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Human Rights Bureau denies former teacher's second complaint


A second human rights complaint filed by a former Havre Middle School teacher has been denied by the state Human Rights Bureau.

The bureau determined that Lorna Stremcha wasn't subjected to retaliation by district officials after she filed her initial human rights complaint.

Stremcha's attorney, Randy Randolph, said in a recent interview that the bureau's investigation, like one done on her first complaint, was inadequate because the investigator neglected to interview many of her witnesses.

Randolph said Stremcha did not appeal the bureau's decision to the Montana Human Rights Commission.

Stremcha sued Havre Public Schools in state District Court in November seeking damages of more than $200,000 for sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation. Randolph said Stremcha has yet to decide whether to amend that lawsuit to include her claim of retaliation or to file a separate lawsuit against the district, he said.

Stremcha, who was a teacher at the middle school from 1993 until she was fired in April 2003, filed her first complaint with the bureau in August of 2002. She alleged she had been subjected to sexual harassment, sex discrimination and retaliation by Havre Public Schools after a former HMS student made unwanted advances toward her in her empty classroom in April 2002 and district officials failed to take action. She also alleged that district officials solicited complaints from students and parents against her when she would not remain quiet about the incident.

The school district disputed her allegations, and her complaint was denied by the Human Rights Bureau and later, after Stremcha appealed, by the Montana Human Rights Commission.

Stremcha's second complaint to the Human Rights Bureau, filed in July of 2003, alleged that she had been disciplined repeatedly in retaliation for filing the initial human rights complaint. Stremcha's position is stated in the bureau's investigative report: "The district wishes us to believe that an exemplary teacher turned into the worst teacher possible during the course of one school year, and only after the events that led her to the filing of the first Human Rights action."

HPS denied soliciting complaints and maintained that the disciplinary measures were related solely to Stremcha's behavior, not her human rights complaint.

The second complaint to the Human Rights Bureau was denied Dec. 24.

HMS principal Vance Blatter declined to comment on Stremcha's allegations in a recent interview.

"I think the (bureau's) findings speak for themselves," he said.

HPS Superintendent Kirk Miller also declined to comment on Stremcha's allegations.

"We've had an opportunity to read the decision from the Human Rights Bureau," Miller said. "We agree with its findings, and will let each reader draw their own conclusions."

The bureau's investigative report of Stremcha's second complaint details the allegations Stremcha made against the district and the disciplinary actions taken against her until she was fired on April 30.

Stremcha received two warnings and three suspensions between November of 2002 and March of 2003, according to the school district.

According to Stremcha's position in the report, she said she was also subjected to unprofessional behavior by HMS faculty, bullying by HMS administrators, "degrading" and "sexist" language by two Havre school board members in closed hearings, and "harassment and intimidation" by HPS Superintendent Kirk Miller.

Among her complaints:

Stremcha alleged that in February, HMS principal Vance Blatter insisted she meet with a parent of a student who had complained about her conduct. Stremcha said she didn't feel comfortable meeting with the parent in the presence of Blatter, and would not meet with the parent without another teacher present. She alleged he "bullied" her and denied her the right to have representation present.

At a March 11 disciplinary hearing before the Havre school board, she said, two board members made offensive remarks, one insisting that the hearing was not Nazi Germany, and that "we're not crucifying the Jews," and the other suggesting that the cause of Stremcha's behavior might be "hormonal."

Stremcha claimed that when she returned to school in early March after a leave of absence, her computer password had been changed, books and files were missing, student grades had been changed, and her possessions had been put in boxes. She said records had been falsified, and her name had been attached to records she did not create.

Stremcha alleged she was kept from attending a school band concert, and had to ask permission to attend one of her daughter's volleyball games. When she attended the game, she said, Miller watched her and took notes.

