The Fife School Board has concluded that one of its middle school principals sexually harassed teachers under his supervision.
Surprise Lake Middle School teachers complained to the district of sexual and gender-based harassment last May, and an independent investigation was conducted. After reviewing it, district administrators concluded in November that the allegations against principal Jim Snider "did not rise to the level of misconduct or a violation of district policy."
Four teachers appealed that decision, which resulted in the matter being kicked up to the Fife School Board for review.
"When we appealed that to the board, they reversed that decision and are acknowledging a sexually hostile work environment, which is pretty radical for a school district to acknowledge. I was really impressed," said attorney Lara Hruska, who is representing the teachers.
Efforts to reach Charles Leitch, the attorney representing the district in the matter, were unsuccessful. Assistant superintendent Ben Ramirez said via email that he could not comment.
"As it relates to any internal personnel process, the district cannot comment on a board decision and considers the matter closed. With regard to inquiry on Principal Snider, he currently is working on special assignment at the central office," Ramirez wrote.
Snider's attorney, Alan Harvey, said he and his client weren't made aware of or included in the appeal process and his client never had a chance to defend himself in a closed hearing the school board held in April. Snider was never disciplined after the investigation because the school district found there had been no violation of district policy, Harvey said.
"He hasn't been afforded any due process. He had no role at all," Harvey said. "It sounds a lot to me like a Star Chamber, where you don't get due process and people in a backroom make decisions. He wasn't disciplined. Some people didn't like it apparently and were not happy with the end result and did a closed room hearing or meeting."
In a May 15 letter sent to the four teachers who appealed, the school board said it found evidence of sexual harassment in the investigation.
"In reviewing the allegations contained in the complaint, as well as the information presented at the hearing, the board concludes that the actions constitute a violation of board policy 5011," which says the district is committed to a work environment that's free from discrimination, including sexual harassment.
The letter continued:
"The board concluded that the facts outlined in the investigation constituted unwelcomed conduct or communication of a sexual nature that interfered with the employees' employment performance and created an intimidation, hostile or offensive environment. The board does not condone the actions contained in the investigation and is hopeful that this type of behavior will not continue."
The investigation into Snider's behavior painted a picture of a principal with a quick temper who treated female staff differently than men.
"A lot of physical intimidation, threats, touching, hand-stroking, hugging, stomach touching, propositions, asking someone out," Hruska said. "I think fundamentally they feel vindicated, because this is first time the district has acknowledged what they've been through."
The News Tribune is not naming the women who complained about Snider's behavior and subsequently appealed the district's decision. They are still teachers at the middle school. Snider was paid $129,772 in the 2016-17 school year.
Some teachers who were interviewed for the investigation said Snider gave them long and frequent hugs with full chest contact, and one teacher said he would sometimes touch her stomach after hugging her. A teacher who is married said Snider repeatedly asked her out to lunch and dinner despite her repeatedly declining. One teacher said Snider visited her at her second job at a bar and hugged her.
Another teacher said Snider sat 8 inches away from her during a one-on-one meeting and stroked her hand with his fingers the entire time they talked.
"It was my last year of provisional status and you can be fired for any reason," the teacher said in an interview with the investigator. "So what do you do? You don't talk up to your boss ... I just kept my hand there. What do you do? What do you do in a case like that where your boss is stroking your hand like that?"
A teacher who was on the receiving end of regular hugs told the investigator they were unwanted.
"It's never been OK. And we aren't talking about a couple of seconds," she said. "He's my evaluator and I'm afraid of him. You have either the pit bull or a sweet little puppy. It's just that flip of a switch with him. And you do what you can to make him happy when you're interacting with him."
Harvey, Snider's attorney, said the complaints were a result of clashing personalities and not misconduct.
"We do not believe that the investigator's report was balanced ... but we had no opportunity to challenge it because he was never disciplined," Harvey said. "We took the fact that the district chose not to discipline him as something that spoke to his concerns that these were not real issues, that they were more personality conflicts than anything else."
The most recent investigation was the second one that has been conducted regarding Snider's behavior. In 2016, the district retained the same Bellevue firm, Sebris Busto James, to look into offensive comments Snider allegedly made to teachers and into possible acts of retaliation by Snider against a teacher who had participated in union-related activities.
Hruska said the situation remains uncomfortable for the teachers.
"There is still a lot of anger that he is still with the district, and when they go to the central office they might bump into him," she said.
The next step could be a lawsuit. Hruska said she hopes the district will settle with the teachers.
"We're hopeful the district, like us, won’t want to engage in protracted litigation, and that the district agrees that these women should be made whole after what they went through," she said.