District social worker files against multiple parties in Springfield lawsuit

SPRINGFIELD, NJ — Javerbaum Wurgaft Hicks Kahn Wikstrom & Sinins P.C. is representing Kara King, a Westfield resident, who claims she was unjustly terminated from her job as a districtwide social worker for the Springfield Township Public School District because she blew the whistle on Edward V. Walton Early Childhood Center Principal Adriana Coppola, which then set off an alleged chain of repeated acts of retaliation against King from Coppola.

The school district did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
According to documents sent to Union County LocalSource by King’s lawyer, Heidi Weintraub, King became employed by the Springfield School District on or about April 6, 2015, as a districtwide social worker; in this role, King was also a member of each of the district’s child study teams and managed grades K-12 as well as out-of-district students.

In February 2015, prior to King’s start date with the district, district employee Teresa Catania instructed King to archive her prior background check, according to the documents. King was fingerprinted and underwent a background check in 2008 when she began to work for University Academy Charter High School in Jersey City. Catania instructed King to obtain her Process Control Number from the Criminal History Review Unit of the New Jersey Department of Education, which is necessary to archive a fingerprint and background check.

However, according to attorney documents, in 2015, due to an administrative error, the county, district and school codes were not modified to reflect that King had changed school districts.

Upon her employment being terminated, King was told that it was because she had not been fingerprinted and undergone a background check. According to documents, Springfield Board of Education, Springfield Township Public School District, Springfield Public Schools and the Township of Springfield hired King without confirming that the proper coding was in place to allow the Springfield School District to have access to King’s background check.

King’s lawsuit alleges that her supposed failure to undergo a background check is a smokescreen for the real reason she was terminated: her whistle-blowing activities against Coppola.

As stated in the documents provided by her attorney, as a districtwide social worker, King was required to report directly to the Director of Student Services, Tiffany Boehm, whose office is at the high school in the Office of Student Services. In summer 2015, King was advised that her “home school” would be the Walton School, where she remained until her termination on May 11, 2020. With Walton as her home school, King served as the liaison between Walton and the child study team, of which King was a member. At Walton, King still reported directly to Boehm, not to the school principal. While at the school, the documents state, King consistently met or exceeded all expectations and received positive performance reviews. The same was evident by her approval for and receipt of tenure in or about April 2019.

In July 2017, the Springfield Board of Education appointed Coppola as principal of Walton. King alleges that during the fall of 2017, during Coppola’s first year at Walton, she observed Coppola physically and emotionally abusing students in violation of their civil rights and in contravention of the New Jersey Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act.

According to the documents, King also overheard insensitive comments made by Coppola and actions taken by her that displayed “discriminatory animus” toward the district’s special-needs students. In one example, King alleges that she overhead Coppola say that special-needs students are “so gross” and that she “had to sanitize her hands after being around them.”

King also alleges that she became aware in November 2018 that Coppola did not follow federal and state regulations and/or protocol regarding parent involvement in decisions involving a student who had a learning disability, as well as anxiety issues. According to the documents, King immediately opposed Coppola’s actions in an email to the principal.

According to the documents, in January 2019, King prepared a document titled “Incident with Dr. Coppola Spanning the Course of Last Year and This Year,” an itemization of 46 incidents that King observed in which Coppola behaved unlawfully or inappropriately. The complaints included Coppola allegedly grabbing the arm of a special-needs student who suffered from anxiety and dragging him out of a classroom, causing the student to cry; yelling at autistic students; abusing her authority with both school teachers and subordinates; and making insensitive comments about special-needs students.

According to the documents, in February 2019, Superintendent of Schools Michael Davino was provided a copy of King’s complaints against Coppola and summoned King to his office to discuss them. During the meeting, Davino reportedly told King that he would investigate the complaints and that she should not discuss her complaints with anyone.

According to the documents, after this meeting, Coppola allegedly began a course of retaliation against King, which took the form of disparate treatment, harassment and imposing unreasonable work restrictions and expectations on King. King alleges that Coppola began to inhibit her from adequately performing her job by unilaterally changing terms, conditions and privileges of her employment. For instance, King alleges that Coppola ordered King to obtain her approval before attending meetings outside the school building. According to King, these conditions were not placed on other members of the Child Study Team. As a result of Coppola’s alleged continued retaliation, which was allegedly aided by Davino, King began to experience anxiety, stress and physical manifestations of these feelings.

