Saturday, March 05, 2005
Federal case continues for Giles school workers
Two women who worked as janitors say they faced retaliation and continued abuse after complaining about a supervisor's behavior.
(Correction posted 3/10: This story was originally published with an incorrect date.)
Two women who were sexually harassed by the head janitor at Narrows High School in 1998 are suing the Giles County School Board in federal court for damages they say they suffered and retaliation they say began after they complained about the janitor's abuse.
"I really think that the inappropriate response of the school system was a second victimization," Harriet Dorsey, the women's attorney, said this week.
Giles County Schools Superintendent Terry Arbogast; Assistant Superintendent James Wheeler; Robert Stump, principal of Narrows High School; and the Richmond attorney representing the school board refused to comment on the case for this story.
But court documents in the lawsuit filed by Melissa Lucas, 35, and Cynthia Ratcliffe, 43, both of Narrows, in U.S. District Court in April 2004 paint a picture of continual sexual harassment by James Michael Smith, 51, a janitor who now works at Giles High School, dating to the late 1980s. The lawsuit did not specify a dollar figure that the women are asking for.
According to the documents, Lucas and Ratcliffe told Narrows High principal Stump in 2002 that Smith, who was then the head janitor at Narrows High School, repeatedly touched them inappropriately and made suggestive and derogatory comments.
Ratcliffe claims Smith began harassing her in 1988. Lucas was hired at Narrows High School in 2001, and claims Smith targeted her immediately.
Among their allegations, Lucas claims Smith stuck a mop handle between her legs, tried to put his hands up her shorts and tackled her on the ground. Ratcliffe alleges he walked in on her while she was using the bathroom and called her a "damn dumb blond bitch."
Both allege Smith grabbed their breasts and rubbed against them with his genitals and told them school officials would not punish him because he had a "little black book" in which he kept damaging school secrets.
Shortly after the women complained to Stump about Smith in 2002, an internal school district investigation found that Smith violated the school district's policy on sexual harassment and discrimination.
In 2003, Smith was found guilty of two counts of misdemeanor sexual battery in Giles General District Court and fined $1,000 for crimes against Lucas and Ratcliffe.
But Dorsey, the women's attorney, said Smith continued to target both women with obscene language and sexual touches, long after the school's investigation.
Instead of protecting the women from Smith, Dorsey says school officials tried to force them out by moving them to night shifts, criticizing their work and not doing enough to keep Smith away from them.
Soon after the women complained about Smith, school officials moved Ratcliffe and Lucas to a night shift for 60 days to separate them from him, while Smith kept a day shift, Dorsey said.
Dorsey says Stump, the school principal, increased Ratcliffe's workload during that 60 days and criticized her work. And when Lucas told Stump that Smith was continuing to bother her, Stump did not do anything to stop it, she said.
Ratcliffe left the school to become a teaching assistant at Narrows Elementary/Middle School in 2002.
But after the 60-day separation, Lucas was forced to work for Smith on the same shift for eight months, until the end of the 2003 school year, Dorsey said.
During that time, Smith gave Lucas more-difficult tasks than other employees and continued to sexually harass her, Dorsey said.
When Smith was convicted in 2003, Dorsey says, Stump forced Lucas to take a transfer to Macy Elementary School.
Smith is currently working as a day-shift janitor at Giles High School and is no longer a manager, according to his co-workers.
George Rutherglen, a law professor at the University of Virginia law school, said it is difficult to guess how the school board's attorney plans to argue the case.
Because Smith was convicted of sexual battery in district court, proving a harassment claim against the school board in U.S. District Court should not be difficult, he said.
And because Smith was the women's manager, the school board could face liability for his actions at a higher level than if he were simply a co-worker, Rutherglen said.
But the women's claim that they were retaliated against for blowing the whistle on Smith could be more difficult to prove, he said.
"The law is clear," Rutherglen said. "If there was retaliation, they violated the Civil Rights Act. Proving it is another matter."
Dorsey said she has discussed a settlement with the school board's attorney.
But the school board's attorney told her Lucas and Ratcliffe would have to quit their jobs as part of any settlement, Dorsey said.
"I'm not going to let that happen," she said. "What message does that give to women who complain?"