District under fire
Washoe County School District faces more allegations of employee mistreatment
More Washoe County School District (WCSD) employees are alleging what they call a retaliatory and hostile environment within the district.
Current and former WCSD personnel have come forward since we first reported on Trina Olsen’s case ("Out of school,” cover story, Sept. 06, 2018). WCSD was accused of violating state law when it fired Olsen in July. An arbitrator mostly sided with Olsen and found the district’s actions to be overly punitive. The district’s legal counsel, however, said that WCSD stands by its administrators’ actions.
Many of the new complaints about the district are similar to Olsen’s: Employees were put on paid leave, disciplined or were ostracized after they complained about what they said were inappropriate or illegal activities within the school district. Or, the district simply didn’t follow its own procedures, they said.
Hostile work environments
One former teacher said she and others were shunned after reporting to higher-ups what they considered an inappropriate relationship between an administrator at Vaughn Middle School and a teacher’s assistant. Jennifer Moats, now retired, said she was interviewed by district officials who assured her the matter was being investigated.
“I knew of inappropriate behavior toward a couple of female staff by [the IT staff],” she reported. “I know for a fact that it was reported to [the principal], and absolutely nothing was done except that the female staff were shunned by our administrator.”
That, combined with what the teacher called low-morale at the school, led her to retire. Others left as well.
“I know of two other colleagues that have taken leave due to stress and lack of administration leadership while others are looking elsewhere or have already transferred elsewhere,” Moats wrote in a letter to the district. “There are staff members, students, and parents who deserve to feel safe and like they are making a difference. Isn’t that why we are in the education business?”
A former Pine Middle School science teacher said that she was bullied at work and the school district retaliated against her after she went on an extended maternity leave due to pregnancy complications. Victoria O’Toole, who is still employed with the district, was expecting to be placed in her previous position when she returned to work but instead was offered a half-time position teaching English as a second language.
“I’m not even qualified for that,” she said.
According to O’Toole’s attorney, Pine’s principal “removed her from her position only two months after [she] had taken leave. Consequently, [she] was denied the opportunity to continue teaching science and also was denied full-time wages, instead being forced to accept a half-time position.”
O’Toole said that when she returned to work, she was given a student desk to work from and no place to lock up confidential student documents and her personal items—requirements the school district is supposed to meet, according to an agreement with the teachers’ union.
She made requests for a suitable desk, but it wasn’t until her union representative also complained, months later, that the school provided her with a lockable teacher’s desk.
She said a work area she was provided was later vandalized and said that school officials would not let her view video of the area outside of her room to see who may have committed the act. Her attorney also said that WCSD’s modus operandi is to not respond.
The district’s “general denials do not seem to address the whole pattern of behavior that has been brought to (its) attention,” wrote O’Toole attorney Kenneth Ching.
O’Toole reported numerous concerns while at Pine, and she alleged that the district did not follow proper evaluation procedures.
Documents show that she was rated as effective but was targeted with a “focused assistance plan,” meant for teachers needing improvement. That was removed from her evaluation after she complained. Ching said that the district’s behavior amounts to an “adverse employment action.” Her case is under consideration by the Nevada Equal Rights Commission.
District denies its own evidence
Olsen, although a legally mandated arbitration found mostly in her favor, said she too continues to experience what she called intimidating behavior by district leadership.
When she was an assistant principal at Hug High School, Olsen had reported that she was informed that a school administrator gave marijuana back to a student after the cannabis was discovered in a student’s wallet.
Olsen had previously served as a dean of students and is familiar with discipline procedures. She said she was shocked to hear of school employees giving drugs to minors. Doing so is a gross misdemeanor in Nevada.
Now, however, WCSD Superintendent Traci Davis and Board of Trustees President Katy Simon Holland claim the incident did not happen as first reported by the Reno News & Review and ThisisReno.
They even said that if Olsen kept repeating what she had heard about the marijuana incident, her statements would amount to “defamation.”
“Drugs were never returned to either of these students, and the arbitrator’s decision is even confused over this issue contradicting itself in parts,” Simon Holland and Davis wrote. “The district may have considered lesser discipline for students who may have possessed miniscule amounts of substances that may or may not be drugs, who immediately recognized the problems with their actions, apologized, and after the fact, provided information to law enforcement.
