Thursday, January 02, 2014

Questions of truthfulness in Portland Public Schools special ed whistleblower suit; jury says "bad but legal"

Stacey Sibley testifying in court

Schools aren't likely to improve as long as arrogant egotists can run them any way they want, and the public lets them get away with it. The first thing needed is for the public to demand that school officials obey the law and tell the truth under oath.

In the case below, it seems clear that someone in that jury room convinced eight people that they had to ignore the truth and protect the school district from being forced to make reparations for harmful decisons.

Somehow the jury claimed to believe that Joanne Mabbott had unintentionally grabbed Stacey Sibley by the shoulders and shoved her backward several feet in the lobby of the school district, just before telling her she was losing her job.

"We all said the school district made a lot of bad decisions...We all felt admiration for the job (Sibley) did, and we all felt pretty crummy coming out of the jury room having to make this decision."

"We thought it was bad form...Once again, we thought Mabbott made a bad decision. Was it the wrong place? Yes. Was it a stupid thing to do? Yes." But it did not meet the legal test of being intentional..."

Closing arguments raise questions of truthfulness in Portland Public Schools special ed whistleblower suit
By Betsy Hammond
December 06, 2011

Stacey Sibley, ousted principal of Portland's Pioneer Program schools, wipes away tears after testifying in her lawsuit against the school district that staff members at her school had to change student diapers without protective gloves after the school district refused to buy wipes and other supplies.

A bruising 13-day trial testing whether top Portland Public Schools officials demoted a special education principal because she stood up for workplace safety and special education students' rights was turned over to a Multnomah County jury Tuesday.

Stacey Sibley, founding principal of Portland's Pioneer Program schools for students with disabilities, concluded her case that she is a wronged whistleblower by tallying the many times she spoke out against changes she thought would endanger staff members or students. Her lawyer then tallied the successive cuts in job responsibilities, job conditions and prestige that Sibley suffered.

Lawyers for Portland Public Schools summarized their side by saying Sibley's complaints were merely disagreements with a boss, not galling problems or violations that needed a whistleblower to alert higher authorities. Sibley couldn't accept not getting her way and wanted special treatment when she didn't, attorney Thomas Sand said.

Sibley was demoted because, as the district streamlined administrative positions, she refused to take certain jobs and lacked the skill set to win other jobs she wanted, Sand said.

Both sides agree that the jury is being asked to decide the truthfulness of some of the highest ranking officials of Oregon's largest school district, including acting human resources director Michelle Riddell, longtime general counsel Jollee Patterson, and former special education director Joanne Mabbott. The jury can't award Sibley the $750,000-plus she seeks unless it decides those three lied on the stand, Sand told jurors.

Several emails, memos and the testimony in their own depositions suggest, but do not prove, those three took part in a key 2009 meeting to plan Sibley's demotion that was scheduled but that they now say never happened.

With numerous meetings that spring related to multiple special education and staffing issues, they were confused when they said during depositions that the meeting had happened, Patterson and others testified.

Mabbott, who has since been demoted and dismissed from Portland Public Schools, denied knowing that Sibley was going over her head with complaints about staff and student safety when she made her May 2009 decision to demote her. But some evidence, including a letter Sibley wrote to Mabbott, Superintendent Carole Smith and others, spelled out that Sibley was frustrated her complaints to Mabbott's bosses went unheeded.

"I have tried to advocate for them this year by going to Joanne, Jollee and Michelle, and I feel I have received no support for my students and my staff," Sibley wrote.

In the end, Sibley was demoted from principal of Pioneer to assistant principal at a small K-8 school, Ockley Green. Her pay was not lowered from the $102,000 a year she earned at Pioneer but her pay was capped, meaning she would not get future raises.

Two laws are key to Sibley's claims against the district: The Oregon Safe Employment Act, which bars employers from discriminating against employees who report unsafe working conditions, and a state whistleblower law, which prohibits employers from demoting employees because they report what they believe is a violation of federal or state regulation.

Sibley's chief complaints about workplace safety involved Mabbott's plans to put students of different ages and disabilities on one campus without barriers separating them, forcing staff to put their own bodies at risk to keep, for example, a 6-foot, 300-pound teen with violent tendencies from harming medically fragile kindergartners on the same hallway.

She also opposed plans to put medically needy cognitively impaired students on a separate campus, denying them contact with less disabled students.

Sibley is seeking $500,000 in damages for suffering related to being demoted. She is also seeking about $220,000 in economic damages.

Sibley left Portland schools in summer 2010 for a job as director of special programs at Willamette Education Service District in Salem, a job that pays $103,000.

Sand said Sibley deserves no compensation for voluntarily leaving a $102,000 job for one that pays better and for not getting her way on the job. Other committed educators in the school district heard her complaints but disagreed with her, he said.

