supreme Court of Missouri that defeated the basis of the district's legal argument.
March 31, 2017: Guitard filed a lawsuit in Cole County court against the school district, Linthacum, and JCPS chief financial and operating officer Jason Hoffman. She alleged retaliation, sex discrimination and a hostile work environment.
Guitard alleged she had "suffered continual attacks on her job performance, lack of support for secretarial help, and continued harassment, bullying and discrimination." She had worked with the district since 2006 and said the issues started with the Ray trial — more specifically, staff meetings during and after the trial in which it came up as a topic of conversation. Among her allegations, Guitard said she was singled out because she disagreed with the idea the district had done no wrong and because she was friends with Ferry.
April 10, 2017: Ferry, who had worked for the district since 2008, filed a lawsuit in Cole County court against the school district, Linthacum and Joe Martin, her supervisor and director of technology. Ferry also alleged retaliation, sex discrimination and a hostile work environment. She alleged she was singled out because she had testified in the Ray case. She sought actual damages, punitive damages and attorneys' fees.
JCPS denied her allegations.
Attorneys Chris Rackers and Ryan Bertels — both of Jefferson City's Schreimann, Rackers & Francka, LLC — have served together, alone or with other counselors as attorneys representing the district in each of the lawsuits filed against it.
Dennis Egan represented Guitard in her lawsuit and represents Ferry, along with co-counsel Roger G. Brown.
May 2, 2017: JCPS announced Shelby Scarbrough would be director of human resources and Bridget Frank would be director of special services, starting July 1, 2017.
March 15, 2018: Robert Jones, a JCHS staff member, filed a lawsuit against JCPS in the U.S. District Court for Western Missouri, alleging sex-based wage discrimination. Jones alleged his job responsibilities as E2020 supervisor at JCHS were the same as female teachers there but that he was paid a lower wage than the teachers. He said he was hired in the 2014-15 school year.
Jones filed a grievance, alleging he was not being paid according to the teacher wage scale and that during the grievance process he met with the district's human resource director. He did not specify an exact date or name the director, though in his petition he immediately claimed after that he received a raise in the 2015-16 school year. JCPS denied the claims of the grievance filing and meeting with the HR director in its response to Jones' petition, based on not having enough information at the time. The district also denied Jones had gotten a raise.
Jones seeks $300,000, plus punitive damages. His attorney is from Liberty.
The district denied Jones' allegations and maintained that Jones was not a teacher during the time period referenced in the complaint and that he did not meet the qualifications to be a teacher at the time.
March 16, 2018: The family of a JCHS student filed a lawsuit in Cole County court against the school district, high school Principal Bob James and anyone else who might have been involved with alleged negligence. A Jefferson City man had been able to contact the school office, pose as the student's parent and have her released from school on four different occasions in 2016.
Each time, the man used the opportunity for sexual activities with the student. The man later pleaded guilty to second-degree statutory rape and second-degree statutory sodomy, and he is serving a five-year prison sentence.
The five-count lawsuit — moved within weeks of its filing to federal court in the Western District — asked for damages in excess of $25,000 and any additional relief the courts finds appropriate. The student and her family are represented by a St. Louis attorney.
JCPS and James deny the allegations, claiming the student failed to mitigate alleged damages and the man convicted of crimes in the case is the proximate cause of the student's damages.
April 2, 2018: JCPS settled with Guitard — approved by a judge April 9. The settlement was for $400,000. Guitard herself received $295,000. Guitard absolved herself of any ability to sue JCPS in the future by agreeing to the settlement, and the district did not admit to any wrongdoing. Guitard is now superintendent for the Jamestown C-1 School District; her former position no longer exists at JCPS.
April 18, 2018: Naveed Malik, a math teacher at Simonsen 9th Grade Center, filed a charge of discrimination with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights. He later filed an amended charge July 11, 2018. He received his right-to-sue notice from the Human Rights Commission on Oct. 22, 2018. (See Jan. 16, 2019.)
May 3, 2018: Roxanna L. Meudt-Antele filed a complaint of discrimination with the state's Human Rights Commission on behalf of her son. She received a right-to-sue notice from the commission Oct. 31, 2018. (See Jan. 25, 2019.)
May 16, 2018: Denise Rackers, a physical therapist's assistant then with JCPS, filed a charge of discrimination with the state's Human Rights Commission, according to her later petition for damages. A date for the issuance of Rackers' right-to-sue notice from the Human Rights Commission is not included in the petition, but she said the petition was filed within 90 days of her receipt of the right-to-sue notice. (See Jan. 17, 2019.)
Jan. 16, 2019: Naveed Malik filed a lawsuit against JCPS, alleging discrimination because of his race, national origin, color and age, as well as through retaliation and a hostile work environment. He had worked as a math teacher with the district since 2001. He said his issues began in the 2011-12 school year, when there was a new lead teacher of Simonsen's math department who began to discriminate against him.
JCPS denied the allegations and denied an investigation had resulted in retaliation against Malik from the school's administration — particularly Tammy Ridgeway, who at the time was an administrator at Simonsen with Ben Meldrum, the school's current principal. Ridgeway resigned from the district as director of secondary education in 2017.
Malik said he also had expressed interest in teaching more advanced courses, but alleged those positions were given to white teachers with less or no experience over a span of several years. Malik said he had expressed his concerns to then-Superintendent Mitchell and that his communication with Mitchell in April 2015 had been forwarded to Penney Rector. JCPS said it does not have sufficient information or knowledge to admit or deny that.