“The issue here is one of discipline for the student, and if any drugs existed, the appropriate administrator turned them over to law enforcement.”
Sources said this characterization is misleading and is missing important facts about the situation. Olsen insisted that Hug’s dean of students admitted under oath, during arbitration, to giving back the student’s marijuana. The teacher who found the marijuana in the student’s wallet added that it amounted to more than just flakes. A redacted screengrab of the student’s disciplinary documentation showed the student was ultimately suspended for marijuana possession.
“It was a nugget with a recognizable odor,” the teacher said on the condition that I not report the teacher’s name, citing fear of retribution by district officials. “I’m 100 percent sure the dean gave the student back the marijuana—no question,” the teacher said. “Even the union rep was pissed off.”
The student, the teacher explained, even originally boasted about getting the marijuana back and not getting disciplined.
The dean of students was reported to have said that she only gave the weed back because she saw the principal at the time, Ford, had also done it.
Based on this information, Olsen raised the issue with then-Area Superintendent Roger Gonzalez. Gonzalez, Ford’s boss at the time, suggested Olsen file a complaint about the situation to him. Olsen said she reported the incident to him because she had been told that Ford had also given drugs back to a student. She was later chastised by Deputy Superintendent Kristen McNeill.
“It was clear to me you did not follow correct protocols put into place for reporting such incidences,” McNeill admonished. “It was found you had demonstrated poor professional judgment in this matter.”
Olsen was placed on administrative leave for a number of misconduct allegations crafted by her then principal, Ford. No explanation was provided by the WCSD for why Ford, whose conduct was also at issue, was given that role.
“I was dumbfounded,” the teacher said after reading about the misconduct allegations initiated by Ford. “When she had been removed from the Hug High campus, after her disciplinary letters, the teachers and other personnel thought it was because of a testing error.”
“Why was Trina in trouble for the marijuana?” the teacher incredulously asked. “She had nothing to do with that. She was totally wronged. Justice needs to be served.”
Olsen called the situation a Catch-22.
“I was disciplined, in termination, for reporting the marijuana incident,” Olsen said. “The fact that I won that allegation in [arbitration] proved that it was not a false report—meaning, my complaint had merit. Their investigation was all focused on me, not Lauren Ford.”
The district now denies marijuana was given back to the student. The people involved claim otherwise.
Though it was Ford who Olsen complained about, it was also Ford who later moved to fire her with support from the district’s leadership. Davis fired Olsen in July 2018. An arbitrator overruled that firing, calling it illegal, and ordered Olsen reinstated back to work with back pay and benefits.
Employee discipline follows employee complaint
Those who have complained about the district said that retribution, rather than recourse, is a common WCSD response. There are documented instances where a complaint has created a target on the back of the complainant.
“Parents who complain get called ‘problem parents’ behind the scenes,” said one source who is familiar with district operations.
Another special education teacher had a situation similar to Olsen’s. Lynn Kantor was hit with allegations of misconduct when she complained about working after her school-year contract ended. Documents show the district’s director of labor relations, Virginia Doran, even tried to continue the discipline process after Kantor was no longer employed by the district.
Kantor was a special education teacher at a middle and elementary school. She said she was unable to file legally mandated Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) properly because software adopted by the school district had recurring issues.
Problems included student information not transferring into the Accelify program, scanned IEPs getting deleted by the software, student data that was inaccessible, error messages occurring after attempting basic functions, Spanish-language forms printing in English, parent contacts not being associated with student names, and others.
Documents show that Kantor filed a number of requests for software support and that the software was riddled with problems.
“Accelify was not able to generate an actual IEP [after the training for the software’s rollout],” she told the district. “The issue is not the teachers, it is the program and scanning system that is causing school sites to be out of compliance.”
Kantor, who worked alongside her husband, said they had to stay past her contracted time with the district during the summer of 2018 to complete the IEPs. She said she was verbally told she would be paid for her time.
Her principal at one of the two schools where she worked praised her performance.
“Mrs. Kantor has successfully increased the capacity of our entire special education department,” the principal wrote. “She is the only case manager in the district that is responsible for upwards of 100 IEPs. She does her job with integrity and despite a year filled with drastic changes in the department, she continues to meet and exceed administrative expectations.”