"She has not earned the damages."

Sibley's attorney, Judy Snyder, called her a courageous and committed educator who bore the costs for speaking up.

"She worked tirelessly to improve (conditions for special education students) until Joanne Mabbott took that all away from her."

Portland Public Schools soft-pedaled its demotion of special ed principal, emails show
Betsy Hammond
on November 20, 2011

Concern about the safety of students on this playground at a Pioneer Program school in Southeast Portland was one factor that prompted Pioneer principal Stacey Sibley to complain about her boss's decisions.

Evidence presented last week in a special education whistleblower lawsuit against Portland Public Schools shows a major assertion of the district's defense -- that Stacey Sibley was not pushed out of her job as Pioneer Program principal after complaining about student safety -- is untrue.

On Monday, Sibley and the school district begin week two of a three-week trial to determine whether Oregon's largest school district saved money or retaliated against an advocate for students when it moved Sibley from her principal's job.

Sibley, who complained that many of her boss's decisions posed a safety risk to students and staff members, was willing in April 2009 to take on a lower-ranking administrator's duties plus her own as long as she could remain overall principal of the cluster of special education schools known as the Pioneer Program. She said so in an email to her boss, special education director Joanne Mabbott.

Within weeks, however, Mabbott decided to eliminate the principal job and demote Sibley to an administrator job with less responsibility and a lower pay scale. Higher-ranking district officials helped Mabbott deny Sibley her former position and another lower-ranking administrative job she was willing to take.

In the end, she was demoted to assistant principal of a small K-8 school and assigned an isolated second-floor office with no heat.

Many emails and witness testimony presented in court last week document those and other unflattering details about the way Mabbott and other district leaders treated employees including Sibley.

The case represents the second time in a decade that a special education employee has sued the Portland district, alleging she was fired or demoted for standing up for students' best interests. Physical education teacher Pamella Settlegoode won $1 million in 2004.

Sibley's case is different because she wasn't fired, nor was her pay lowered.

District lawyers argue that financial straits forced the district to cut administrative positions in 2009 and that administrators with higher pay and responsibility than Sibley also were asked to accept lower positions in schools.

But in his opening statement to the jury Monday, attorney Thomas Sand said Sibley could have remained at Pioneer if she had accepted additional responsibilities, but she refused.

However, Sibley did not refuse to run Youngson School, one of the four in the Pioneer Program, in addition to remaining principal of all four. In an April email, Mabbott wrote, "If you are at Youngson ... I would still see you as the overall principal." Sibley answered, "Yes, I believe I would," then detailed how she would make sure the administrators under her would be treated fairly.

Nor was she ultimately allowed to remain principal.

Matt Shelby, public information officer for Portland Public Schools, cautioned that the trial is only half completed and contradictory evidence could come out this week or next.

Sibley is expected to testify Monday, according to her attorney, Judy Snyder.

After Mabbott reversed her decision to let Sibley remain principal, Mabbott broke the news to Sibley in a bizarre way, according to a co-worker's testimony and Sibley emails.

Mabbott confronted her in the foyer of the school district headquarters. She took Sibley by the shoulders, pushed her several feet and told her she would be able to handle being moved down a notch.

District lawyers and human resource leaders then spent several meetings planning how they would justify the change to Sibley and to parents and staff members, according to emails.

In May, Mabbott's boss suggested to Sibley that she could have her choice of special education administrator jobs, and Sibley named her choice, emails show. Mabbott decided not to give her that position.

Sibley got on Mabbott's bad side by complaining repeatedly, including to Mabbott's bosses, that the special education director was pushing decisions that placed students and staff at risk. For instance, Mabbott decided to move a 6-foot, 365-pound teenager with impulsive and violent tendencies -- a student who required his own classroom and two or three staff members at all times -- from a high school-only setting to one where he was on the same hallway as middle school students and shared playground space with kindergartners.

Mabbott also hired as a special education administrator, and kept on board, Laraine Adams, a co-worker from her previous job described by the assistant director of special ed as a close friend of Mabbott's. Adams was given three different jobs during her first six months working in Portland because she could not handle the first two. Students at one challenging special education school erupted into out-of-control near riots under her leadership.

Sibley wrote to Mabbott's bosses that Adams was a "lovely woman" but unable to do the job, so Sibley worried for the safety of students if Adams were given certain jobs.

Emails show Sibley begged to meet with top district officials to learn why she was being moved out of her job, given that she felt it was because she advocated for student safety. Weeks went by without such a meeting.

When Superintendent Carole Smith's chief of staff Zeke Smith and interim Chief Academic Officer Eyelyn Brzezinski finally met with her, they concluded Sibley had two main issues, according to Brzezinski's written summary: Mabbott's plans for the Pioneer Program were unsafe and too costly, and she felt she was being retaliated against for saying so.

