For­mer prin­ci­pal sues school dis­trict

Woman says she was fired without due process.

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Kirk Mitchell Kirk Mitchell: 303-954-1206, kmitchell@den­ver­post.com or @kirk­mitchell or den­ver­post.com/cold­cases

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.

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