by Carolyn Bick
The Seattle Public Schools is fielding counter accusations of racism and sexism between administrators over a $500,000 settlement the district granted a former Athletics Department employee.
Seattle Public Schools (SPS) agreed to pay a $500,000 settlement to former Athletics Department program liaison Krystyana Brame, who in 2015 accused her former supervisor, Eric McCurdy, of sexual harassment, bullying, and sex and race discrimination. She ultimately left her position in 2016. Brame is white; McCurdy is Black.
McCurdy is filing his own lawsuit, a complaint for damages, asking Seattle Public Schools to reverse a recent decision to terminate him.
At least 40 people crowded into the small room on the Seattle Tower’s fifth floor in early December to support Seattle Public Schools’ Executive Director of Athletics Eric McCurdy, who announced he is filing a suit against the district in the King County Superior Court based on what he’s calling reasoning based on “hearsay and inaccurate information.”
At a press conference Friday, Dec. 7, McCurdy announced his decision to sue for reinstatement as the school district’s athletics executive director, after being notified he would be fired at the end of the year. The suit, filed the same day as the press conference, also claims McCurdy’s firing was a civil rights violation, and seeks restitution based on damages from false allegations. McCurdy’s lawyer, Judith Lonnquist, said a report for damages was sent to the School Board Tuesday, Dec. 4.
The district would not say whether McCurdy’s dismissal was related to Brame’s accusation or the subsequent Nov. 20 settlement.
According to the initial letter McCurdy received, the district decided to place him on administrative leave on Nov. 2, with a note that indicated he might be terminated. The letter stated that new Superintendent Denise Juneau had read the report regarding Brame, and had concerns about “the comments found to be made,” as well as McCurdy’s ability to appropriately lead a program that required a high degree of interaction with others, including parents, and his ability to professionally interact with other district staffers.
The letter also cited “[u]nfavorable public attention on the District based on the [Krystyana Brame] report and settlement.”
The district did not have Brame sign a nondisclosure agreement as part of the settlement.
Brame’s attorney, Scott Blankenship, said that the lack of a nondisclosure agreement in a case like this is unusual, but said that the district had tried to get Brame to sign a nondisclosure. She refused.
“She thought it was important that people know what happened, so things wouldn’t continue to get brushed under the rug,” Blankenship said. “Part of the motivation of not signing a nondisclosure agreement was to basically air it publicly. It’s a public school.”
McCurdy and Lonnquist said the lack of nondisclosure this is concerning, because one of the reasons the district decided to fire McCurdy is precisely because the district appeared in an “unfavorable” light, after Brame talked with the media. McCurdy said that this isn’t his fault, and Lonnquist said the agreement’s absence was a first for her.
“I have practiced employment discrimination law here in Seattle since 1975. I have never seen an employer settle a case, particularly not for that amount of money, without a nondisclosure agreement,” Lonnquist said.
Lonnquist has taken on several lawsuits involving harassment of women in the workplace, during her time practicing law, and has traditionally represented the complainants. One case was as recent as last year, in which she represented a young woman who alleged the former CEO of beverage company Talking Rain sexually harassed her on a business trip to Las Vegas.
Brame filed a written complaint with the district in November 2015. Her written statement alleges that McCurdy began harassing her and using explicit language in front of her and other colleagues at work, shortly after he was hired in 2010. Brame claimed McCurdy called her “lazy,” denied her employment benefits, and routinely threatened her job security. After she filed the written complaint, and the district opened its investigation, she claimed McCurdy ramped up his alleged attacks, forcing her to quit in March 2016.
However, at the press conference, McCurdy said that he wasn’t the one who commented on Brame’s appearance. He claimed it was Harvard Jones, former assistant director of athletics in the Seattle Public Schools who is now the athletic director at the Tukwila School District. McCurdy characterized Jones as a “disgruntled employee,” and said athletic department employee Greg Brashear witnessed the derogatory comments. Lonnquist attributed it to job pressure. Brashear did not respond to requests for comment.
“Both of these people were on probation — they knew their jobs were in jeopardy — so, as they were going out the door, they made allegations against Mr. McCurdy that are untrue,” Lonnquist said.
When asked if he had made the comment, Jones said “that is 100 percent a lie,” and asserted that it was McCurdy who had said that about Brame.
“He actually — before I started the job, when I first got hired — told me he wanted me to come in and fire ‘the fat white girl’ that worked with him,” Jones said.
In the investigation report, Jones stated that McCurdy said there was “a fat, white girl” he needed to supervise, but didn’t name Brame specifically. However, Jones also said McCurdy told him Brame didn’t know how to do her job, and that Jones needed to “get her out.”
Brame also accused McCurdy of bullying others during meetings with fellow athletic directors. One witness interviewed in the initial investigation, Athletic Program Liaison Katie Softli, said that while she hadn’t witnessed McCurdy treating other staffers in an unprofessional manner, but said Ingraham High School Athletic Director Traci Huffer and another director “had told her they were tired of coming to monthly AD meetings and having McCurdy yell at them.”
