School District plays hardball in wake of lawsuits
The Washoe County School District continues to go after its critics in ways that some say are vindictive and possibly illegal. Lawsuits against the district reveal WCSD crafting what critics say are self-affirming narratives.
Fired administrator Jenny Hunt, who alleges discrimination by district administrators, had her gynecological records subpoenaed by the school district as part of her case.
“The School District has issued approximately two dozen subpoenas to various third parties, such as Hunt's prior and subsequent employers, medical providers, cell phone provider and educational institutions,” wrote attorney Anthony Hall, who was hired by WCSD to defend itself against Hunt's claims.
Attorneys on both sides subsequently moved to declare lawsuit documents confidential. A filing in July noted that oral testimony and legal documents would be marked as confidential and, within 45 days of the suit's conclusion, should be destroyed.
Hunt's attorney has not responded to requests for comments. Hunt has also refused to comment on the case. Likewise, WCSD officials did not respond to a question as to how Hunt's medical records are relevant to her lawsuit.
A more recent lawsuit revealed that district officials gave to the news media documents it initially declared confidential. That suit was filed by an assistant principal, Trina Olsen, who has had a multi-year fight against WCSD. It is predicated on WCSD's illegal firing of Olsen, according to Olsen's attorney. The district, however, paid for its own investigation into what it claimed were Olsen's allegations. WCSD used the same attorney, Hall, that it has hired to defend itself against Hunt.
Hall told Olsen in July that the results of his investigation he conducted into her claims were confidential. “This is a confidential report and should not be shared except with your counsel or union representative,” he wrote.
Olsen said that after she filed her lawsuit against the school district in October, she received a call from a Reno Gazette Journal reporter who said she had a copy of Hall's investigation and said it cleared the district of any wrongdoing.
Olsen contacted Hall. His response: “There was no confidentiality agreement that was used as part of the investigation.”
Giving a previously declared confidential document to the news media could breach personnel statutes, one legal expert said. David Broomfield is a professor of Education Leadership, Law & Policy Brooklyn College and The CUNY Graduate Center. He is also the former general legal counsel for the New York City school district.
“Assuming the district's attorney's representation to the assistant principal was correct and indeed confidential, then the district breached its legal duty by releasing it to the press unless the assistant principal first waived the right by releasing it to you, even if you didn't initially publish it,” he said.
A caveat: “If the investigation report was a matter of general public concern, not specifically a personnel matter, it might not be subject to personnel confidentiality and be treated as a public document under state sunshine laws or other legal theory,” he continued. “On the other hand, if indeed the release was illegal, the assistant principal can sue for additional damages even if the conclusions were true.”
Olsen's attorney, Luke Busby, said the investigation and its release to the news media miss the mark as to what Olsen's case is about—specifically, that she was found by an outside arbitrator to have been illegally fired by the school district.
Arbitration is mandated in state law, but WCSD officials said the district does not have to be held by arbitrator decisions in employee disputes. The district is currently appealing a completely different arbitrator's decision in district court. That arbitrator, in a case separate from Olsen's, ordered an employee reinstated because it found WCSD fired the employee without cause.
Full back pay and benefits were ordered by the arbitrator, but due to WCSD's appeal, the employee is now looking at another six to 12 months of potential unemployment.
The district's responses to such matters are drawing heightened criticism.
“The RGJ's article focused on Mr. Hall's investigation and ignored the arbitrator's key findings that: WCSD violated [state law] when Traci Davis terminated Ms. Olsen on July 5, 2018, without waiting for the final report from the arbitrator,” Busby explained.
In his investigation, Hall found that Olsen was “dishonest,” “disingenuous,” and her complaints did not rise to the level of “protected activity.”
He investigated whether Olsen was bullied on several fronts. When Olsen requested an investigation into her situation, however, she asked the WCSD administration to “fulfill their obligation to properly investigate my Hostile Work Environment and Retaliation claim, avoiding unnecessary litigation and media attention.”
That was in 2018. It wasn't until March of this year that the school district's attorney, Neil Rombardo, in concert with then-Superintendent Traci Davis, approved an investigation. What was investigated is disputed.
“WCSD did not meet their burden of proof that the alleged actions of Ms. Olsen constituted misconduct, as alleged. WCSD took disciplinary measures against Ms. Olsen [that] were retaliatory, and WCSD's dismissal of Ms. Olsen was arbitrary and capricious,” Busby explained. “Unfortunately, the District chose to respond to Olsen's lawsuit with the public release of its ‘confidential investigation,' to the RGJ, which was conducted months after the arbitrator's decision.”
Olsen maintained that she reported in good faith what she viewed as serious issues at WCSD, including a teacher who gave marijuana back to a student. The district moved to fire her in part by saying that she made “false claims” about her supervisor, then Hug High School Principal Lauren Baxter Ford. The arbitrator disagreed with the district's position and ordered Olsen reinstated.
Hall's later investigation into Olsen's claims, Busby said, was far from objective.
“The District did not achieve the result it wanted in the arbitration conducted by a fair and impartial third party neutral between itself and Ms. Olsen, so it hired its own lawyer to conduct an investigation of itself to get the result it wanted,” he said.
Former Superintendent Davis, who is named as a defendant in Olsen's case, has also filed a lawsuit against WCSD over her firing earlier this year. Davis, through her attorney, alleged that her firing was conducted in violation of state law and district policies.
Ironically, a claim by the district as part of her termination, is that Davis leaked confidential documents to those involved with Hunt's lawsuit—two former district administrators who were fired just before Davis.
“No evidence was provided that Superintendent Davis was the source of any confidential information allegedly possessed or passed on by [an employee],” Davis' attorney, William Peterson said. “Notwithstanding the lack of evidence, the [school board of trustees] came to its predetermined conclusion, voting to terminate [Davis] for cause…”
School District officials have denied any wrongdoing, and the district has vowed to defend itself against what it is calling baseless allegations. It did not respond to a number of questions for this story.