When a Prince George’s County high school launched an anti-bullying campaign four years ago, students pledged to support anyone being harassed, to report instances of bullying and to treat others with respect.
But former Largo High School employees allege that while the students were learning how to create a friendly environment, one of the worst bullies was the school’s principal.
In interviews and in legal actions filed against Principal Angelique Simpson-Marcus, the former employees said that Simpson-Marcus routinely belittled and berated staff, derided teachers and secretaries and made inappropriate comments about white teachers. Simpson-Marcus, who is black, continues to run the 1,100-student school in Upper Marlboro.
The Board of Education defends Simpson-Marcus as an effective school leader, a school system spokeswoman said.
The alleged ill treatment at the school has resulted in multiple lawsuits against the Prince George’s school system. One discrimination case was decided last month when a U.S. District Court jury awarded a former English teacher $350,000. Another lawsuit is slated to begin Tuesday and a third is pending.
Several black teachers said they were told by Simpson-Marcus not to associate with the white teacher, Jon Everhart. When they did, they said, they also became targets.
“She was pushing for the kids to be kind to one another and I just thought, ‘How could you say that?’ and, ‘You are a bully?’ ” said Venida Marshall, a former English teacher who is black and is one of 10 employees who made allegations of harassment in a 2010 lawsuit against the school system. She refused to adhere to Simpson-Marcus’s order not to have lunch with Everhart. “I thought it was a travesty,” she said.
A judge instructed plaintiffs in the joint 2010 lawsuit to file separate cases, said Bryan Chapman, Everhart’s attorney, who filed the joint lawsuit. Many of those cases were dismissed because employees did not file timely Equal Employment Opportunity complaints or because their complaints were not based on discrimination; two of the remaining cases are scheduled for trial.
Simpson-Marcus declined this week to comment on the allegations, referring questions to Keesha Bullock, a school system spokeswoman. Bullock said the Board of Education has filed a motion to set aside the verdict in Everhart’s case.
In court papers, the school system calls Everhart a “failure as a teacher,” explaining that he was fired for a “legitimate non-retaliatory reason.”
“We believe the allegations against Ms. Simpson-Marcus are false, and to that end the Board of Education is vigorously defending against them in court,” Bullock wrote in an e-mail. “Ms. Simpson-Marcus has made great contributions to Largo High School and the education community in the D.C.-area for almost 10 years. Some of the best successes at Largo High School occurred under her leadership.”
Later this month, the school system heads back to court to defend against the 2010 allegations, which also focus on claims that the Largo High principal harassed staff members.
Several former employees said they were upset to learn that the principal remains at the school despite the jury’s findings in Everhart’s case. Simpson-Marcus started her seventh year as principal when school opened for classes two weeks ago.
Tracy Allison, a secretary who worked in Simpson-Marcus’s office, said she was harassed because she showed respect to Everhart, who the principal allegedly called “poor white trash,” and to another white teacher who Simpson-Marcus referred to as “Bozo.”
According to Allison’s lawsuit — which is scheduled to be heard beginning Tuesday — Simpson-Marcus retaliated against her by calling her “chicken head, bird, hood rat and ghetto.”
After Allison complained to Simpson-Marcus’s supervisor, the harassment continued, causing Allison stress and panic attacks, according to the lawsuit. She transferred to another school in August 2010.
In his lawsuit, Everhart alleged that Simpson-Marcus, who was working as a physical education teacher at the school in 2003, told students that “the only reason a white man teaches in PG County is that they can’t get a job elsewhere.”
He filed a discrimination claim against Simpson-Marcus to the teachers’ union. He said she then targeted him, telling him if she ever became principal, he would be the first person she would fire. When she returned to the school in 2007 as the principal, Everhart said Simpson-Marcus told his students and their parents that he “was a bad teacher . . . poor white trash . . . and would be fired,” according to his lawsuit.
Before Simpson-Marcus became principal, Everhart received stellar evaluations, according to his lawsuit. After she took over, his performance evaluations were unsatisfactory.
The jury ruled in Everhart’s favor on the discrimination claim but it sided with the county school board on Everhart’s claim of a hostile work environment. Everhart’s attorney has requested a partial new trial regarding the finding on the hostile work environment claim.
Simpson-Marcus said in a previous interview that the allegations are baseless. She declined to comment on the reason for Everhart’s termination, but said the complaints of ill treatment and retaliation were “unfounded.”
“I never said any of those things,” Simpson-Marcus said in an interview after the court decision in August. “I don’t use that kind of language.”
Some of Everhart’s former colleagues said Simpson-Marcus transferred Everhart to an unruly ninth-grade class and told the students that if he failed them their grades would be changed.
Bullock said she could not comment on specific allegations made against the principal because “our policy is to not comment on any ongoing or pending litigation.”
Vallie Dean, a former business education teacher, said the principal liked to embarrass Everhart.
“She would get on the [school-wide public address] system and say, ‘Mr. Everhart, report to Principal Simpson-Marcus’s office,’ ” Dean said. She said students in her class would laugh and talk about how Everhart, who was once named the school’s Teacher of the Year, was going to be fired.
Dean said she and others complained to supervisors but they received no help.
“She would say, ‘I’m the principal of Largo High School,’ ” Dean said. “It was like she had carte blanche to do whatever she wanted to whoever she wanted without any consequences.”
Meanwhile, those who came to Everhart’s defense said they were ostracized.
“I was just sad,” Marshall said. “People wouldn’t sit next to me. I had to wind up accepting my colleagues didn’t want to be targets, too.”