A Los Alamos Public Schools Special Education teacher is suing the district, its superintendent, and the principal of Aspen Elementary School.
Attorney Kate Ferlic of Egolf, Ferlic & Day, LLC in Santa Fe filed the lawsuit Thursday, April 18 in District Court with a complaint for relief and jury trial demand on behalf of her client Zeynep Unal, a Turkish-born special education teacher, for violations of the New Mexico Human Rights Act, defamation and breach of contract.
In the suit, Aspen Elementary School Principal Kathryn Vandenkieboom, who served as the direct supervisor of Unal for the relevant time period, is being sued in her individual capacity, as is LAPS Superintendent Eugene Schmidt along with the District.
According to court documents, Vandenkieboom and Schmidt “unlawfully discriminated against the Plaintiff through their repeated and continuous harassment of her. The repeated and continuous harassment included unfounded disciplinary actions, an attempted improper termination, other adverse actions and unequal terms and conditions of employment. The Defendants engaged in this repeated and continuous harassment because of the Plaintiff’s national origin in violation of her rights under federal and state law.”
LAPS School Board President Jim Hall addressed the lawsuit saying, “both because it’s a personnel matter and now a legal matter, we cannot comment.”
Unal speaks English fluently, but has a Turkish accent that identifies her as a foreign-born person, according to court documents, which also indicate that she was the only foreign-born teacher at Aspen Elementary School.
Unal has been a special education teacher with Los Alamos Public Schools since the 2005-2006 school year. From school years 2006-2007 through 2010-2011, she taught at Aspen Elementary. According to court documents, she “had an impeccable teaching record and was beloved by parents and students.”
“The year she was out (2011-2012 school year) the community support was overwhelming,” Unal’s attorney said. “She really is an exceptional teacher.”
Vandenkieboom became principal of Aspen Elementary during the 2008-2009 school year and was principal at all times relevant to this complaint, according to the complaint, which indicates that upon her arrival, Vandenkieboom began targeting Unal for harassment and other discriminatory actions. Vandenkieboom targeted Unal, according to court documents, because she is Turkish.
The harassment and discrimination included, among other things, excluding Unal from formal meetings and in informal conversations with other employees of the District. The court documents also indicate that Vandenkieboom made fun of a Vietnamese family in the presence of at least two other teachers by calling them “the little people” and laughing. Vandenkieboom also made a number of derogatory remarks about Hispanic families in the district and sent police officers to one family’s home to obtain consent for a special education referral, according to the lawsuit, adding that this was not a proper practice or procedure.
Court documents indicate that during the 2010-2011 school year, Unal worked under the highest student overload at Aspen Elementary and Vandenkieboom repeatedly denied her requests for support. Despite the denials, other teachers’ student overloads were ameliorated within weeks of requests by the other teachers, according to the lawsuit, adding additionally that she was never adequately compensated for working under the overload.
On March 21, 2011, Vandenkieboom issued three Letters of Direction to Unal determined by the LAPS School Board to be disciplinary actions, according to court documents, and each of these letters stated that Unal’s “[failure to comply with the directive … will lead to immediate and more severe discipline, up to and including termination or discharge.” None of the letters of directions were substantiated by School Board policies, Aspen policy violations or any other policy, rule or law, according to the lawsuit, which states, “In other words, the Plaintiff was disciplined for allegedly violating policies and procedures that did not exist and therefore could not be violated.”
According to court documents, Unal and AFT initiated a grievance process in the spring of 2011 and May 23, 2011, Unal reported Vandenkieboom’s discrimination and retaliation to Schmidt who promised to investigate the report and host a meeting of the parties. Upon information and belief, no investigation was initiated at that time, according to the lawsuit and Schmidt did not convene a meeting between the parties.
Throughout the summer of 2011, the defendants continued to harass Unal and as a direct and proximate result of the stress of the harassment, discrimination and retaliation, she experienced significant and debilitating anxiety, including an emergency hospitalization, weakness and fainting spells, according to court documents. Unal sought continued treatment for her anxiety and was prohibited by her doctors from returning to work for the 2011-2012 school year.
During the summer of 2012, Unal’s doctor released her to return to work for the 2012-2013 school year. However, because of her anxiety, the doctor requested that Unal not be placed at the same site as Vandenkieboom. The defendants refused to acknowledge the request or provide Unal with a reasonable accommodation, according to the lawsuit, and “Defendants threatened Plaintiff with termination for having done nothing more than requesting a reasonable accommodation of her medical condition. Defendants demanded that the Plaintiff either withdraw her request for an accommodation or be denied a teaching position in the District.”
The lawsuit demands a 6-member jury in this trial on any and all factual issues and is asking for:
- Back pay for the 2011-2012 school year with all appropriate increases in salary and benefits to which Unal would have been entitled if she had not been unlawfully discriminated against;
- Compensatory damages in an amount to be determined by the trier of fact;
- Punitive damages against Vandenkieboom;
- A public apology;
- Pre and post judgment interest;
- Reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs; and
- Such other and further relief as the court deems just and proper.
Unal’s attorney said Unal is now teaching at Mountain Elementary School, adding that the next step is to let the court process play out.
“We will be deposing Katherine Vandenkieboom, Ferlic said, her deposition is a priority for us.”
Editor’s note: District policy prohibits Los Alamos Public School officials from commenting on legal actions.