Prince George’s school board faces flood of discrimination lawsuits
By Robert Samuels,
A light-skinned science teacher in Prince George’s County says he didn’t get promoted because his supervisor prefers dark-skinned teachers. An African immigrant in the information technology department says he has been mocked by African Americans.
And there are two teachers who say a young black principal forced them out because they are in their 60s and white.
It’s not unusual for a board of education to face a handful of employee discrimination cases at any given time. But the Prince George’s school board now faces 16.
“Honestly, this is unusual,” said Abbey G. Hairston, a lawyer whose firm represents the county’s Board of Education. “I’ve been practicing 30 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this. And I wish I hadn’t.”
Representing the plaintiffs in all 16 multimillion-dollar cases is a lawyer who is quickly building a reputation as the go-to attorney in the county for disaffected school system employees. Bryan Chapman said he’s using the cases to make a larger point about the Prince George’s education system.
“What we’re seeing across the board is that when people have complained about discrimination, they suddenly become targets of the system,” Chapman said. “And their supervisors are then doing things to throw them out.”
The Prince George’s County Education Association, the teachers union, is named as a co-defendant in five of the 16 cases; the suits allege it did not do enough to address the teachers’ complaints.
Hairston chalks up the allegations to vindictive employees and a lawyer who is “trying to make a name for himself and filing cases willy-nilly.” She has filed motions to dismiss all of the cases, which are scheduled to be heard between September and November.
Still, the suits raise questions about leadership during a time of reform. Both sides agree that most cases resulted from measures by school leaders to try to rein in their schools’ problems in an age of heightened accountability. However, the staff members lodging the complaints say leaders have been unprofessional and ran amok.
In the past eight months, the cases have generated almost 1,000 pages of legal documents.
They stem from a set of complaints at Largo High School. Chapman got involved after a teacher met him while filing a harassment complaint. The teacher then gathered others, mostly from Largo High, at Jasper’s restaurant to explain their case.
The faculty members said that their principal, Angelique Simpson Marcus, routinely called her secretaries names, such as “chicken heads,” “ghetto” and “hood rats.”
The teachers also say they were mistreated for vocally supporting teacher Jon Everhart, who said he thought Simpson Marcus wanted to fire him because he is white.
Everhart said Simpson Marcus told students she would change their grades to ensure that every student passed his class. Also, many of the teachers said, Simpson Marcus said that “the only reason a white teacher would teach in P.G. is that they can’t get a job somewhere else.”
Simpson Marcus did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment. The school system denied the allegations.
In November, Chapman filed a lawsuit in federal District Court in Greenbelt on behalf of Everhart and a dozen others who had allegations of harassment.
In April, Judge Peter J. Messitte dismissed the case but encouraged Chapman to file cases one by one.
Typically, employment discrimination suits are filed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Employees must first file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The commission investigates the claim, then determines whether the individual has a right to sue for damages, capped at $300,000.
Only six of Chapman’s clients have a “right-to-sue” letter.
Chapman is also arguing that the school board violated other parts of the Civil Rights Act that state that organizations receiving federal funding cannot discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin or — in a separate statute — sex. In these cases, there are no caps on damages.
The school system’s liability, he argues, results from its acceptance of federal stimulus dollars in 2008 — around the time of the incidents. All of the suits are in the $5 million-to-$10 million range.
The school system says Chapman’s move is an attempt “to be clever and seek more damages” for cases that should be filed under Title VII.
As he was building the cases involving Largo High, Chapman got calls from more employees in different situations.
Josephat Mua, a Kenyan immigrant, said that his colleagues generated a hostile work environment by calling him “Zamunda,” after the fictional African country in the movie “Coming to America.”
Angela Sator said she and other women were bullied by an assistant principal at Bladensburg High School.
Sally Rogers, who also worked at Largo High, says that she was deliberately given poorly performing students for her Latin classes, then chastised for not being able to get them to perform. She said she became so fearful of the principal that the sight of her made her shake.
“I don’t think I can ever teach again,” Rogers said. “I didn’t want to believe it, but I really felt that I was being discriminated against. And I couldn’t come up with any other reason than the fact that I was older and I was white.”