By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
A former Havre Middle School teacher claims in a lawsuit that she was the victim of sexual harassment, sex discrimination and retaliation when she worked for Havre Public Schools.
Lorna Stremcha claims in her lawsuit that the district allowed an 18-year-old former student to enter Havre Middle School and subject her to "intense sexual harassment and discrimination." After she filed a complaint with the Montana Human Rights Bureau about how the incident was handled, her suit alleges, the school district retaliated against her until she was fired in April.
The parties on either side aren't saying much about what prompted the lawsuit.
But the report of the investigator who handled Stremcha's human rights complaint sheds some light on the positions of both parties in the dispute. The investigator's summary covers the period from April 2002 to December 2002.
According to the report, other employees at the school said Stremcha laughed about the incident the day that it happened.
HMS principal Vance Blatter told the investigator that in the seven months after the incident, he received as many as 35 complaints about Stremcha's conduct in the classroom from middle school students and parents. He also said that after Stremcha was warned to improve her behavior, several students and parents told Blatter that Stremcha was retaliating against their children for complaining.
In her own statement, Stremcha alleged that school district witnesses lied in their statements to the investigator, and that the district solicited false complaints about her from students and parents.
In January, the Human Rights Bureau rejected Stremcha's complaint. The Human Rights Bureau's dismissal was subsequently upheld by the Montana Human Rights Commission in June.
Stremcha's attorney, Randy Randolph, said last week that the investigation was one-sided, and that's why Stremcha decided to take the matter to court.
"Our concern is that the investigation was not very thorough," he said. "Virtually none of Lorna's witnesses were interviewed, and their testimony wasn't taken into consideration." He said those witnesses included teachers, students and community members.
Stremcha declined to comment, as did HPS Superintendent Kirk Miller.
"This is a matter of litigation and the district will not comment on issues related to the Lorna Stremcha matter," he said.
Stremcha was hired to teach English at HMS in 1993. She received performance evaluations in 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1999 and 2002. In five of those years, evaluators indicated that Stremcha met or exceeded district expectations in her teaching; in 1996 the evaluator indicated that Stremcha recently had had some incomplete lesson plans.
In 1994, the evaluator wrote, "Mrs. approach to students and staff. ... She maintains confidentiality and has maintained an effective and professional relationship with students, parents, and staff here at the middle school."
But the district also noted some problems.
The school district had investigated a May 2000 incident and concluded that Stremcha had acted unprofessionally toward students and parents. She was directed to change her behavior, HPS personnel director Karla Wohlwend told the investigator.
Randolph said the May 2000 incident involved a student who had attacked another student, used profane language and disorderly behavior, and was marked for expulsion. A May 17, 2000, letter to Stremcha said the district had found she had made "poor judgments and comments" toward the student who attacked the other student and also to the offending student's parent. Randolph said Stremcha was not disciplined for the matter, and that she maintains her comments were accurate.
Stremcha gave the following account of the April 2002 incident involving the 18-year-old to the Human Rights Bureau, according to investigator Andrea Strowd's report:
The incident occurred at the middle school on April 16, 2002. A former HMS student was walking with a female teacher during the noon hour when they encountered Stremcha in the hall. When the teacher left to go to the office, the student followed Stremcha to her classroom.
Stremcha told the investigator that the 18-year-old moved a desk close to her desk, between her and the door. Stremcha was nervous about the student but did not confront him because she was afraid he was armed.
HMS assistant principal Barry Zanto entered the room and told the student he had to leave the room in six minutes.
"Stremcha was afraid that student M would become physical and did not alert Zanto to her fears," the report said. After Zanto left, the student "told her she was beautiful and that he had always had a crush on her." His comments made her nervous, the report said.
According to the report, Stremcha took the student to visit another teacher's classroom. While they were walking, the student again told her she was beautiful. When the teacher was not there, she went to the lunchroom, found Zanto, and left the student with him.
Stremcha alleged she spoke to Zanto and Blatter about the incident, but "they just laughed." Blatter contacted Havre High School principal Jim Donovan about the incident.
School district officials give a somewhat different version of the event, according to the report:
The student went to see his former special education teacher without checking in at the office first. The teacher was taking the student to the office to check in when they encountered Stremcha. The student and Stremcha began talking, and he followed her to her classroom. The special education teacher then went to the office and told Zanto the student was in Stremcha's classroom.
