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Former Lewis and Clark principal sues Jefferson City Public Schools

Former Lewis and Clark principal sues Jefferson City Public Schools

Allegations: Principal left district after hostile work environment, retaliation

March 13th, 2019 by Phillip Sitter in Local News

Jefferson City Public Schools (JCPS)

Document: Sherri Thomas lawsuit against JCPS

Former Lewis and Clark Principal Sherri Thomas filed a lawsuit against Jefferson City Public Schools.

A former principal of Lewis and Clark Middle School has filed a lawsuit against Jefferson City Public Schools in Cole County Circuit Court — the sixth active lawsuit the school district faces.

Former Lewis and Clark Principal Sherri Thomas filed the suit Tuesday. Thomas retired at the end of the 2017-18 school year, and she filed a charge of discrimination June 15, 2018, with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights.

Her charge alleged discrimination based on retaliation, sex, age and a hostile work environment. Thomas received her right-to-sue notice from the Human Rights Commission on Dec. 13, 2018.

Thomas alleges she experienced a hostile work environment and retaliation based on age, race and sex.

She claims JCPS Superintendent Larry Linthacum has repeatedly made "reckless, racially charged" and sexist remarks at internal school district meetings and in front of members of the public.

Thomas notes in her petition: "Staff brought up concerns about diversity during the October 2016 (district staff) meeting. Staff felt that raising such questions resulted in their labelling as negative/trouble makers."

Further, Thomas alleges: "Throughout December 2016, Linthacum refused to answer questions from anyone if it was not covering a subject he wanted to discuss."

On Jan. 11, 2017, a sixth-grade student at Lewis and Clark brought a loaded gun to school, which was immediately confiscated and removed from the school. Thomas alleged that while she received praise for how she handled the situation from then-Director of Secondary Education Tammy Ridgeway and local law enforcement, she did not feel supported by Linthacum then or in following months.

 

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Thomas also alleges she "was hit by a parent during a physical altercation" at Lewis and Clark and did not feel supported by Linthacum or administration after that incident.

She alleges several things — concern about "a lack of diversity within the administration and staff," grade-level content and performance data, a reading diagnostic plan for Lewis and Clark and her desire for "diversity/inclusion" to be the top quality of a candidate for a new assistant principal — were ignored or shot down by Linthacum or Director of Secondary Education Gary Verslues.

Thomas alleges that when she asked why her contract might not be renewed, Verslues told her she "could not be trusted" and that if she "had been doing all the things she says were being done (at Lewis and Clark), why wasn't the school more successful?"

Thomas alleges she tried to follow up with Verslues about whether her contract would be renewed and was "continuously dodged and ignored."

She alleges she spoke with JCPS Director of Human Resources Shelby Scarbrough and "complained of the differential treatment, and how she was labelled a 'disappointment' for wanting to have the district inclusive of diversity. Scarbrough asked what she could do to 'right the wrong,' and (Thomas) said she did not know."

Thomas said she wanted to continue working for JCPS but, after not hearing any response about the renewal of her contract, "felt she had no other reasonable choice but to submit her notice to retire, in hopes of avoiding the humiliation of being openly forced out."

Thomas also alleges she and others who took notes during meetings — as opposed to letting "an official note-taker" for the district take them — were questioned by Linthacum for doing so and that she felt targeted after she shared some of her notes with Gretchen Guitard in approximately July 2017.

Guitard was JCPS' director of curriculum and staff services, who left at the end of the 2016-17 school year. She filed a charge of discrimination with the Human Rights Commission on Nov. 1, 2016, then filed a new charge Feb. 6, 2017, based on discrimination she allegedly suffered because she filed the first charge.

Guitard filed a lawsuit against the district, Linthacum and JCPS Chief Financial and Operating Officer Jason Hoffman on March 31, 2017, alleging retaliation, sex discrimination and a hostile work environment.

One of Guitard's allegations was that she had been singled out because she was friends with Tammy Ferry, who filed a lawsuit against JCPS; Linthacum; and her supervisor, Joe Martin, in April 2017 for allegations of retaliation, sex discrimination and a hostile work environment.

Guitard settled her lawsuit in April 2018 for $400,000, of which she received $295,000. The trial in Ferry's case has been rescheduled for November 2019, according to online court records on Wednesday.

The lead attorney for Thomas and Ferry — as well as for Guitard and for the plaintiff in another active lawsuit against JCPS by a Simonsen 9th Grade Center teacher — is Dennis Egan, based in Kansas City. Egan was also an attorney for the two plaintiffs who filed lawsuits against JCPS in 2014.

Egan said Wednesday he did not have anything to add about Thomas' lawsuit.

The News Tribune tried to contact Thomas on Wednesday but did not receive a response.

She asks that a jury award her "all actual damages and losses shown in evidence and determined by the jury to be fair and reasonable, for prejudgment interest, for punitive damages, for attorneys' fees, costs and expenses, and for such other relief as the court deems proper."

A summons for JCPS was issued Wednesday, but online court records did not show the district had been served as of Wednesday afternoon.

JCPS Director of Communications Ryan Burns shared a statement from the district Wednesday: "Jefferson City Public Schools remains committed to providing a positive work environment for our employees as we strive to become a premier school district, which includes expectations of high performance for our district leaders and administrators in support of our efforts to continually improve the learning environment in our schools. We find Ms. Thomas' allegations to be patently untrue and appreciate having an opportunity to present our perspective throughout the judicial process."

On the same day Thomas filed her lawsuit, Jefferson City High School staff member Robert Jones' lawsuit against JCPS was dismissed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri. The federal judge in that case ruled Jones' case did not have merit for a claim.