Charleston County School District sued over workplace safety

Published: Jan. 7, 2022 at 11:20 AM EST
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - A new federal lawsuit paints a grim scene of violence and abuse toward teachers at the hands of students while administrators failed to take meaningful disciplinary action.

In the case filed on Dec. 28, Vera Gordon, a former teacher assistant at Liberty Hill Academy, says her time there was marked by racial and sexual abuse from 2016 to the time she left in 2020. In a letter to her employers informing them of her decision to leave the district, she wrote:

“Please accept this as my letter letting you know I can not return to be a Teacher’s Assistant with Charleston County School[s] next year. I’m fearful for my physical and mental health because of the repeated physical and mental abuse that I suffered at Liberty Hill Academy. The Thought of returning is too much for me to handle. I’m still having bad dreams of everything that has happened. I can not return to work with the students present.”

Gordon’s lawsuit describes female employees “being punched in their face by students, headbutted, drugged [sic] by their hair, having trash cans slammed over their head, knocked unconscious, subjected to frequent racial and sexual slurs” which she says generally led to a state of heightened anxiety and fear while at work.

The lawsuit names the district, the principal of the school, Christopher Haynes, and Jennifer Coker, executive director of alternative programs and services as defendants. Gordon alleges Haynes and Coker knew about the conditions at the schools and failed to protect employees.

Gordon’s lawsuit alleges the troubles started when the academy was transitioned from a K-12 school for special education students to a school for K-8 special education students and students expelled from other schools. The lawsuit argues Coker was behind the transition that was implemented hastily in the months ahead of the 2016 school year.

“Placing special education students at the same facility with general education students with discipline issues was done in a rushed manner,” the lawsuit reads. “. . . without adequate planning or resources allocated to ensure the safety of employees at Liberty Hill Academy or adequate planning or resources to promptly and effectively monitor and discipline students to protect employees from being subjected to sexually and racially hostile behavior by students.”

According to the lawsuit, Haynes was unable to control students or adequately administer disciplinary action in hundreds of cases. The paperwork shows, Haynes wrote an email in 2017 to Coker and several Liberty Hill employees saying he had closed 159 discipline referrals without action.

“The issue that we had is that with being short staffed, it has been virtually impossible for Ms. Wicker to handle all of the referrals that have come to her.”

This is not the first lawsuit to allege a hostile work environment at Liberty Hill. According to an incident report from 2019, a 13-year-old student was charged with assault and battery in the third degree after she slammed a 58-year-old teacher into the wall.

In May of the same year, the district was investigating after they said two staff members, one of whom suffered a concussion, were injured there.

District officials tell Live 5 News they do not comment on pending litigation.

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