According to the documents, in an effort to continue working for the district, King suggested to Boehm that the high school become her home school for the then upcoming 2019-2020 school year. King reportedly then told Boehm that Coppola’s retaliation and harassment were stunting her professional growth and causing her to be in an unhealthy work environment.

Shari Scheckman, president of the Springfield Education Association, the teachers union in the district, sent a letter on April 15, 2019, to BOE President Scott Silverstein discussing the allegations of retaliatory conduct and treatment at Walton.

Additionally, in the spring of 2019, King filed a complaint with the district’s Human Resources Department against Coppola, alleging that the principal had created a hostile work environment for her through “unlawful and discriminatory harassment.”

The documents from King’s attorney also discuss a meeting held in May 2019 in which Walton faculty and King met with a student’s mother to determine whether the student should receive a Child Study Team evaluation. According to the documents, at the end of this meeting, those in attendance agreed that testing was not warranted at the time, and the student’s mother signed a document attesting to her consent of this decision.

As stated in the attorney documents, the student’s teacher, who had been unable to attend the meeting, was upset by the outcome and filed a complaint with Coppola. The complaint was eventually referred to Davino. One week after the meeting, Boehm emailed King and elementary school psychologist Renee Altman, who had also attended the meeting, and asked why the student wasn’t recommended for testing. According to the documents, King was told that Davino was requesting that the student be tested and wanted King to send the necessary paperwork home with the student for the mother to sign.

King opposed Davino’s alleged directive, as the applicable New Jersey Administrative Code required another meeting to be held with the student’s parent prior to her signing the consent form for evaluation. A second meeting was then held, this time including the student’s teacher; after the second meeting, the mother once again signed forms that she wanted to hold off on testing her child at this time.

According to the documents, Boehm once again emailed Altman and King questioning why they did not follow Davino’s directive. King reportedly responded that she could not coerce a parent to have their child evaluated.

According to documents, a week later, King observed the student’s mother and brother in Coppola’s office with Boehm; at this meeting, the mother reportedly signed the form to consent to her child being evaluated. According to King, the mother’s signature on this form was unlawfully and unethically obtained with the reasoning that a child cannot be approved for testing and evaluation without having the Child Study Team present for approval.

Subsequently, King’s complaint to Human Resources regarding her treatment was investigated by the district’s affirmative action officer, Janet Pacheco. In a letter dated July 10, 2019, Pacheco advised King that her investigation, which included “speaking to multiple witnesses and reviewing documents,” “did not reveal any unlawful or otherwise discriminatory act of harassment.”

According to attorney documents, due to the stress of the alleged retaliation from Coppola and Davino, King suffered from flare-ups of her Crohn’s disease and, for the first time since joining the district, was unable to work during the summer of 2019.

At the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year, King was interviewed by a law firm hired by the district to investigate, among other things, the complaints made by King about Coppola’s unlawful conduct. While the investigation continued, King likewise continued to report Coppola’s alleged unlawful behavior. In the fall of 2019, the Board of Education declined to renew Davino’s contract past the end of 2019-2020 school year.

According to the documents provided by King’s attorney, the district turned its attention to King and began to manufacture reason after reason to investigate her. As stated within the documents, King was informed via email that her employment would be discussed by the board at a meeting on May 11. There was no public notice of such proposed action until May 11 itself, when the board agenda was released, nor was King sent a Rice Notice, the formal notification a public body must send to public employees when their employment is going to be discussed. On May 12, the district emailed King, informing her that the board had approved her termination on May 11, “retroactive to May 8, 2020.”

According to documents, when King requested a statement as to why she was terminated, Davino responded: “Your employment was terminated because you were not truthful about your criminal history on your employment application and were not approved by the New Jersey Department of Education Criminal History Review Unit for employment in the Springfield School District at the time of hire, which was a necessary prerequisite for employment in the district.”

According to documents, these reasons are factually inaccurate, and King has never been convicted of any crime or offense whatsoever, though she was the subject of later-dismissed charges by a former roommate during college; King was never arrested, and those charges themselves have been expunged.

According to the documents, King demands judgment against defendants for reinstatement to employment position, compensatory damages, punitive damages, attorneys’ fees, enhanced attorneys’ fees and costs of suit.

Weintraub supports her client.

“We are alleging that she was unlawfully retaliated against as a direct result of her whistleblowing activities directed at superiors,” Weintraub said on July 3. “Kara is looking to be reinstated to her position as the districtwide social worker and to be compensated for what she lost.”