JCPS generally denied Malik's allegations, though it did admit in its response to Malik's petition that he had submitted documents to the district on three different days in September and October 2015. Malik alleged on the Oct. 5, 2015, date he submitted an amended grievance to Rector and Linthacum, but JCPS responded it was without sufficient information or knowledge to admit or deny that allegation.
Rector allegedly advised Malik in writing Oct. 29, 2015, that a "thorough investigation has been conducted regarding the allegations presented, and that investigation reveals no findings of unlawful discrimination, harassment or retaliation. The investigation did reveal, however, that long-standing conflicts or differences of opinion persist within the mathematics department at Simonsen and between the mathematics department at Simonsen and the high school."
JCPS responded it did not have enough information to admit or deny Rector's response.
Malik alleged he later received similar responses from then-interim Human Resources Director Ashley Woods on Nov. 18, 2016, and current Human Resources Director Shelby Scarbrough on Nov. 27, 2017, after his concerns were shared with Linthacum.
JCPS admitted Woods had given Malik the response of a "'thorough investigation has been conducted regarding the allegations presented, and that investigation reveals no findings of unlawful discrimination, harassment or retaliation.' Woods further informed (Malik) that the investigation did find 'differences of opinion' exists within the mathematics team at Simonsen."
JCPS' released statement in response to the filing of Mailk's lawsuit said, "We are sorry Mr. Malik felt the need to take this action. We respectfully disagree with his position, and appreciate the opportunity to provide our perspective throughout the legal process."
Egan is Malik's attorney. Malik seeks all actual damages, punitive damages and attorneys' fees.
Jan. 17, 2019: Denise Rackers filed a lawsuit against the school district in Cole County court. Rackers alleged she had to resign after "relentless criticism, discrimination and retaliation by JCPS" on the basis of her disability — a neurological disorder.
She said in her petition for damages she worked for JCPS from January 1997 until May 2018, but her issues began after her diagnosis with her health condition in April 2017.
Rackers said she had requested and received intermittent leave through Family Medical Leave Act. Rackers alleged her supervisor disclosed her diagnosis to faculty and staff without her permission and mocked her for taking leave. Rackers said she was called to the district's central office Dec. 20, 2017, to meet with Bridget Frank, then on Jan. 16, 2018, to meet with Frank and Shelby Scarbrough. Rackers alleged Frank and Scarbrough did not want to discuss accommodations at the January meeting but instead discussed her job performance.
JCPS denied Rackers' allegations in its legal response, though it admitted there were meetings between Rackers, Frank and Scarbrough on the dates given to discuss concerns of unreported absences of Rackers. In one meeting, the district said: "It was reiterated to Ms. Rackers that it was imperative that she notify JCPS when she was absent so that it could ensure student therapy services were covered."
Rackers is represented by a Columbia attorney. She seeks compensatory and punitive damages and attorneys' fees on each of three counts.
Jan. 25, 2019: The mother of a student filed a lawsuit in Cole County court against the school district and Alexander Whelan, a former wrestling coach at Thomas Jefferson Middle School and JCHS English teacher.
Roxanna L. Meudt-Antele alleged Whelan had forcibly cut her son's hair before a wrestling match Nov. 14, 2017. The eight-count lawsuit's allegations include assault, false imprisonment, bullying, negligence, and racial or ethnic-based discrimination.
The Jefferson City Police Department took a report of that incident — an officer interviewed Meudt-Antele and her son Nov. 15. Five of the boy's wrestling teammates involved were interviewed Nov. 17. The lawsuit alleges Whelan told some of the boy's teammates to hold him down while he cut the boy's hair, but the teammates told the officer they acted of their own free will. The students also said a second student had been asked to cut his own hair, which he did, but Meudt-Antele's son had not cut his fast enough for Whelan.
The JCPD officer also interviewed Whelan at JCHS on Nov. 21, 2017. Whelan told the officer his attorney had advised him not to make any statements, and the officer's report ends with Whelan having told him he would discuss with his attorney if they wanted to schedule a time for an interview.
No charges were filed against Whelan. However, JCPS records show he resigned before the end of his first semester working with JCPS; his employment end date was listed as Dec. 22, 2017.
"The way this student was treated is wholly incompatible with district expectations for staff conduct. We have not, and will not, tolerate this type of unacceptable behavior from anyone on our staff," JCPS said in a statement on the lawsuit, adding: "The district has no policy that would require the cutting of a male or female wrestler's hair, and as soon as the district became aware of this incident we investigated and took appropriate action."
As of Friday, Whelan still had his teaching license — which will otherwise expire in May 2021, and his substitute certification will expire May 2020 — but he was not listed as currently working at any school, according to records from the state's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. A DESE spokeswoman said last month, "There would need to be a criminal charge filed against Mr. Whelan or an abuse complaint filed with Social Services before we could take action on his license."
When asked if it would be possible to see if an abuse complaint has been filed, a spokeswoman for the Department of Social Services said: "Information relating to specific child abuse and neglect investigations are closed and confidential under Missouri law, except for very limited circumstances," including the department director's authority to release information on cases which resulted in a child's death or near death.
Meudt-Antele and her son have a Columbia attorney representing them. They seek damages in excess of $25,000 on each of eight counts, plus attorneys' fees.