By Heather Mullinix
A former employee is suing the Cumberland County Board of Education for sexual harassment she alleges she encountered while working in the school system and for retaliation for making claims against a former principal.
Teresa Kemmer filed the suit in United States District Court for the Middle Tennessee District of Tennessee. She seeks $300,000 in compensatory and punitive damages as well as lost wages and benefits and attorney's fees.
According to the suit, filed by Stephen Crofford of Parker and Crofford law firm in Nashville, Kemmer was employed as a teacher at the Phoenix School beginning in 2008. She claims that shortly after, then-principal Rocky Zazzaro began to sexually harass her with comments. She says she reported the behavior to her supervisor but that supervisor failed to confront Zazzaro or to investigate her claims. Zazzaro was not named as a defendant to the suit but is identified in the suit.
An appointment was then made with the director of schools at that time, but Kemmer says she was not asked about the sexual harassment. When she requested a transfer to a different school, she was told budgetary constraints did not allow for a position elsewhere in the system for her and "that if she wanted a job she needed to stay where she was."
The suit contends the harassment continued in an open and obvious manner and affected her enjoyment of the job, emotional health and physical health.
In 2010, Kemmer says she told a supervisor about the harassment. Instead of opening an investigation, the central office employee asked if she wanted to file a formal complaint, according to the suit. "[Kemmer] responded by telling the employee that she would try to tough it out."
When Kemmer attempted to transfer schools, she says Zazzaro showed up at her interview.
"After the interview, [Kemmer] was approached by the same central office employee to whom she had complained in 2010 about the sexual harassment, and was asked whether she was ready to file a written complaint now. Plaintiff said yes and a written complaint was filed by Platintiff within a few days," the suit states.
At that time, Kemmer says she became the target of retaliation by Zazzaro, whom she says ostracized her in the school and encouraged others to do the same. She remained under the supervision of Zazzaro until he left employment with the school system in February 2011.
Kemmer was not rehired for the 2011-'12 school year, which she states was because of her complaints of sexual harassment and because she had accused the director and her daughter-in-law, an employee of The Phoenix School, of retaliation.
"The retaliation and loss of [Kemmer]'s job were the result of [Kemmer] complaining of the sexual harassment and the ongoing retaliation for reporting the harassment," the suit states. "Any stated reason for her termination by the defendant is pretextual."
During its January meeting, Earl Patton, attorney for the board of education, reported Ken Williams of Cookeville had been assigned to defend the board in the case by Tennessee Risk Management. Investigation and discovery in the case was just beginning and Patton expected to have more to report at the February meeting of the board.