Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Current and former administrators sue Charleston County School District, alleging widespread racial discrimination

Case studies

Posted by Dustin Waters on Tue, Jul 11, 2017 at 12:10 PM

Charleston County School District headquarters at 75 Calhoun St. - FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo
  • Charleston County School District headquarters at 75 Calhoun St.
Three current and former employees with the Charleston County School District have filed lawsuits against district leaders, claiming their careers suffered after they spoke out against alleged racial bias and discrimination within local schools.

Lawsuits filed by Corel Lenhardt, Blondelle Gadsden, and Keysha Williams-Tolliver over the past year all name former and current superintendents Nancy McGinley and Gerrita Postlewait, as well as other district officials, and all three women allege a similar set of circumstances related to how African-American employees and students are treated within Charleston County schools.

Lenhardt began working for the district in 2009 as chair for the English department at St. John’s High School on Johns Island. According to a federal court complaint, Lenhardt claims to have been outspoken regarding the racial discrimination levied against black students. In one incident in 2012, Lenhardt claims that following the re-election of former President Barack Obama, a white teacher at St. John’s told students that “All of you could end up back in slavery because Obama only had four years of his presidency left.”

Lenhardt’s complaint states that she notified her supervisor of the teacher’s comments. The unnamed teacher was terminated from his position at St. John’s, but later rehired at West Ashley High School, according to Lenhardt’s complaint.

Lenhardt was later promoted to associate principal at St. John’s and was later asked by then-superintendent Nancy McGinley to develop the University Center concept at Burke High School in 2013. Over the 2014-2015 school year, Lenhardt claims to have complained vehemently to her supervisors regarding the “racial animus displayed by a white teacher towards all of her black students,” according to court documents. These complaints include allegations that a white teacher repeatedly and constantly used profanity in a derogatory fashion toward black students.

Later transferred to the position of interim principal at Simmons-Pinckney Middle School, Lenhardt claims that the budgetary crisis facing the school district in 2016 disparately affected black administrators, especially African-American women working for the district. During that school year, Lenhardt’s complaint states that there were 20 black female assistant principals working in the district, seven of which were demoted. For comparison, Lenhardt claims that only five out of 38 white female assistant principals were demoted, in addition to six of 22 black male assistant principals and two of 25 white male assistant principals.

click to enlarge Residents pack a school board meeting last May in support of schools that were proposed for closure, including Jane Edwards Elementary on Edisto Island. - DUSTIN WATERS
  • Dustin Waters
  • Residents pack a school board meeting last May in support of schools that were proposed for closure, including Jane Edwards Elementary on Edisto Island.
Additionally, multiple suits allege that five principals or assistant principals were demoted to teachers in the 2015-2016 school year, four of which were African-American. During that school year, Lenhardt claims that she was moved to the position of assistant principal of Garret High School as a result of her continued complaints about the disparate treatment of black students and black female administrators in the district.

In response to Lenhardt’s lawsuit, attorneys for the district filed court documents on June 12, stating, “Dr. Lenhardt began with the district in 2009 as an English teacher and department chair, and she became a school level administrator within a few years. She continues to be a school level administrator with the district. In late 2015 or early 2016, a major budget shortfall was identified in the district. The budget shortfall left the district in some limbo as to how it would allocate its resources or find additional funding.”

The defense added, “Because of the uncertainty, and in light of the state law requirement that teachers’ contracts be issued by April 15 each year, the district offered most or all assistant principals teachers contract as a minimum level of employment certainty while the budget issue was resolved.”

Another complaint against the district, filed in May by Blondelle Gadsden, sister of Emanuel AME shooting victim Myra Thompson, asserts similar allegations against school officials. Beginning with the district in 1993 and named to administrative positions at Burke High School beginning in 2003, Gadsden claims to have been outspoken regarding “certain intentional racial discriminatory practices that she observed the district engage in as it related to Burke High School as oppose to other majority Caucasian schools, including elementary, middle, and high schools.”

In response to her actions, Gadsden alleges that she was then reassigned as assistant principal at Brentwood Middle School during the 2007-2008 school year, after which the school was slated to close in June of 2008. Following that school year, Gadsden was demoted to the position of a hearing officer, where she claims to have witnessed black students disproportionately referred for disciplinary action compared to white students.

