Teachers sue Independence School District alleging harassment, gender discrimination

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Two elementary teachers have sued the Independence School District accusing the former principal at Cassell Park Elementary School of sexual harassment, gender discrimination, creating a hostile work environment and retaliation.

The lawsuits name as defendants the school district, the Independence School Board and Richard Neal Johnson, who was principal of the school at the time of the alleged harassment, discrimination and retaliation.

Sierra Dinges filed her suit lawsuit last week in Jackson County Court. The lawsuit is similar to one filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Kansas City by Breanne Jeffries. Both claim they were forced to resign due to a hostile work environment.

“The Independence School District feels these lawsuits have no merit, and we intend to vigorously defend against the allegations,” Megan Murphy, director of public relations for the district, said in an email.

Johnson, according to court documents, lectured the female staff during a meeting at the start of the 2019-2020 school year, saying “women are often ducks . . . quacking and pooping.”

The suit goes on to say he continued, saying he wanted women to be “eagles and soar above the ducks and not gossip.”

Dinges claims that Johnson would call her his “special friend,” but told her not to tell anyone else because he didn’t want anyone to know she was his favorite. He allegedly said that while winking at her. He also called her “baby girl” on numerous occasions, the lawsuit says.

Johnson also allegedly made other inappropriate comments, including saying that a dress she wore to parent-teachers conferences framed her body well and that she “better hang on to it because it looks good on you” and “I didn’t realize how short you are. Guys love short girls” another time when she was wearing flat shoes.

In November 2019, Johnson invited her to his house to drink wine and watch “Stranger Things” on Netflix while emphasizing his wife would be out of town and that she would be “a good catch,” according to the suit.

The suit accuses Johnson in May 2020 of calling Dinges and another teacher “prostitutes” in front of other staff members because they were wearing cheetah-print clothing.

In December 2020, Johnson asked her to be a co-worker’s “third party” for meeting with him. At the end of the meeting, Johnson was prohibited from interacting with her or the co-worker for 10 days. However, the next day, Johnson allegedly threatened Dinges.

The following day, Johnson called Dinges into his office and told her that she had been disloyal and “really pissed (him) off.” He then told her that she needed to “choose between the person that hired you and puts food on your table, and your friends you can hang out with outside of school.”

When she began crying, Johnson allegedly said, “Well it looks like you learned your lesson,” according to the suit.

Later that month, he went into her classroom and commented on a red dress with white trim that she was wearing by saying, “You are wearing that Santa outfit better than Santa himself,” according to the lawsuit.

Nine teachers brought allegations of ongoing discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation against Johnson to the school’s Title IX coordinator in February 2021, which, according to one of the lawsuits, prompted a school-wide investigation.

A month later, all the female employees who had brought allegations against Johnson received a letter saying the allegations were found to be “unsubstantiated.”

Dinges said in the suit that she was demoted and her pay was cut. Meanwhile, Johnson was promoted in April 2021 to assistant principal at Truman High School.

Jeffries’ lawsuit contains similar allegations about a hostile work environment, including comments by Johnson that women in the office were having a “hen fight,” calling a female staff member a “bitch” and saying that “Women are just something (I) have to deal with.”

He also allegedly made frequent comments about the appearances of young female staff and told several women that he feels bad for their partners because of how opinionated they are.

Jeffries, who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, said that Johnson in January 2021 refused to show a video in school because it featured a Pride flag. He commented, according to the suit, “This is my school and I will always have my bias. I decide what is shown.”

On another occasion when a student came out as transgender, Johnson allegedly stated, “I don’t believe in that.”

Jeffries was also demoted and had her pay cut, according to court documents.

Both Jeffries and Dinges seek in excess of $25,000 in damages.

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