Former Human Resources Director Taking SAU to Court

June 17, 2016

 

 

by Barbara O’Brien

Former Human Resources Director Carol St. Pierre left her employment with SAU 95 about a year ago, not because she disliked the job she had held since July of 2011, but, allegedly, due to the discrimination and harassment she says she witnessed as a Windham School District employee.

The Windham School District became its own school administrative unit (SAU 95) as of July 1, 2013.  Prior to that date, Windham had shared an administrative unit with Pelham, as SAU 28.  St. Pierre has named both SAU 28 and SAU 95 in her legal action.  A civil complaint was filed against both entities by Attorney William Pribis, of Concord, on behalf of St. Pierre on March 30 of this year, in Rockingham County Superior Court, in Brentwood.

Court documents were subsequently served to SAUs 95 and 28 on April 19, 2016.  On May 2, these documents were accepted on behalf of the Windham School District by Attorney Dona Feeney, of Concord.  On May 6, Attorney Feeney filed a motion to extend the length of time to answer the complaint.  The motion to extend the time was granted by the court on May 11.  The “target date” for Feeney to respond to the complaint by St. Pierre has been listed as June 21, 2016.

According to court documentation, one of the employees with whom St. Pierre worked, both at SAU 28 and SAU 95, was Business Administrator Adam Steel.  During their shared period of employment, St. Pierre alleges that she observed Steel engage in discriminatory conduct and actions toward various other employees on a regular basis.  St. Pierre claims she informed Steel that his behavior was “inappropriate,” but that the actions continued anyway.  Listed among the complaints alleged by St. Pierre are conduct related to racial, gender, religious, age and sexual-preference discrimination.

St. Pierre alleges further that Henry LaBranche, who was serving as interim superintendent at the time, told her that if her complaints against Steel didn’t cease, she would be faced with “very severe adverse consequences.”  Allegedly, LaBranche also told St. Pierre that he had been watching her.  “If you can’t get along with Adam, you’ll be looking for another job,” he supposedly told her.  St. Pierre also said LaBranche threatened to “blackball” her, stating that he knows most of the superintendents in New Hampshire, so St. Pierre would have to look for another job out-of-state.

St. Pierre also claims that a former director of technology for the Windham School District told her that Steel had arranged for his computer to be hard-wired directly to the school district’s internet provider, without going through the district’s network.  According to St. Pierre this would “shield Mr. Steel’s internet use from the district’s scrutiny.”  This was a significant violation of school district policy, St. Pierre said.  The director of technology, Terry Bullard, who is no longer with the Windham School District, reportedly asked St. Pierre to bring the matter to the attention of newly hired Superintendent Winfried Feneberg.  St. Pierre said that when she told Feneberg about the situation and her concern that Steel was possibly using the school laptop computer for an inappropriate purpose, he was “dismissive” and responded by telling her, “You can’t change the past, you need to let things go.”

St. Pierre said she did not let the situation go, however, and filed a formal written complaint with Feneberg, resulting in “significant changes being made to the district’s policies,” including that the director of technology would no longer report to the business administrator, but would report directly to the superintendent; that existing technology policies would be updated to include a ban on pornography in general, not just child pornography; and glass windows would be installed in the doors of all offices at the SAU building. According to St. Pierre, Steel’s and Feneberg’s behavior toward her became markedly hostile after this incident.  St. Pierre claims that promised assistance with her job was withdrawn and that her office space was relocated to an area where it was difficult to perform her duties in an efficient manner.

At a subsequent time, St. Pierre said she became aware that Steel and Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment Director Kori Becht were “abusing” the school district’s tuition reimbursement program by taking and being reimbursed for more graduate courses than was permitted by district policy.  St. Pierre said that when she brought this alleged information to the attention of the chairman of the school board, Steel “retaliated by having one of his hourly employees shadow an interview that she was conducting.”  St. Pierre said Steel had never done anything of this nature previously and that she “found it to be inappropriate and demeaning.”  St. Pierre said that she, subsequently, complained to Feneberg, who “did nothing”; which resulted in St. Pierre’s request to involve the Windham School Board.  St. Pierre said Feneberg became “verbally abusive” as a result of her request and claimed she had no right to involve the school board.  He did, however, agree to conduct an investigation, St. Pierre said.

Subsequently, an attorney was hired to conduct the investigation; someone with whom the school district had worked previously.  St. Pierre said she felt this attorney could not function in an independent manner and without bias, but the investigation proceeded nonetheless.  According to St. Pierre, the attorney interviewed all of the witnesses for the school district, but none representing St. Pierre.  At the conclusion of the investigation, the attorney was said to have issued a scathing report regarding St. Pierre, claiming that she was not a team player and recommending that she hire a “job coach” as she did not get along well with other people.  Immediately after the investigation, St. Pierre said she received a negative employment evaluation from Feneberg; something that had never occurred previously.  Feneberg also reportedly removed St. Pierre from her role as liaison to the school board in the district’s search for a new superintendent.  Feneberg had recently handed in his resignation as superintendent and accepted a job in the Kearsarge School District and Windham was once again seeking an interim superintendent.

At this point, court documents state, “It was apparent to St. Pierre that the school district’s retaliatory behavior had escalated to the point where she would soon be fired.”  “Moreover, the school district’s retaliatory behavior created a working environment so difficult and hostile that no reasonable person could continue their employment there,” the documents state.  St. Pierre left her employment last year and currently works at the Rockingham County Sheriff’s Department; a job she says pays substantially less than what she had been making with the Windham School District.

The documents prepared by St. Pierre’s attorney claim that St. Pierre has chosen to take civil legal action against SAU 95/28 due to the discriminatory conduct and adverse employment action taken by school district administration, as the result of her complaints against several administrators.  According to New Hampshire State Law, “an employer cannot discharge an employee or take adverse actions against an employee for the employee’s committing an act that public policy encourages or for the employee refusing to commit an act which public policy disfavors.”  Furthermore, according to St. Pierre’s attorney, “the district created a working environment so hostile for St. Pierre that she was constructively discharged.”  Her attorney claims that as a result of its acts and conduct, the Windham School District violated State Law and, as a result, St. Pierre is entitled to damages, including her attorney’s fees.  Although no specific amount was listed in the court paperwork, St. Pierre’s attorney wrote that “the school district’s acts and conduct are so egregious as to warrant an award of enhanced compensatory damages.”

As for the timing of St. Pierre’s filing of a civil complaint, it came only a couple of days after Steel announced his resignation as business administrator from the Windham School District.  Steel has taken a similar job with the Amherst-Mont Vernon School District.  His final day in Windham will be June 30.

On June 10, when contacted for a comment, Steel said, “I am aware of the action filed in the court, although I will note that I am not named as a defendant in the action,” “While I have been advised not to comment on the case, since it is an ongoing matter, I can assure you that the allegations made against me (and others) in the action have no basis in fact, and I will be pleased to see the truth come to light during the course of the legal process,” Steel stated.

Dr. Henry LaBranche was spoken with on June 12 after being told about St. Pierre’s civil complaint.  “I categorically deny any wrongdoing during the two years I served as interim superintendent,” LaBranche said.  “I understand that the legal process must be followed, but I am very confident that Ms. St. Pierre’s claims will be determined to be unfounded.”  Adam Steel and the others named in the complaint are all upstanding and ethical individuals, LaBranche stated.  “There is no truth to her allegations,” he said.  Phone calls made to Attorneys Pribis and Feeney were not returned.  Attempts to contact Mr. Feneberg were unsuccessful.

St. Pierre is seeking a jury trial in her “wrongful discharge” civil litigation against the Windham School District.  A date for that trial has not yet been set.