Stremcha's account alleged three additional instances of "intimidation" by Miller in February and March. The first was a telephone call Miller made advising Stremcha not to report to work when she had been suspended; one was a conversation in the HMS hall in which Miller told her she would be escorted out of the building if she did not attend a meeting with Blatter; the third was a letter advising Stremcha of her right to submit a wrongful termination claim to an arbitrator if she was fired by the board.

The district's response in the report gave a different account of the months leading up to Stremcha's termination.

The district gave Stremcha many opportunities to change her behavior, but she responded with defiance, it said.

Blatter's statement to investigators said Stremcha ignored directives not to speak with students about the complaints they had made against her. The district also outlined numerous statements by students that Stremcha had made disrespectful statements about middle school and district administrators.

The district had "strong, school-related reasons for all of its actions against Lorna Stremcha," the district's position said. Those reasons included insubordination to her supervisors, "disruptive, disrespectful and unprofessional interactions with co-workers," and unprofessional conduct during the district's investigations.

"Stremcha's discharge had nothing to do with her previous Human Rights Complaint," the district's position stated.

In November 2002, Stremcha was given a verbal warning after the district received several student and parent complaints of intimidating conduct, according to Blatter's statement.

Blatter later received complaints from parents that Stremcha was retaliating against some of the children who had complained about her earlier, according to the district's statement. Stremcha was warned a second time in December, this time in writing.

In February of 2003, after more complaints alleging Stremcha was intimidating a student who had complained about her, the district conducted an investigative review of Stremcha's conduct, the statement said. She was suspended with pay for three days, Feb. 12-14.

Following more complaints from parents and students, Stremcha was suspended with pay for another three days, March 12-14, after a vote by the Havre school board, according to the district.

Less than a week later, a student's parent complained that a play used in Stremcha's drama class was "inappropriate," the district's statement said. After a telephone conversation with Stremcha, the parent asked that his child be removed from the class. She refused to meet with Blatter without her attorney. She was suspended a third time on March 20, this time without pay, according to the district.

On April 11, Miller sent a nine-page letter to school board chair Jim Heberly recommending Stremcha's termination, characterizing her as "out of control" during March.

"She was hostile, disrespectful and insubordinate. She was reckless in her comments with students nearby and she discussed inappropriate subjects with the students and denigrated the administration to her students," the letter said.

After a closed meeting of the school board on April 30, the board voted 7-0 to terminate Stremcha.

All of those factors - and not the Human Rights Bureau's findings - contributed to Stremcha's discipline and eventual termination, according to a written statement from Miller.

"Stremcha's persistent refusal to follow the directives of her supervisors in the school setting, her continued disregard for the best interests of her students, her ongoing abuse of colleagues, and her blatant disrespect for her principal, the assistant principal and me, which counseling and disciplinary action could not correct, convinced me that it was in the best interests of our district and its educational program that her employment with the district be terminated," according to an excerpt from Miller's statement. "My decision had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that she had filed a Human Rights complaint the previous year."

Miller also denied that the district solicited complaints about Stremcha from parents and students.

The investigator who carried out the investigation for the Human Rights Bureau agreed.

"For Stremcha to assert the complaints from students and parents were solicited by HPS and were all false or misrepresentative of events, is patently absurd. It would be ludicrous to assume 42 parents and 23 students were 'forced' to provide false statements against Stremcha," the report's conclusion said.

Stremcha did not respond to requests for comment.

Randolph, Stremcha's attorney, said his objections to the bureau's investigation and conclusion are similar to his objections to the handling of her first human rights complaint.

"Again, I guess we're frustrated more than anything with the investigation itself. It was very limited and didn't call any of the witnesses Lorna had listed," Randolph said. He said that more than 100 witnesses Stremcha had listed were not contacted by the investigator.

Randolph also said that the timing of the investigation, which was done during two days over Christmas break, made it more difficult to contact witnesses.

The investigative report said more than 60 witnesses provided by Stremcha were not interviewed because "their knowledge concerns other issues not related to Stremcha's retaliation allegation."


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