The district’s tone changed after she filed a complaint wanting to be paid for her summer work. She said she was told by a new principal that there was no money available after having worked the extra hours.
“The principal said that this was our professional responsibility to finish what we were not able to complete because of the software system,” Kantor said. “I disagreed with him regarding our responsibilities and reminded him of his promise to pay us. [He] then made the comment not to make a habit out of working outside of our contract hours.”
Kantor went up the chain of command. Area Superintendent Lauren Ford dismissed Kantor’s complaint on July 23, 2018.
“Based upon all statements, evidence, and documentation, I do not find sufficient evidence to support your claim.” Ford wrote.
The school board of trustees also sided with the district, saying there was no written promise of payment.
“We feel that a promise of payment was made,” she said. “Relying on that promise and believing it was reasonable that we would be paid $30 per hour per our negotiated agreement with school district, [my husband and I] each worked 27 hours outside of our contract. I’ve been asked to work over my contract every year, but it’s never been in writing. This was the only time they didn’t pay.”
Kantor said she was shocked when, in mid-August, she received a hand-delivered notice informing her that the district was now accusing her of nine allegations of misconduct. The letter was written by the principal who months prior had given her a positive evaluation. Confused, Kantor said she asked the principal what was going on.
“Basically, she admitted to me the matter was out of her hands, and she implied the memo was actually written by Area Superintendent Lauren Ford,” Kantor explained.
The district proceeded with disciplinary actions against her, ordering her to meet with district officials. Kantor said she tried to enlist the support of an attorney for that meeting but had trouble finding one in time.
The district’s Director of Labor Relations, Virginia Doran, in an email that appeared to be accidentally copied to Kantor, said: “She has not responded with a more doable date [to meet]. My thoughts [sic] is that after tomorrow she will tell us she spoke to an attorney and has been advised she does not need to meet with us … just a guess.”
“Wrong guess,” Kantor replied. “I am waiting for a return call from one of several attorneys I have spoke [sic] with…. It is important to me that all of the allegations against me are answered.”
“Good to know …” Doran replied. “We would prefer to have this done by September 4th.”
Kantor never attended the meeting. Her last day with the school district was Aug. 22, 2018, meaning the district’s attempts to discipline her were being scheduled after she was no longer a WCSD employee. Kantor said the district would not reimburse her for her time away from her new position in Lyon County to attend the meeting.
Olsen's Discipline Revisited
Arbitrator Andrea Dooley dismissed most of the WCSD’s allegations of misconduct against Olsen. She called the district’s actions arbitrary, capricious, retaliatory—and she said that firing Olsen before arbitration was illegal.
The school district originally ginned up 18 allegations of misconduct against Olsen. Only two out of 11 of the complaints were ultimately upheld by Dooley.
One of the two was for sending to Hug High School staff a testing spreadsheet with confidential student information.
“Because the allegations concern testing irregularities and were the basis for the [letter of admonition], they can be considered as part of Ms. Olsen’s job record but should not be the basis for dismissal, as that would violate principles of double jeopardy.” Dooley maintained.
Dooley also noted that Olsen’s supervisor at the time, then-Principal Lauren Ford, “should bear some responsibility for her oversight.”
When asked for comment from the school district about the arbitrator’s decision, spokesperson Megan Downs said that “the district has accepted the arbitrator’s remedy. There is no further response as the … district is not at liberty to discuss confidential employee matters.”
On other matters, the district declined to comment but provided this statement:
“The district follows the law by ensuring all employees receive due process of law. As a part of that due process of law, the district maintains the confidentiality of employee records to avoid employees being tried in public. The public policy of the Nevada Public Records Act and the Nevada Open Meeting Law is that the character, misconduct, or competence of a public employee is not a public issue. In fact, those issues are considered in confidential executive sessions by public entities throughout the State of Nevada. The district will continue to comply with these laws, and as a result, cannot comment any further on personnel matters.”
Olsen was put back to work at Wooster High School in January and given back pay and benefits.
On Feb. 8, she received a new disciplinary letter for the two allegations of misconduct, the two that were upheld by Dooley.
The letter was written by Lauren Ford.