Washington County BOE settles $6-million discrimination suit, details a secret

Matthew Lane • Feb 21, 2007 at 7:18 AM

GREENEVILLE - A $6 million racial discrimination lawsuit against the Washington County Board of Education and Director of Schools Grant Rowland has been settled.

Gwendolyn Smith of Johnson City filed the lawsuit in August 2003 in U.S. District Court in Greeneville claiming race discrimination, retaliation and the refusal of the school system to accommodate her disability during her employment. The school system denied these allegations.

According to Kingsport attorney Charlton DeVault, who represented Smith, the parties reached an agreement during mediation on Jan. 8, and all of the litigation has been concluded.

Charlton and Johnson City attorney Earl Booze, who represented the BOE, both said they could not release the amount of the settlement due to a confidentially clause. Rowland said he did not know the amount of the settlement.

According to the lawsuit, Smith, a teacher at Jonesborough Middle School, said she first encountered racial discrimination at the school in 2000 when a field trip to Toronto, Canada, and Niagara Falls, N.Y., was not approved by Rowland.

Rowland stated in his response the trip was denied because it was inappropriate and he was concerned about student safety and supervision issues.

The response filed by the BOE stated that during previous trips arranged by Smith to Atlanta, Philadelphia, New York and Washington, D.C., several students became involved in incidents that necessitated their parents being called to pick them up.

"I submit that Smith has attempted to use her race as a ‘sword' to coerce the administration into allowing a field trip that was ill advised," court records state.

Smith filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in May 2000, after which the board and Rowland embarked upon a program of retaliation and intensified discrimination, the lawsuit alleged.

"Even though Smith had already signed a contract to return to the middle school, the defendants transferred her to Daniel Boone High School in order to punish her," the lawsuit stated.

The defendants also transferred two other teachers and a secretary who had been friendly with Smith at the middle school, the suit alleged.

Rowland said in the response that Smith and four other employees were transferred for the good of the system due to personality conflicts. Rowland further stated that no positions were available at David Crockett High School - a request Smith previously made - and therefore Smith was placed at Daniel Boone High School.

After being transferred, the defendants insisted that Smith push a heavily loaded cart from room to room rather than assign her one specific classroom, the lawsuit alleged.

In August 2000, Smith said she underwent an ileostomy, carried an ostomy bag and could not move from room to room without suffering severe distress. Smith's physician advised that she needed the accommodation of working out of one room with a restroom close by.

Rowland said in his response that no request was made to him for accommodating Smith's disability and denied that white teachers were given room preference over black teachers.

Smith also claimed several racist students wrote demeaning comments about her on class assignment papers.

Rowland said in his response that nothing was reported to him regarding any racial insults and denied that Daniel Boone High was a racially hostile school environment.

Smith claimed the defendants' racial discrimination and retaliation and their refusal to accommodate her disability were all part of a continuing policy and practice to make her work life as onerous as possible and to force her to resign.

Rowland and the board denied these claims.

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