Zanto went immediately to the classroom and twice asked Stremcha "if everything was OK." She responded in both cases by smiling at him, the report said. Zanto also asked her if it was all right for the student to visit her. She smiled and said yes. Zanto told the student he could visit for six more minutes, and then left.
Stremcha took the student to visit another teacher, who was not in his room. She took the student to the lunchroom, where Zanto escorted the student out of the building.
A short time later the student re-entered the building and went to visit another male teacher, who called the office to report the student was there. Blatter and Zanto left the office to remove the student. They both said that on the way to the classroom, Stremcha stopped them to tell them about the incident.
"Stremcha was laughing as she told them the guy told her she was pretty," according to the summary of Blatter's statement in the report. "He attempted to disengage her but she kept grabbing his arm to tell him more of the humorous things the guy had said."
A counselor and a secretary and a teacher told the investigator that Stremcha laughed about the incident. A tutor said Stremcha seemed to be flattered.
Blatter and four employees said Stremcha became upset the next day, after she found out the student had been arrested in an unrelated incident, according to the report. All five stated that at no time had Stremcha referred to the incident as sexual harassment.
Randolph said last week that Stremcha contends the school district knew the student was potentially dangerous at the time of the incident, but he would not disclose what kind of evidence she has.
"Once the district was aware that he was in the building, they made no immediate attempts to remove him," Randolph said.
Randolph said the student's comments to Stremcha were more threatening than the report said.
"Ms. Stremcha indicates it was much more aggressive, much more threatening, and she feared for her life and safety," Randolph said, adding that Stremcha feared the student might perpetrate a sex crime.
District officials told the Human Rights Bureau that the district did not believe the student posed a danger.
The school district stated that the student, a special needs student who suffered from cognitive delay and mild mental retardation, was not considered dangerous, and that Stremcha did not notify the office that she thought he could be dangerous.
Havre Public Schools officials told the investigator that the student did not have a history of violence in school. He had been enrolled in Havre High School but had not attended classes for 10 days prior to the incident.
The report said it is common for former students to visit the middle school, and that no one was alarmed by the student's presence in the building.
It was not until nearly a month after the incident that the district was informed by Kelley Ferguson, a professional counselor, that the student could potentially be dangerous, according to the investigator's report.
According to Stremcha's account, she decided to press her concerns about the incident and was met with retaliation.
Stremcha told the Human Rights Bureau that after spending a restless night on April 16, she sent a narrative of the incident to Superintendent Miller and a union representative.
Peggy Safley, a teacher at HHS, told the bureau that Stremcha called her the night of April 16 and was upset about the incident. Safley referred Stremcha to a union representative, the report said.
On April 18, according to Stremcha's account in the report, Blatter told Stremcha he had read her narrative and that the student had been moved to another community. Blatter told her Zanto had left the student in her room because "her demeanor did not suggest she was concerned."
"She told Blatter she was concerned that anyone could enter the school and pose a threat to teacher/student safety," the report said of her account. "Blatter did not appear concerned about her feelings."
Later that day, the report said, Stremcha learned that several people had "decided to withdraw their support" of her. She believed it was because they had been threatened.
Stremcha also told investigators that she was concerned by a comment from Blatter in her April 22, 2002, evaluation.
The evaluation said, "I would caution you that all situations dealing with parents, teachers, staff, and administration be handled with the utmost of confidence and professionalism."
The evaluation also indicated she exceeded district expectations in her teaching and management skills and met district expectations in her professionalism. "You do a good job of working with individual differences and ability levels of students, this is demonstrated through the numerous programs you have developed for students with various abilities," it said.
Blatter told the investigator that new safety precautions were put in place at HMS after the incident. A sign on the door instructed visitors to go to the office, sign in and obtain a visitor's badge. On April 18, 2002, he held a staff meeting and directed the staff to make sure visitors checked in.
Stremcha told investigators she was notified on April 30, 2002, that Miller was conducting an investigation of the incident. She met with Miller on May 1 of that year to describe the incident, and told him she thought Blatter had lied on her evaluation. When Miller asked her "how she might have done things differently," she concluded that Miller "was blaming her for the incident," the investigator's report said.
