Teacher, Sequim School District settle discrimination lawsuit

Middle school teacher and former Athletic Director Autumn St. George has settled her 2018 federal lawsuit against the Sequim School District and three employees over alleged discrimination involving her sexual orientation.

Robert Bryan, Western Washington Federal District Court judge, signed the dismissal order on March 15, a day after a notice of settlement was filed.

The terms of the pact, including monetary damages, were not made public under a nondisclosure agreement, school district officials and lawyers for both sides said on March 14.

School District Superintendent Gary Neal said if monetary damages are part of the settlement, the school district would pay its share out of the general fund, while a portion of damages also could be paid by a statewide risk management risk pool.

The school district did not admit guilt as part of the agreement.

“Randy Hill, the district’s director of human resources, said the settlement avoids the cost of a trial and limits the financial exposure to the tax payer.

“The district doesn’t necessarily agree with all of the allegations but we took her allegations seriously,” Hill said in an interview.

“We look forward to moving forward.”

St. George, who resigned her position with the district, according to Neal, filed her original complaint May 9, 2018, solely against the school district, seeking unspecified damages to be determined at trial.

She filed an amended complaint Oct. 10, 2018, adding middle school student counselor Catherine Shea, Principal Vincent Riccobene and Assistant Principal Rhonda Kromm as defendants.

“Defendants Shea, Riccobene and Kromm were primary instigators and perpetrators in the unlawful discrimination and retaliation against Plaintiff,” according to St. George’s lawsuit.

She alleged Kromm had placed a document in her personnel file accusing St. George of “pedophilic behavior” that St. George saw in 2017.

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.

St. George alleged that beginning in January 2015, Shea began making “lewd comments” to teachers and in public settings about St. George, including, “Does your gaydar go off with (St. George)? Do you think (St. George) is gay?”

She accused Shea of “bullying and intimidating” her, and of discussing her sexual orientation with students.

St. George said the discrimination escalated and that school officials were unresponsive to her complaints.

“Ms. Shea responded by saying that she loved gay people and never meant to hurt Plaintiff,” according to the lawsuit.

St. George said she was retaliated against when she objected to the harassment and discrimination.

She said she complained about Shea’s behavior to Riccobene but he was not responsive.

She claimed that he removed a female student from St. George’s class because a parent had said she “did not want her daughter in that ‘lesbian’s class,’” according to the lawsuit.

Riccobene said that he was only trying to ‘protect’ her, St. George said in the lawsuit.

“The student was immediately removed from Plaintiff’s class by Mr. Riccobene without involving Plaintiff and in violation of SSD policy, effectively confirming publicly that Plaintiff’s sexuality presented a risk to female students,” St. George’s lawyer said in the suit.

“Defendant Sequim School District was aware of Defendant Kromm’s and Defendant Shea’s discriminatory and retaliatory behavior towards Plaintiff, but rather than check that behavior with discipline or warnings, SSD facilitated additional abuse by investigating Plaintiff rather than the perpetrators.

“When SSD administrators witnessed outrageous and abusive discriminatory and retaliatory behavior against Plaintiff, SSD expressed concern for the welfare of the perpetrators, but never for Plaintiff.”

Seattle lawyer Emma Gillespie represented the school district.

In Gillespie’s answer to the amended complaint filed in federal district court, she responded to St. George’s numerous allegations with the statements “defendants lack sufficient information to admit or deny the allegations” and that the defendants “therefore deny the same.”

“What that means is that the district is not admitting to guilt,” Neal said.

“I believe the district took the allegations that St. George made seriously,” Gillespie said on March 14.

“While we don’t necessarily agree with several of the allegations that were made, I think the resolution was the best way for the district to avoid the expense of a trial and to limit any financial exposure.

“The district is hopeful this resolution will allow everyone to move forward.

“This is litigation that affected a lot of people.”

Neal said Friday the Sequim School Board may sign off on the agreement at its meeting Monday.

Shea, Kromm and Riccobene remain employed at the district and have not been disciplined as a result of St. George’s allegations, Neal said.

He said the district may take further action internally regarding the allegations now that the settlement has been reached and may review employee policies and procedures.

School Board President Brian Kuh would not comment on the lawsuit.

St. George could not be reached for comment.

Bainbridge Island employment lawyer Daniel Gallagher, representing St. George, could not be reached for comment.

Neal said the school district hired a private investigator to look into St. George’s allegations who issued a report.

He would not discuss its contents.

Gillespie said the person hired by the district conducted a “fact-finding investigation.”

“She did not arrive at legal conclusions,” Gillespie said.

Gillespie said an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint filed by St. George was dismissed.

St. George’s lawsuit was dismissed “without fees or costs to any party,” according to the order signed by March 15 by Judge Bryan.

His order did not address damages.

Paul Gottlieb is a Senior Staff Writer with the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which is composed of Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. He can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at pgottlieb@peninsuladailynews.com.

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