Former principal sues school district
Woman says she was fired without due process.
A former Fountain Middle School principal has sued the Fountain-Fort Carson School District in federal court, claiming she became the target of a witch hunt over her dating and dressing habits that led to her firing.
Debra Keiley, the former principal of Fountain Middle School, has named former Superintendent Cheryl Serrano and current Superintendent Keith Owen as defendants in the federal civil lawsuit filed by Denver attorney Madeline Collison in Denver U.S. District Court.
Keiley is seeking compensatory and punitive damages for injuries including mental anguish and reputation, back pay and reinstatement as principal or “front” pay, according to the lawsuit filed Wednesday.
Phone messages left for Serrano, Owen and a school district spokeswoman were not immediately returned.
Keiley’s lawsuit says she was criticized for how she dressed, alternately dating a black police officer and an unpopular school board member, and refusing to sign a reference letter for a former teacher who helped students cheat on a state standardized test.
The lawsuit says the school board fired Keiley without due process on Sept. 18, 2014, after she served the district with innovative teaching and administrative skills for 27 years. Keiley was a teacher, coordinator of student services, assistant principal and principal at Fountain Middle School. She was principal for 11 years, the lawsuit says. During her tenure, state officials rated her school as “high achieving,” the lawsuit says.
“Despite Ms. Keiley’s excellent performance record, she had a difficult relationship with Superintendent Cheryl Serrano, who clearly did not approve of Ms. Keiley’s lifestyle as a single woman,” the lawsuit says.
It says Serrano consistently scrutinized Keiley’s personal life and appearance, frequently questioning her and commenting about her “off-duty” conduct including who she was dating, the lawsuit says. When Keiley applied for principal of Fountain-Fort Carson High School in 2010, Serrano “laughed” and told her she would never promote Keiley because Keiley was dating Rod Ermel, a school board member “that no one at the school liked.”
Keiley’s lawsuit said she became the brunt of anonymous complaints. Serrano launched an investigation into her personal relationship with a Fountain police officer who was AfricanAmerican. Serrano and other human resources employees asked employees whether they had seen any inappropriate behavior or photographs of Keiley, the lawsuit says.
Serrano reprimanded Keiley in 2010 because she did not want to sign a letter of recommendation the district wrote for a former teacher who had been caught cheating and helping his students to cheat on state CSAP tests.
“Unfortunately, as one of her last acts before she retired, Ms. Serrano decided that she was going to get rid of Ms. Keiley,” the lawsuit says. “Witnesses have told Ms. Keiley that Ms. Serrano had been targeting Ms. Keiley for years and that they were not surprised that she terminated Ms. Keiley before retiring from the district. Ms. Serrano even bragged that she was going to make some muchneeded changes and go out in a ‘blaze of glory.’ ”
Human Resources director Henry Gonzales delivered a letter to Keiley on Aug. 29, 2014, saying she was under investigation for unspecified charges and took her keys, swipe card and computer in front of school employees. She was told to leave the building and not return to school grounds.
The following week Gonzales told Keiley she was being investigated for unspecified “serious allegations.” She was interrogated about her evaluations of teachers but not allowed to review any of the 100 faculty members she had evaluated. She was questioned about her handling of an alleged allegation of sexual misconduct between two teachers.
She was also accused of serving alcohol at an adult faculty and staff year-end party at her home in June 2014, the lawsuit says. District officials questioned multiple witnesses about whether they knew of any inappropriate behavior on Keiley’s part or if they were aware of any pictures “that exist of inappropriate contact of Ms. Keiley with anyone else.” The administrators asked her who she was dating.
The questioning stigmatized Keiley and created the false impression that she had engaged in inappropriate conduct, the lawsuit says. The school district did not allow Keiley to review any documents or rebut any statements made about any of the allegations, it says.
“Indeed, she was never even told what the evidence against her was and she was not given an opportunity to address this evidence in a fair and impartial hearing,” the lawsuit says.
Serrano wrote a letter saying she recommended Keiley’s firing for being engaged in “falsification of records” and “dishonesty,” which “clearly tarnished her good name and reputation.”
When she asked Serrano about the letter, she was told she “had no rights to appeal” and would not be allowed to speak to the school board on Sept. 17, 2014, before they voted on her termination. The board fired her at the meeting, the lawsuit says.
Serrano told several people Keiley was fired for “serious misconduct,” and authorized her replacement to tell people it was so serious she would never be allowed to return to the school district, the lawsuit says.