Recently released documents reveal Sequim School District and former middle school teacher and Athletic Director Autumn St. George agreed to a $850,000 settlement rather than going to trial over alleged discrimination involving St. George’s sexual orientation.
School district staff said $175,000 of the settlement comes from the district’s general fund while the remainder comes from a statewide risk management risk pool.
As part of the settlement, St. George, a 41-year-old Port Angeles resident and a teacher for seven years, agreed to drop any further claims for damages from the district and three employees “arising out of an interaction at Applebee’s in January 2015 and (the) allegedly inadequate response by the district to complaints made by Autumn St. George,” according to the settlement.
Court documents reveal that $30,000 of the total settlement is wage loss for St. George, and that she used her remaining sick/personal days prior to Sequim School Board directors approving her resignation on March 18. They also approved the settlement the same night.
Per the settlement, the district also provided a statement of explanation for St. George’s departure, which was to be read to students and staff.
District staff must remove “administrative leave” from St. George’s personnel file and provide a “mutually acceptable letter of recommendation.”
The settlement notice was filed March 14 in Western Federal District Court in Tacoma and the case dismissed March 15 by Judge Robert Bryan.
Randy Hill, the district’s director of human resources, previously said the settlement avoids the cost of a trial and limits the financial exposure to the taxpayer.
“The district doesn’t necessarily agree with all of the allegations but we took her allegations seriously,” Hill said. “We look forward to moving onward.”
St. George, according to Sequim School superintendent Neal, filed her original complaint May 9, 2018, solely against the school district, and later filed an amended complaint Oct. 10, 2018, adding middle school student counselor Catherine Shea, Principal Vincent Riccobene and Assistant Principal Rhonda Kromm as defendants.
St. George said the school district created a hostile work environment on the basis of her sexual orientation that constituted sex discrimination and retaliated against her for opposing that environment.
When asked for comment, Shea, Riccobene, Kromm, St. George and Sequim School Board president Brian Kuh declined to comment on the settlement, citing a non-disclosure agreement.
Requests for personnel files, such as complaints and/or infractions, regarding staff members named were denied because the district doesn’t release personal information, district staff said.
Hill said they can’t comment on personal investigations but that there are no ongoing investigations at this time.
Seattle lawyer Emma Gillespie, representing the school district, said the school district did not admit to guilt. She said an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint filed by St. George was dismissed.
The Sequim School District hired Martha Norberg of Seabold Group Investigation Consulting Services of Seattle to investigate St. George’s claims of harassment.
She interviewed 23 people for her report, including 10 district staff including the defendants, three students and five parents. St. George was interviewed for six hours.
“Fellow staff members and the parents interviewed reported that Ms. St. George is respected as a teacher and coach, and that she cares for and connects well with her students,” Norberg said in her findings. “No one expressed any concern about Ms. St. George’s sexuality or how it might affect her relationships with students.”
Norberg reported that witnesses reported some concerns about St. George regarding being aggressive in interactions with other staff, not holding enough sports team practices and other things, but administrative staff only reported one incident to Norberg about the 2015-2016 school year where St. George helped counsel a boy about a girl, when they’d prefer she not overstep any kind of boundaries since she’s not a counselor.
A parent’s complaint to the school about St. George acting inappropriately in 2018 like a “13-year-old” could not be backed by evidence, Norberg states, and there’s no evidence that Kromm and Riccobene made the parent’s complaint about St. George either.
From various court and investigation documents, it revealed that the first alleged incident occurred at Sequim Applebee’s restaurant during a school district staff party on Jan. 23, 2015.
After learning that St. George had advertised on a Match.com page for “women seeking women,” Shea assumed St. George was gay and suggested St. George ask a waitress there on a date, Norberg’s report states, but St. George was “mortified” by Shea’s focus on her sexuality.
She denied being a lesbian, according to Norberg’s report.
“She was seeking friends, seeking friendship” on the website, said her lawyer, employment attorney Daniel Gallagher of Bainbridge Island.
“Her sexuality is no one’s business at the district,” Gallagher said.
Norberg wrote that various staff members said Shea discussed St. George’s sexuality with co-workers, asking them if they thought St. George was gay and worried that she had “outed” her, including after telling St. George she would stop.
There was no evidence that Shea had “malicious intent,” Norberg said.
With those involved bound to a non-disclosure agreement, Cathy Shea’s husband Bill, said he wouldn’t comment on the settlement but that he believes his wife has been a gay rights activist her whole life.
Bill Shea said his wife had led the Gay-Straight Alliance Club at the school for the past three years.
“She’s made her career about helping people,” he said, adding, “she’s incapable of being a bully. It’s not in her DNA at all. Her ideology is about promoting people and not hurting them.”
St. George went to Riccobene to file a grievance, but Riccobene told her he would talk to Human Resources, but “by his own admission, he failed to do so,” Norberg said.
“He took Ms. Shea’s word that the matter was resolved rather than addressing Ms. St. George’s concerns.”
Subsequent school district investigations also failed to address those concerns, Norberg said.
Riccobene removed two students from St. George’s class, one for religious reasons and the other who said “vile, disturbing things about (Ms. St. George), Obama, the world,” without telling St. George.
“No, I’m protecting you,” St. George claimed Riccobene told her from her court complaint.
“Further, on two occasions, complaints about other issues turned, in part, into investigations which appeared to be attempts to prove that Ms. St. George was untruthful about her sexuality,” Norberg said.
“There is no evidence that this was caused by malicious intent, but rather the investigators misinterpreted Ms. St. George’s original complaint and felt it was necessary to prove she was gay,” Norberg said.
In her court complaint, St. George said Kromm placed a document in her personnel file accusing her of “pedophillic behavior” that St. George saw in 2017 that Kromm had said in 2016 would be removed.
St. George said Kromm had told her in 2016 that the document was “a mistake” and would be removed, and had shredded it in front of St. George.
Following this, Kromm allegedly entered St. George’s office and repeatedly denied giving the paperwork to Human Resources, the complaint states.
St. George alleges Kromm refused to leave and threw her keys and yelled despite St. George asking her to leave repeatedly.
Norberg did not investigate this incident.
Contact the Sequim School District, 503 N. Sequim Ave., at 360-582-3260.
Reporters Paul Gottlieb, Matthew Nash and Michael Dashiell contributed to this report.