After eight years as a hearing officer, Gadsden claims to have been offered a teacher position at the Charleston County Alternative Elementary/Middle School at Liberty Hill Academy. Having participated in a U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights investigation of the Charleston County School District in the 2014-2015 school year, Gadsden was placed at a school that housed students she had managed as a hearing officer, which resulted in her allegedly being “accosted, verbally and threatened physically, by some of those students.”

Regarding Gadsden’s claims, attorneys for the district wrote, “When the new superintendent came aboard in July 2015, she tasked several district employees with a review of the [Office of Student Placement] organization. Following that review, a decision was made to disband the OSP in favor of a reorganization of student discipline. The concerns identified were the inefficacy of the organizational structure and the need for increased focus on prevention/intervention and decreased focus on discipline.”

Both Gadsden and fellow complainant Keysha Williams-Tolliver raised concerns regarding the district’s Twilight Program, established by the district in 2010 to offer a non-traditional classroom setting for students with less-serious behavioral problems. Complaints from both Gadsden and Williams-Tolliver both refer to the Twilight Program as a “dumping ground for black students,” saying that 73 percent of students referred to the program were African American.

click to enlarge CCSD Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait is named as a defendant in lawsuits brought about by current and former district administrators - DUSTIN WATERS
  • Dustin Waters
  • CCSD Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait is named as a defendant in lawsuits brought about by current and former district administrators
Williams-Tolliver, who began with the district as an assistant principal at West Ashley High School in 2008, claims that she witnessed school resource officers refer to black students from certain areas of Charleston County as “thugs,” “drug dealers,” and “criminals.” After being hired at Burke High School in 2011, Williams-Tolliver claims to have complained to her supervisors regarding Burke’s position as a “dumping ground for ineffective teachers by other schools in the district” and alleged dismantling of programs at Burke, which were transferred to predominantly white schools.

Williams-Tolliver says she was ordered by former Associate Superintendent Louis Martin, who is named as a defendant in all three lawsuits, to transfer her administrative skills to Garrett High School. There, Williams-Tolliver claims to have witnessed white teachers “initiating actions that resulted in the cutting of the hood on black students’ attire and cutting the pockets of black students’ pants,” according to court documents.

A complaint filed by Williams-Tolliver on June 14 alleges that she was demoted from her administrative position after raising concerns regarding the treatment of black students and black female administrators before severing ties with the district in 2016.

According to claims made by attorneys for the school district, “Ms. Tolliver was placed on a performance improvement plan in 2015 relating to teacher observations/evaluations. Essentially, the district was notified by one or more teachers that the computer program through which observations were handled had notified them that Ms. Tolliver had entered notes concerning observations that never occurred. An investigation was conducted and numerous teachers reported being notified of observations that they did not recall ever being done by Ms. Tolliver.”

The attorneys add, “Because of shortcomings identified through the investigation, Ms. Tolliver was placed on an improvement plan. Due to problems with the satisfactory completion of the performance improvement plan, and during the district’s budget shortfall, Ms. Tolliver was offered a teacher’s contract in the spring of 2016. She declined to sign and return her teacher’s contract, which is tantamount to resignation. She did not return to district employment.”

click to enlarge Former CCSD Superintendent Nancy McGinley - ADAM CHANDLER FILE PHOTO
  • Adam Chandler file photo
  • Former CCSD Superintendent Nancy McGinley
During a June 1 deposition, former superintendent Nancy McGinley acknowledged the disproportionate rate at which black students in the district were expelled and referred to the Twilight Program. Citing improvements on this front during her time with the district, McGinley told attorneys that the district worked closely with constituent boards and educated principals regarding the code of conduct and the specific levels of student offenses.

McGinley said she couldn’t recall any negative evaluations or reports regarding the three plaintiffs, but Louis Martin told attorneys during his June deposition that staff members at Garrett raised concerns “centered around Ms. Tolliver’s demeanor and approach and inflexibility and directing them to do things that they were not inclined to want to do.”

During his time as associate superintendent, Martin recalls Lenhardt bringing complaints directly to him regarding white teachers at Burke and St. John’s allegedly making inappropriate comments to black students. Martin also remembers speaking with Gadsden regarding the racial imbalance in the Twilight Program, but said at the time that he disagreed with her assessment.

When asked by the attorney representing all three women if it would be unreasonable for a black administrator to speak out about the high expulsion rate of black students compared to white students, McGinley responded, “I don’t think it’s unreasonable for anybody to speak out if they think something is being done wrong. I think people have the right to raise issues if they have factual information about those issues.”

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