Fired for Doing What's Right, Teacher Says
LOS ANGELES (CN) - A private school fired a teacher for telling KTLA-TV, truthfully, that the school board chairman offended students and parents by showing up at a Tom Hanks-led fund raiser wearing blackface, an Afro wig and a caveman costume, the teacher claims in court.
Lauren Vaughn sued Learning With a Difference Inc. dba Westmark School, its former Chairman of the Board Jamie Montgomery, and Head of School Muir Meredith, in Superior Court.
Vaughn says Hanks was "blindsided" by Montgomery's appearance, which she found offensive. The lawsuit involves a 2004 event, videotape of which resurfaced this year.
Vaughn, who is 45 and white, says she began teaching at Westmark in 1992.
She says Montgomery embarrassed the school at a 2004 fund raiser for St. Matthew's Parish, a private Episcopal school in Pacific Palisades.
"The fundraiser was emceed by actor Tom Hanks and attended by parents and benefactors of the school," the complaint states. "At one point during the fundraiser, Montgomery went up on the stage in blackface, wearing an outsized Afro wig and caveman costume. Mr. Hanks was completely blindsided by Montgomery's appearance, which could only be characterized as racially offensive and egregiously in appropriate. A video recording was made of the fundraiser, including Montgomery's segment in blackface.
"In or about March 2012, the video of the fundraiser resurfaced and was viewed by teachers, parents, and students. Students who viewed the video complained to their parents or directly to the school administration. One of the students complained to plaintiff about Montgomery. A parent even complained to the Westmark board members, who made clear nothing would be done. It is fair to say that students, parents, and teachers at Westmark reacted to Montgomery's racially offensive conduct with uniform abhorrence.
"The video segment of Montgomery's objectionable conduct appeared on local television news.
"A spectacular uproar ensued. Montgomery's despicable conduct had brought dishonor and disgrace to Westmark at the school and among the wider community."
Westmark failed to discipline or fire Montgomery, Vaughn says, even though many students and parents demanded his resignation.
Vaughn says she found the school's reaction so "highly inappropriate and unacceptable" that she agreed to be interviewed by KTLA news.
To protect herself from retaliation, Vaughn says, she appeared "with her face hidden and her voice disguised. In the interview, plaintiff stated that 'to see a leader in our community portraying a racial stereotype at a school event left me speechless. Westmark educates children with learning disabilities. It's a caricature of a minority group. Our students at Westmark are a marginalized group. They've struggled in school. Many of them have been made fun of or bullied or called out for being different, and he's the chairman of our board and he's doing that.' Plaintiff expressed her view that Montgomery should no longer be Chairman of the Board of Trustees at Westmark."
The day after the interview, Vaughn says, she received a letter from defendant Meredith, stating that her teaching contract would be renewed for the next school year.
"It was clear from the letter that Meredith did not yet know that plaintiff was the teacher who had given the interview the night before," the complaint states.
Vaughn says that Meredith "expressed staunch support" for Montgomery in two staff meetings, condemned the person who had spoken out against him, and "subsequently launched an investigation to hunt down the identify of plaintiff and punish her."
Less than a month after the KTLA interview, Vaughn says, "Meredith retaliated against plaintiff by placing her on indefinite administrative leave for engaging in 'misconduct that is both unprofessional and detrimental to the interests of the school.' In other words, Montgomery's racist conduct was acceptable, and Westmark's failure to discipline Montgomery was also acceptable, but plaintiff's act of raising her voice in opposition to the racist conduct was 'unprofessional' and 'detrimental' to the school."
She claims Meredith demoted her from her post as Head of the Department and Grade Level advisor in April, then terminated her employment on June 30, despite his previous letter renewing her contract, according to the complaint.
Vaughn says Westmark retaliated against her because of her sex, age, and "due to associational discrimination on the basis of race because of plaintiff's close association in the minds of defendants with African-Americans, a protected class, on whose behalf plaintiff engaged in opposition activities."
She seeks punitive damages for discrimination, retaliation, wrongful termination and defamation, and compensatory damages for lost wages, earnings, retirement benefits and other employee benefits.
She is represented by Lisa Maki.
Westmark, a private school set up in Encino in 1991 by The Landmark Foundation, was purchased in 1997 by Learning with a Difference, a nonprofit.
Westmark says on its website that it specializes in classes for students with "language-based learning differences," such as dyslexia, AD/HD, and "extreme reading, writing, comprehension, mathematical, and organizational difficulties."
It is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, and a member of the National Association of Independent Schools, according to its website.