A week later Miller told Stremcha he was "concerned about her coercing statements from people," the report quoted Stremcha as saying.
After the April 2002 incident the district received numerous complaints from students and parents about Stremcha's conduct, according to the investigator's report.
Blatter told the investigator that between May and November of 2002 he received between 25 and 35 complaints from students or parents about Stremcha's conduct. He said that since September 2002 he had received about 20 requests from parents that their children not be assigned to Stremcha's class.
Wohlwend told the investigator that in November 2002, she and Blatter met with Stremcha and a union representative, disclosed the names of students and parents who complained, and warned her to stop her behavior, according to the report. At the meeting, Stremcha denied she engaged in inappropriate conduct, the report said.
In December, Blatter was told by some students that Stremcha was retaliating against them, according to Wohlwend's statement. He held another meeting with her and told her she could be fired if any other "improper behavior or insubordination" occurred.
Stremcha told the investigator she thought the witnesses had lied, and that she believed that "Blatter sought out students and parents to file bogus complaints against her," the report said.
"She has evidence that suggests the school district solicited statements from students and parents," her attorney, Randolph, said.
On Aug. 5, 2002, Stremcha filed a complaint with the state Human Rights Bureau against Havre Public Schools alleging she was subjected to "a sexually hostile and offensive work environment," and that she had been "treated differently in the terms and conditions of her employment than males and is being retaliated against for engaging in Human Rights activities."
The district denied retaliating against her. It argued that Stremcha had been concerned about school safety in the incident involving the 18-year-old, not sexual harassment.
In January of 2003 the Human Rights Bureau rejected Stremcha's complaint. The investigator for the bureau found that "allegations of sexual harassment, gender discrimination and retaliation are not supported by a preponderance of the evidence."
With regard to Stremcha's allegations of sexual harassment, the report stated that the incident with the 18-year-old "does not rise to the level of sexual harassment," according to the guidelines specified by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The report said Stremcha declined to file an internal sexual harassment complaint with the district, and that the administration took "prompt action" to implement additional safety measures.
The investigator also ruled that Stremcha did not produce evidence of sex discrimination. The report states that the testimony of other school district employees refuted Stremcha's contention that Blatter treated female staff differently than male staff and that Blatter only responded to Stremcha's concerns about safety when a male teacher raised concerns about the student.
With regard to Stremcha's third allegation, that the school district retaliated against her for complaining about the incident, the bureau's report ruled that she was given warnings as a result of numerous complaints from students and parents. Stremcha had been warned as early as 2000 that she must "act more professionally with parents," the investigator concluded.
"Additionally, the preponderance of evidence supports Stremcha was abusive to some students," the report said. "When they and their parents complained she pressured the students to recant their complaints. She further threatened to pursue legal action against the parents. I find Stremcha's conduct interfered with her work and caused her to be ineffective in her job."
The report also states that Stremcha spent "excessive amounts of time" taking her claims to other staff members, who considered her conduct harassment.
Stremcha was the subject of a closed-door disciplinary hearing of the Havre school board on March 11. The board, following Miller's recommendation, voted 5-0, with one abstention, in favor of disciplinary action, but did not disclose what the disciplinary action would be.
Stremcha was fired by the Havre school board by a vote of 7-0 on April 30.
Blatter and Zanto declined to comment. Wohlwend said last week that she stands by her statements to the bureau, both that Stremcha was concerned with safety, not sexual harassment, and that Stremcha had a history of treating students in an abusive manner.
"That was my testimony and that's correct," Wohlwend said. She said that based on what she knew about the bureau's investigation, she did not have a problem with its conclusion.
In July of 2003 Stremcha filed a second complaint with the Montana Human Rights Bureau alleging the school district retaliated against her for filing the first complaint. That complaint is still under investigation, Randolph said.
Stremcha filed a lawsuit against the school district in state District Court on Nov. 20. The suit alleges that Blatter and Zanto knowingly subjected her to sexual harassment and discrimination at the hands of the student, and that the district discriminated against her due to her sex and retaliated against her for complaining.
Her suit seeks more than $200,000.
Miller has said the district is preparing its written response. No response has been filed yet in District Court.