Fired for Meditating, School IT Chief Says

     HONOLULU (CN) — The former information chief for a Honolulu prep school sued the school and its headmaster in state court earlier this week, claiming he was fired for meditating with other faculty outside of school hours.
     After being reappointed as defendant Iolani School’s chief information officer in February 2015, plaintiff Lawrence Kahn says he was fired this past October because he refused to discontinue “mindfulness meditation” sessions with colleagues three mornings a week before the start of class.
     According to the complaint filed in the First Circuit Court of Hawaii, Kahn’s supervisor Karen Neitzel told him to “stop doing mindfulness meditation” with other faculty, saying that people were starting to view Kahn as a “mindfulness person” rather than a “technology person.” Neitzel is not a party to the complaint.
     Kahn describes himself in the complaint as a practicing Buddhist. Mindfulness meditation involves sitting quietly and watching the breath in order to subdue thoughts, which are believed to obstruct one’s true nature.
     He says that the Iolani School administration initially supported his efforts to start the sessions when he first arrived on campus in 2014, and were happy enough with Kahn efforts to “oversee the school’s vision for technology in education” to reappoint him in 2015.
     “I even did two faculty development workshops, one on mindfulness and technology,” Kahn told Courthouse News in a phone interview. “When Neitzel told me to stop, I said to myself — not out loud, I don’t think I said anything at first — ‘This is important to me. And to others.'”
     In his complaint, Kahn told Neitzel that he would not stop. He says she left the meeting upset, and Kahn continued to hold mindfulness meditation practice odd mornings from 7:10-7:25.
     Shortly afterward his run-in with Neitzel, Kahn says head of school Timothy Cottrell called Kahn in for an unscheduled “annual review” and told Kahn that the “level of support from his department was down.” Cottrell is a defendant along with the school.
     “I didn’t realize there was any criticism,” Kahn told Courthouse News. “When did this begin? What did I do? As I look back I can see that it came back to me when I said ‘No.'”
     According to the complaint, Neitzel presented Kahn with a termination letter in late October, citing Kahn for “insubordination, unprofessional conduct, an inability to perform work” and other infractions that Kahn says are unsubstantiated.
     “I was blindsided,” Kahn said in the interview. “Neitzel came into the meeting and said, ‘This is going to be difficult. You’re being terminated, effective immediately.’ And she gave me the option of resigning or being fired.
     “I said I wanted to speak to someone first, and I called my lawyer friend in San Francisco. Then Neitzel came back into the room and said I could not resign, I was being fired.”
     He continued, “Cottrell never brought it up. He was not present. He was involved behind the scenes.”
     Kahn said the firing was hard on both him and his wife.
     “We thought we were moving to paradise. We had to sell the car, sell the condo,” he said. “But I was very lucky to find a temporary position in San Francisco mid-year. Then I reached out to my national network — I have a good reputation in my field — and found a position in Fort Worth. I’m actually packing right now.”
     He added, “I’m meeting my wife tonight, who still works in Hawaii, and we’ll fly out together.”
     As for his lawsuit, Kahn said that while it would be easier to just move on, he is willing to endure whatever “suffering” is ahead if it helps others.
     “They’ll think twice next time,” he said.
     He also credits his beliefs with getting him through the last several months.
     “It’s been surreal,” he said, “but I will say that my practice has helped sustain me.”
     In a statement, Iolani School said it “strongly denies any wrongdoing and fully expects to prevail on all claims,” adding: “Iolani School is deeply disappointed with Mr. Kahn’s decision to file his complaint. As an employee, Mr. Kahn was treated fairly in all respects.”
     Kahn is suing Iolani School for religious discrimination and retaliation as prohibited by Hawaii’s labor law, and Cottrell for allowing the discriminatory practices to occur. He seeks damages, including punitive damages and back pay.
     He is represented by Roman Amaguin of Honolulu.

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