Huffer was at the press conference, and, when asked about the anecdote, admitted that “we weren’t quite ready for, we weren’t used to” McCurdy’s style of running meetings, but before he took up the post, “we were complacent, we were getting soft.”
“I think we all adjusted, and he understood how we felt. We became a copacetic group in understanding how everybody operates,” Huffer said “I never felt degraded in any way, shape or form. I truly believe he was professional, and still is, to this day.”
In June 2016, the investigation into Brame’s allegations ultimately found McCurdy had not violated the district’s policies, and the matter was closed.
Brame then filed a charge of sex and race discrimination, as well as sexual harassment and retaliation with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC), which did not move forward with her case. Lonnquist said at the press conference that she agreed with the EEOC’s decision.
However, in 1991, Lonnquist said she advised her sexual harassment clients against filing with the EEOC, because her clients would not have the same investigator from start to finish, and because the EEOC moved forward with so few cases. In the 1991 statistics presented, less than five percent of the 112 Washington State cases found in favor of those alleging harassment, which Lonnquist then characterized as “a joke.”
Lonnquist said her position hasn’t changed, but when asked if she still advises her clients against filing with the EEOC, Lonnquist said it varies. She said she advises clients to file with the EEOC, when they want to sue in federal court, for legal reasons. In case a person wants to take a matter to federal court, they are required to file with the EEOC. However, she said that she prefers to go through state court, where “you don’t have to confront a judiciary, a federal judiciary that really doesn’t care much for employment cases, and is prone to grant summary judgements.”
When asked how often her own clients get a finding of a cause to move forward, she said “I never let it get that far,” and just waits the required 60 days for a right to sue letter.
“Many times, to avoid having a no cause finding, we ask the EEOC for a right to sue letter, instead of issuing the no cause finding, and they do that. They are willing to do that,” Lonnquist said.
Blankenship said Brame had also filed because she wanted the option to sue on the federal level, and the suit also forced an answer out of the district. However, he did not respond to multiple requests for comment, when asked if the EEOC had granted Brame the right to sue in federal court.
Furthermore, Blankenship said, he and other attorneys often advise against their clients filing with the EEOC, not only because of the EEOC’s backlog in harassment cases, but also because so few cases move forward. When Brame filed with the EEOC, she had already retained Blankenship as her lawyer, which Blankenship said was probably “a factor” in the EEOC not moving forward with Brame’s case.
“The EEOC has a very, very small percentage of claims that it actually brings on behalf of people,” Blankenship said. “They are a great agency, but the people that they tend to file suits for are the people who don’t have counseling, not people who have the resources. … The resources are limited, and the EEOC is focused on, frequently focused on, either classes of people or people without representation, just so they can have the greatest impact.”
The number of cases that see litigation through the EEOC is small. In 2016, the EEOC received 442 charges regarding sex discrimination in Washington State. Nationwide, the EEOC litigated just 46 cases nationally involving Title VII, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
McCurdy also believes there is a racial element to his firing.
“One thing that I will say: the two highest African-American males in the district were both demoted. Now, that’s odd to me, given [Superintendent Denise Juneau] had just been there three months. One of them recently retired, one of them moved on, and then my situation comes up, too,” McCurdy said. “I have only had one conversation with Superintendent Juneau, and it’s the same conversation that I had previously with superintendents … and that was about selling [Memorial Stadium].”
According to McCurdy’s termination letter, Juneau was not present at McCurdy’s Nov. 16 Loudermill hearing. Instead, Juneau sent Chief Human Resources Officer Dr. Clover Codd in her stead, which Lonnquist said meant Juneau never got the opportunity to hear from the six people who appeared to support McCurdy. She also never asked to meet with any of them, Lonnquist said.
When asked if this was true, and if Juneau was available for comment, Seattle Public Schools media relations lead Tim Robinson said he was unable to comment.
During the press conference, McCurdy also claimed there have been employees of color who have filed complaints against white colleagues, but those white colleagues have not been investigated or dealt with in the same manner as employees of color who have had complaints filed against them.
McCurdy listed some of the names of former district employees of color, among whom were Gloria Izard-Baldwin, a Black woman paid to resign from her post as principal of Ingraham High School in 2002, and Joe Drake, a Black man paid to resign as principal of John Marshall Alternative High School in 2008. Though the conditions of Baldwin’s resignation were confidential, Drake’s resignation came in the wake of an internal investigation by the district that said that Drake, among other things, had used foul language towards his staff, hired unqualified special education staff, and was often absent from the school.
When asked about McCurdy’s dismissal, Robinson said in an email that the school district “does not comment on the specific circumstances of an individual’s employment.” It appeared the district’s decision to fire McCurdy remained unchanged, as Robinson said McCurdy will be leaving at the end of 2018, and a search for a new athletic director will begin early next year.
Unless SPS and McCurdy settle the case out of court, there is a trial scheduled for December 2019.
Featured Photo: Seattle Public Schools Athletic Director Eric McCurdy, center speaks with Ingraham High School Athletic Director Traci Huffer, right, after his press conference at the Seattle Tower on Dec. 7, 2018. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)