Attorneys for a Smithville Elementary School teacher has filed a federal lawsuit against the DeKalb County Board of Education and Director of Schools Mark Willoughby.
The Hendersonville law firm of Andy L. Allman and Associates filed the employment discrimination lawsuit on behalf of Bradley Hendrix, a local physical education teacher and 3rd District county commissioner in U.S. District Court on May 29. The suit alleges that he has been “subjected to a continuous and ongoing pattern of harassment and retaliation for his votes as a county commissioner on matters pertaining to the school system.”
The suit claims that “On or about March 2011, the issue of the land purchase and school construction came before the county commission for approval. Hendrix voted against the measure. From that point on, Hendrix was subjected to harassment and retaliation by Mr. Willoughby in his employment.”
Hendrix is asking for a jury trial in the case, in which he is suing Director of Schools and the Board of Education both jointly and severally, seeking compensatory and punitive damages.
The story began in 2011, when the school board revealed plans to purchase a 52-acre tract of land on Allen Ferry Road in anticipation of the construction of a new high school. In April of that year, however, the 14 county commissioners denied the school board's request for approval of a $374,000 budget amendment, to be taken from the system's Basic Education Program Reserve (BEP) Funds to buy the property with a 7-7 vote. A majority of the commissioners, or eight votes, were required to pass the measure.
Hendrix was one of the seven commissioners who cast votes against the plan.
In December of the same year, Hendrix was given a one-day suspension for “neglect of duty” and “insubordination” after apparently leaving a field trip without getting permission from his supervisor, Dr. Bill Tanner, then principal at Smithville Elementary School.
Hendrix appealed the decision, and a hearing officer heard his case in February, 2012. The hearing officer’s written report on his "Finding of Facts and Conclusions of Law" was released within 30 days, and upheld the suspension. Hendrix then filed an appeal with the Board of Education.
The school board held a special meeting in April, 2012, voting 5-0 not only to support the one-day suspension imposed by the director, but further opining that one day’s suspension was not adequate punishment. The board subsequently voted 4-1 to extend the suspension for two more days without pay, for a total suspension of three days.
Hendrix's lawsuit alleges:
“In the spring of 2010, (Hendrix) began campaigning for the office of county commissioner of the 3rd district. Hendrix was duly elected by vote of the people on the 2nd day of August 2010.
“On or about January 2011, Hendrix, as a county commissioner, was called to a meeting held by the defendant, Board of Education, to discuss the purchase of land and construction of a new school within the district. Prior to the meeting, Hendrix had requested of defendant, Mark Willoughby, a five to ten year plan to determine how the county was going to pay for this land purchase and new school. At the meeting the requested plan was not presented nor was there any discussion about the land purchase and school construction. Hendrix brought the subject up to the Board Members and informed them that discussion should be had because at that point he was not going to vote for the project.
“Hendrix's duties and obligations as a county commissioner include voting on matters of funding for the DeKalb County School System of which Willoughby is the Director.
“Subsequent to the January meeting, Principal Tanner approached Hendrix in the hallway of Smithville Elementary and inquired how Hendrix was going to vote when the issue of land purchase and new school construction came before the county commission. At all times relevant hereto, Hendrix was a teacher at Smithville Elementary School and Principal Tanner was his supervisor.
“On or about March 2011, the issue of the land purchase and school construction came before the county commission for approval. Hendrix voted against the measure. From that point on, Hendrix was subjected to harassment and retaliation by Mr. Willoughby and Mr. Tanner in his employment.
“Up until his vote, Hendrix had been allowed to continue volunteering for the ‘early morning drop off duty.’ This was a job responsibility he had been doing for approximately nine years. This responsibility was removed from Hendrix.
“On or about December 2011, Hendrix attended a field trip with students, including his son, to a fun center. Hendrix left at approximately 11 a.m. to attend his daughter's basketball game. Prior to this day, Hendrix communicated his schedule with Tanner. Mr. Tanner admitted to Hendrix that he had in fact discussed this scheduling issue with him. However, Tanner brought Hendrix into his office and began chastising Hendrix for leaving the field trip. Tanner instructed Hendrix to note on his time sheet that he had taken half of a personal day. The following morning Tanner called Hendrix back into his office and suspended him one day without pay. Tanner told Hendrix that Willoughby wanted him suspended one week without pay. It was common that teachers would leave early to attend special functions of their own children, and none had been suspended without pay.
“On or about January 2012, Hendrix asked the assistant principal if he could leave the campus while on his lunch break to run an errand. The assistant principal informed Hendrix that only Tanner could give him permission to leave campus even if it were on his lunch break. On or about February 13, 2012, Tanner informed Hendrix that anytime he left school grounds he would be charged with a personal day. Just two weeks later this same assistant principal, without hesitation, gave another teacher permission to leave school grounds to run an errand even though she was not on break.
“On or about February 8, 2012, Hendrix received a written reprimand for saying something that allegedly embarrassed a student in physical education class.
“On or about February 21, 2012, Hendrix received another written reprimand for not following school policy when obtaining a substitute teacher for his classes from February 15-17. Hendrix scheduled a substitute teacher on his own for those days he knew he would be out on leave recommended by his doctor. This is the same procedure Hendrix and other teachers had been using in the past when they knew in advance of any absences. In fact, another teacher used sick time to take a vacation and suffered no disciplinary action.
“Upon information and belief, Willoughby was actually seen at Hendrix's doctor's office inquiring as to whether Hendrix had actually been seen by the doctor on specific days. In addition, Willoughby presented himself at the home of Hendrix's friend with the intent to interrogate him about Hendrix's whereabouts. This person refused to talk to Willoughby.