In June., Mabbott, who has since been demoted from her job and dismissed from the district, emailed Brzezinski about Sibley, saying, "The most difficult piece is Stacey is messing with my reputation." Brzezinski replied, "It is understandable that you feel like you do. Let me reiterate that Zeke and I trust your judgment re: the Pioneer moves."

Jury clears Portland Public Schools in special ed demotion case, says treatment of former principal was bad but legal
Betsy Hammond
December 07, 2011

Stacey Sibley, a former special education principal in Portland Public Schools, turned to her husband, Steve, after a jury rejected her legal claims to be a wronged whistleblower.

After a 13-day trial, a Multnomah County jury Wednesday cleared Portland Public Schools of allegations that it illegally retaliated against a special education principal who stood up to her bosses over staff and student safety.

Stacey Sibley, founding principal of Portland's Pioneer Program schools for students with disabilities, sought $750,000 in damages after top district officials demoted her in 2009. She said her job was eliminated and she was made an assistant principal because she opposed her boss's actions and plans as unsafe for employees and students.

But the jury awarded her nothing, saying she did not prove her case.

The 12-member jury reached its decision on a narrow legal basis, and its ruling should not be seen as exonerating district conduct, said juror Kirk Andrews, one of nine jurors who sided with the school district on all three central legal questions.

Jurors all agreed Sibley had spoken up about important workplace safety issues, and most concluded she had been demoted, Andrews said. But they did not find that her reporting of safety concerns was a key factor behind her supervisors' decision to move her down in rank, he said.

It was a hard decision that came down to the specific legal tests, two other jurors agreed.

"We all said the school district made a lot of bad decisions," Andrews said. "We all felt admiration for the job (Sibley) did, and we all felt pretty crummy coming out of the jury room having to make this decision.

"She did a great job, she set up a great program, and she was an advocate for the kids," he said. "But we had a limited scope. We did not believe (her reports of safety problems) were the underlying reason" she was moved.

Andrews, a former manager at Intel, said jurors discussed a host of factors that could have been the real reason Sibley was moved, but he declined to reveal them.

The jury also had to decide whether Sibley was wronged when her boss, then-special education director Joanne Mabbott, confronted her in the open lobby of school district headquarters and demoted her. Sibley sought damages because Mabbott put her hands on Sibley's shoulders and pushed her several feet before breaking the bad news. Sibley's lawyer, Judy Snyder, said that constituted battery.

But jurors disagreed, saying there was no evidence Mabbott grabbed Sibley intentionally to cause her harm.

"We thought it was bad form," Andrews said. "Once again, we thought Mabbott made a bad decision. Was it the wrong place? Yes. Was it a stupid thing to do? Yes." But it did not meet the legal test of being intentional, he said.

Snyder built her case in part on emails and testimony that suggested some top officials met to plan a way to demote Sibley for her advocacy but paint the decision as a way to streamline jobs and save money. Several of those officials testified in their pre-trial depositions that they met to discuss Sibley's demotion but said on the witness stand that the meeting never took place. Snyder accused them of "spinning" information and suggested they weren't truthful.

Andrews and another juror said the jury didn't try to determine whether that meeting took place.

Sibley left Portland in 2010 to become director of special programs at the Willamette Education Service District in Salem.

After losing her case, she said, "I feel very good. I didn't have to resort to lying. I do worry about the people left behind (still working for the school district) who spoke up for me. I'm headed back to work, and I'm looking forward to it."

Thomas Sand, lead attorney for the school district, declined to comment on the verdict.

Robb Cowie, the district's executive director of community involvement, said, "We are very pleased that the jury found that Portland Public Schools acted fairly in the employment of Stacey Sibley."

Snyder said the case showed how hard it is for people who feel they have been wronged to win lawsuits. She said she found it interesting, but was unsure what to make of it, that all five women on the jury initially concluded that Sibley had been wrongly demoted for calling out staff safety problems while the seven male jurors determined her safety reports weren't the reason she was moved down.

One of the female jurors said the fact that top district officials had destroyed notes from important meetings and interviews that would have shed light on their true motives helped convince some jurors that Sibley's repeated safety complaints were a prime reason she was demoted.

After Judge Marilyn Litzenberger told jurors they needed to have at least nine jurors agree on each of the key three questions, the jury deliberated further, and two more jurors took the district's side.

Sibley's trial, which lasted almost four weeks, was the longest court battle for Oregon's largest school district since a class-action lawsuit over its 2002 decision to outsource the jobs of nearly 300 custodians. That case, which ended with the district paying $14.5 million to the wronged custodians, lasted until 2007.

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