KC-area teacher says school was skewing testing data. Then she was fired, lawsuit says

·6 min read
Jill Toyoshiba/jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com

A teacher is suing the Belton school district, claiming officials refused to renew her contract because she reported concerns that the alternative high school has been unfairly dropping students out of the program and skewing test score data.

After teacher J. Walton reported problems in the program, she says that a fellow teacher — who she accused of violating district policy and manipulating data — filed his own complaint. He accused Walton of sexual harassment, a claim that she denies and that the district determined was unsubstantiated.

Walton argues that the allegation was made in an attempt to retaliate against her for reporting her concerns. Now, in Cass County Circuit Court, she’s suing the district and the fellow teacher, Tyler Epstein, arguing that she was defamed and denied the renewal of her teaching contract because she was a whistleblower.

“The whole reason (Walton) began this was because she wanted them to stop doing what they were doing. She wanted those kids to have the opportunity to get the education that they are due under the law and which they deserve,” Walton’s attorney Kevin Baldwin told The Star. “And when she saw what she thought was a denial of that right, she wanted to step up.

“She never envisioned any of this. She thought she would bring this to the attention of the administration. The administration would say, ‘we can’t do this’ and then make it right. And they would all get along and the kids would benefit. That’s not what happened.”

In an email to The Star, Belton Superintendent Andrew Underwood emphasized that Walton was working under a one-year contract that expired at the end of this school year. Officials decided against renewing it.

“We are not authorized to discuss the allegations and the accuracy or lack of accuracy of the allegations during the course of the litigation,” Underwood said. “We believe the District will be vindicated and will be happy to discuss the matter at the conclusion of the litigation.”

Epstein’s attorney Brian Niceswanger called the lawsuit “utterly baseless.”

“The allegations, we believe, will be ultimately demonstrated to be unsupported by fact or law,” he said. “(Epstein) has a distinguished record of working in this program for years. So the notion that there was any need to do anything improper will be demonstrably proven to be false.”

Mallory McGowin, spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, told The Star that the state department “was not aware of these concerns” brought up in the lawsuit.

“To our knowledge, there has been no complaint submitted to our agency,” she said in an email.

Walton worked as an alternative high school teacher in the Belton district this past school year, serving students who often have struggled in the traditional high school setting or are at risk of not graduating. Walton also previously worked for the district in the early 2000s.

Walton claims that over the winter, district officials informed her that they would renew her contract for another year, qualifying her as a tenured teacher.

But early this year, Walton started noticing concerning behavior by leaders of the alternative education program.

Belton High School Vice Principal Kelly Vaughn and Epstein, a teacher and coach, are both partly responsible for managing the alternative program, the lawsuit says. The district uses the Missouri Option Program, which serves students who are at risk of dropping out or not graduating, and offers them an opportunity to earn a high school diploma.

Walton discovered that upon beginning the alternative education program, Epstein allegedly required students and their parents to fill out and sign a “voluntary drop form,” the lawsuit says.

She claims that Epstein would select struggling students, sign and date their forms, and the students would immediately be dropped from the program without their right to due process.

Walton argues in the lawsuit that the use of the voluntary drop form was an “abuse of power” that violated district policy, Missouri education law and students’ civil rights to have an administrative hearing before being dropped from the program.

In addition, the alternative program requires students to take the high school equivalency, HiSET exam. Successfully passing the exam, along with completing other requirements, allows students to receive a high school diploma.

Walton alleges in the lawsuit that Epstein, with the authority granted by the district, “would restrict access to the test to only those students he perceived were ready and could pass the test,” while denying other students the opportunity to sit for the test.

Missouri allows students to retake the HiSET exam several times during a school year. But Walton claims that only certain students were allowed to retake the test.

The lawsuit argues that Epstein did so “in an attempt to artificially inflate” the test passage rate, “to the detriment of those students seeking to take the test as many times as necessary.”

Walton believed that Epstein would engage students who were struggling, “in attempts to set the students up for failure” and to use the voluntary drop slips, allowing the district to “expel students from the program before they could sit for the HiSET test” and possibly diminish the passage rate.

Epstein’s attorney Niceswanger denied any wrongdoing, arguing that the alternative program’s success is self-evident, “so the suggestion that there’s something awry is really difficult to fathom.”

Walton reported her concerns to district leaders, saying that she believed staff had violated students’ rights and intentionally misrepresented program data. But after she complained, the lawsuit alleges she was “exposed to an increased level of hostility in the work environment.”

The lawsuit claims that the district encouraged Walton to quit, offering to give her a neutral employment reference and possibly waive the contract cancellation fee if she were to do so. But Walton declined to quit her contract early. Then she was notified in March that the school board voted against renewing her contract, terminating her employment in May.

Also in March, Walton said that a district leader informed her that they investigated her concerns about the alternative program and that all of her claims were unwarranted.

Walton then filed an official grievance and whistleblower complaint with the district. At a meeting about her complaint in late March, a district official told Walton that another teacher — Epstein — had accused her of sexual harassment.

A district letter in May informed Walton that the investigation into the complaint was completed and that officials found “insufficient evidence to substantiate” the sexual harassment claim.

Niceswanger said Epstein is “looking forward to the opportunity to air all of the facts so that people can make their own judgment about the plaintiff’s conduct and behavior.”

Walton contends in the lawsuit that the harassment allegation was made “as a defamatory and retaliatory measure in response to (her) whistleblowing complaint.”

Walton argues that the district unfairly terminated her contract because she reported what she believes to be violations of the law. She is requesting a jury trial, seeking lost salary and benefits, as well as damages for emotional pain and suffering.

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