Teacher sues district

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Suit > Zeynep Unal claims LAPS violated the Human Rights Act and is suing for defamation and breach of contract

By John Severance

Zeynep Unal, a Turkish-born special education teacher who has been employed by the Los Alamos Public Schools since 2005, is suing the district for violations of the New Mexico Human Rights Act, defamation and breach of contract.
The suit claims that Unal continues to suffer from loss of income, severe emotional distress, anxiety, humiliation, embarrassment and the violation of her federal and state statutory rights.
Los Alamos Public Schools, the Los Alamos Public Schools School Board, Aspen Elementary School principal Kathryn Vandenkieboom and superintendent Gene Schmidt are named as defendants in the case.
“I can’t comment on its merits,” said school board president Jim Hall. “It’s inappropriate to comment on a legal matter especially involving personnel. We have to wait and see what happens and let the court process play out.”
“Until our attorneys look at this and study this, I can not comment,” Schmidt said.
Unal’s attorney, Kate Ferlic of Santa Fe, filed the suit in district court Friday.
Schmidt said Saturday morning the school district had not been served yet but confirmed the case was filed in district court.
“It is especially troubling when there is national origin discrimination in the schools of such an international community,” Ferlic said, “Under the law, it is not acceptable to hold people to a different standards based on national origin.”
Ferlic said that Unal currently works at Mountain Elementary.
“Ms. Unal is an exceptional teacher — dedicated to her students and to her student’s success,” Ferlic said. “It is a shame to treat someone of such caliber so poorly. Needless to say, Ms. Unal is disappointed that the school board and its lawyers have consistently refused alternatives to litigation.”
According to court documents, Unal had been a special education teacher in the district since 2005 and from 2006 to 2011, she taught at Aspen Elementary. In 2008, Vandenkieboom became the Aspen principal.
Court documents indicate that the discrimination, harassment and retaliation occurred after 2008.
The suit claims Vandenkieboom regularly made insensitive remarks regarding the ethnicity and national origin of both Unal and other persons as well.
The filing cited the following example: “A group of teachers were in a staff meeting discussing a popular old movie. Before the plaintiff could add a comment, Defendant Vandenkieboom turned to the plaintiff, silenced the plaintiff, and said, “You wouldn’t have seen that movie because you’re not from here.”
In addition, the suit said that Vandenkieboom consistently conspired to make Unal feel like an outsider for the sole reason that she was the only foreign-born teacher at Aspen Elementary.
The suit said Vandenkieboom issued three disciplinary letters to Unal.
According to court documents, “each of these letters stated that (Unal’s) failure to comply with the directive … will lead to immediate and more severe discipline, up to and including termination or discharge.”
Ferlic wrote in her filing that none of the letters of directions was substantiated by School Board policies, Aspen policy violations, or any other policy, rule or law. In other words, Unal was disciplined for allegedly violating policies and procedures that did not exist and therefore could not be violated.
Unal filed a grievance under the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the school district and the American Federation of Teachers for Los Alamos School District in the spring of 2011.
The filing states that when the grievance process was initiated, the defendants continued to discriminate against Unal because of her national origin and began retaliating
against her for exercising her right to seek remedies with AFT.
The suit said that on May 23, 2011 Unal reported Vandenkieboom’s actions to Schmidt and the superintendent said he would investigate.
Ferlic wrote in the suit that no investigation was ever initiated and there was no meeting between the parties. According to the suit, Schmidt stated that he did not like grievances and discouraged AFT members from filing grievances to redress the wrongdoing of management.
Unal claims the defendants continued to harass her in the summer of 2011. Unal claims she experienced significant and debilitating anxiety because of the harassment, discrimination and retaliation. Unal claims in the suit she endured an emergency hospitalization, weakness and fainting spells. Unal said doctors prohibited her from working during the 2011-12 school year.
Unal was cleared to work in 2012-13. The doctor requested Unal not be placed at Aspen where Vandenkieboom was the principal.
The suit says the defendants refused to acknowledge the request or provide Unal with a
reasonable accommodation. The suit claims that Unal was threatened with termination and demanded that she either withdraw her request for an accommodation, or be denied a teaching position in the District.
The suit said that the defendants also threatened to terminate Unal for failing to respond to a letter of intent the Defendants sent to Unal after the due date. The Defendants’ letter was postmarked on May 16, 2012, but dated May 7, 2012.
Ferlic wrote, “Defendants, at all times relevant hereto, acted under the color of law and the course of conduct by the defendants against the plaintiff, from the harassment to the threats against her employment and the unsubstantiated disciplining of her, was nothing but a pretext concocted by defendants to hide the fact that their actions against the plaintiff were motivated in whole or in part by the defendants’ animosity towards the plaintiff because of her national origin.”
The suit also claims that the defendants consistently engaged in a pattern and practice of discriminatory conduct toward ethnically non-Caucasian and non-U.S. born employees. And Unal also filed a charge of national origin discrimination and retaliation with the EEOC and with the Human Rights Division of the State of New Mexico.
In her suit against the defendants, Unal is seeking a six-member jury trial, back pay for the 2011-2012 school year, compensatory and punitive damages, an apology and attorneys’ fees and costs.