“On another occasion in March 2012, Willoughby singled Hendrix out at a teachers' meeting. Willoughby was addressing the teachers at Smithville Elementary about teacher absences from school for personal reasons. In front of the entire meeting, Willoughby specifically pointed out Hendrix by name, using him as an example on the issue of absences from school, including the instances listed above for which Hendrix had been wrongfully disciplined.
“As part of Hendrix's job duties and responsibilities, he is required to attend different conferences dealing with subject matter relevant to his everyday duties. On April 18 and 19 of 2012, Hendrix attended a ‘Related Arts Workshop’ presented by the Tennessee Department of Education in Nashville. Hendrix did not request to attend this workshop but was informed by his assistant principal that he had been signed up. When Hendrix was originally informed of this workshop he was told that his attendance was due to the size of the class and available slots. Hendrix was only informed a week and a half prior to the workshop that he would definitely be able to attend.
“Hendrix was also scheduled to attend a Parks and Recreation Committee meeting on April 18 in the courthouse in Smithville as part of his county commissioner responsibilities. This committee meeting was scheduled to begin at 3:30 p.m. and was for the purpose of interviewing and hiring an individual to supervise and oversee a new civic center that had recently been built.
“Upon arrival at the workshop, Hendrix approached the workshop coordinator and explained that he would need to leave early on this day to attend the Parks and Recreation Committee meeting. According to the syllabus, the workshop concluded at 3:30 p.m. Hendrix left the workshop at 2:30 p.m. in order to travel back to Smithville for the committee meeting. Hendrix attended the entire second day of the workshop.
“Willoughby interrogated Hendrix about leaving the workshop early on April 18 and accused Hendrix of telling the workshop coordinator that he had a meeting with the Director of Schools. This was a false accusation as Hendrix had informed the coordinator of his Parks and Recreation Committee meeting. On April 24, Hendrix was called into Mr. Tanner's office by Mr. Willoughby. Willoughby began interrogating Hendrix about three sick days he had used. Hendrix had provided defendants with a note from his medical doctor verifying his absences.
“In this meeting, Hendrix was given an ‘official written and final notice to refrain from this unprofessional and insubordinate behavior’ and threatened with termination. Again these were false accusations by defendants.
“On May 11, 2012, Hendrix reported to work at Smithville Elementary. This day at school was ‘Carnival Day’ wherein the children are allowed to celebrate the end of the school year. Hendrix's three children were also attending this ‘Carnival Day.’ At approximately 10:45 a.m., Hendrix was called away from supervising his students to attend a meeting with Willoughby, Tanner, and the assistant principal, Karen Knowles.
“On or about December 2012, then Attendance Supervisor, Clay Farler made known to the defendant and its employees his intent to retire from his position.
“Defendant formally posted this vacancy on or about April 2013. Upon posting, Defendant was to create a list of applicants who met the qualifications for the position and begin interviews in making the final decision as to who should receive the position.
“Hendrix applied for the position within approximately one week from the job posting by going to the central office acquiring an application and returning the same.
“Approximately one week thereafter, Hendrix was informed by his supervisor, Julie Vincent, that he was to have an interview with Willoughby for the attendance supervisor position. That same day, Hendrix had his interview with Willoughby.
“Candidates for this position were to have an Endorsement 094. Without an Educational Specialist Degree (EDS), a candidate must have successfully completed course work. To obtain this endorsement, a candidate must attend an eight-hour course and then submit documentation to the State of Tennessee, Department of Education Licensing Division.
“Hendrix was exempt from the course work because he already possessed an Educational Specialist Degree. Hendrix simply needed to submit his EDS to the Department of Education and receive the endorsement.
“Defendant chose candidate Joey Reeder for the position. Reeder did not have the requisite endorsement, nor did he have an EDS or Masters Degree.
“Defendant sent Reeder to a conference to become certified so that he could receive the requisite endorsement. Hendrix had a Masters Degree in Instructional Leadership and an "EDS". Hendrix was not provided the same opportunities by Defendant to take classes which would further enhance his qualifications.
“Hendrix was as qualified, if not more qualified, than Reeder for the position of Attendance Supervisor but was not selected as yet another act of retaliation and harassment of his previous voting as county commissioner and his complaints of treatment.
“Since Hendrix's vote, and while Tanner was principal, he has been subjected to retaliatory harassment in the workplace.
“Hendrix has been subjected to a continuous and ongoing pattern of harassment and retaliation for his votes as a county commissioner on matters pertaining to the school system. In addition, Hendrix has received the ‘cold shoulder’ treatment from Mr. Willoughby, Mr. Tanner, and even the assistant principal."
Hendrix’s attorneys allege that the director of schools violated Hendrix’s constitutional rights by singling out for punishment that was more severe than other employees received for the same behavior.
The suit goes on to say that “The DeKalb County Board of Education adopted, permitted, encouraged, tolerated, and knowingly acquiesced to an official pattern, practice or custom of its officials, including the individual defendant, violating the constitutional rights of the public at large, including Hendrix.
“Defendant is directly liable for the constitutional violations committed against Hendrix because these violations were committed by the official policy makers for the school district and Defendant Willoughby.
“Further, defendant is liable for the actions of the individual Defendant and employees of the school district because the board, by and through defendant Willoughby, instituted an official policy, practice, custom, and campaign of harassment and intimidation against Hendrix.
“As a direct and proximate result of the foregoing policies, practices, and customs of the Board of Education, Hendrix's constitutional rights were violated.
“Defendants' conduct alleged herein were willful, intentional, reckless, malicious, and fraudulent entitling Hendrix to a substantial award of punitive damages,” the suit reads.