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False rumors ruined woman's SAU44 career, suit says

Union Leader Correspondent

April 02. 2013 10:30PM

The former special education director for School Administrative Unit 44 has filed a scathing 21-page lawsuit claiming that her school superintendent and other school officials did nothing to stop the spread of a false rumor accusing her of having an extramarital affair with another school employee.

In her suit brought last month in Rockingham County Superior Court, Anne Kebler of Intervale claims the administration ignored its own sexual harassment policies and allowed the rumor to go on for months.

Over time, Kebler claims the rumor made its way through the school system, which serves Northwood, Nottingham and Strafford, and into the community.

Kebler argues the rumor negatively affected her professional and personal reputations, her marriage and family, and eventually caused her to become depressed and leave her position.

"When there's bullying or a hostile work environment, it needs to be fixed and remedied quickly," said her attorney, James Bianco Jr. of Bianco Professional Association in Concord.

The problem in this case, Bianco said, is that nothing was done and that it went beyond "ordinary workplace misspeak."

Bianco insisted that the rumor could have been stopped if action had been taken, such as addressing a letter to school personnel explaining how spreading rumors isn't appropriate and offering proper training on sexual harassment. "What we're really hoping is that we get to return this very capable, hard-working administrator back to a job," he said.

No extramarital affair

Superintendent Michael Ludwell, one of several defendants named in the suit, refused to comment on the case Tuesday because he hadn't seen the lawsuit.

"I don't even have a copy of anything," he said. "Without seeing it, there's nothing I can really say."

The lawsuit was filed a month after the SAU's Joint School Board named a new superintendent to replace Ludwell, who plans to retire at the end of June.

Also named in the suit are the SAU, the SAU Joint School Board, and "John and Jane Does" who were either school employees, volunteers, elected officials and/or SAU contractors whose identities will be revealed in future court filings.

The suit makes numerous allegations against the defendants, including defamation, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and invasion of privacy.

The case stems from the rumor that began in November 2011 when one or more unnamed "Doe Defendants" began telling coworkers that Kebler had engaged in an extramarital affair with another SAU employee, the suit alleges.

"This rumor was false, as Anne has never had an extramarital affair with an SAU 44 employee, and has been happily and faithfully married for more than 36 years," the suit said.

The suit cites a sexual harassment policy adopted by the three school districts in the SAU which defines "comments about someone's sexual activity" or "gossiping about" someone's sexual experiences as "sexual harassment."

No action, suit claims

According to the suit, Kebler, who became special education director in 2009, met with Ludwell on Nov. 13, 2011 to report the rumor.

"During this conversation, Anne was shocked to learn from Superintendent Ludwell that he had known about the rumor for over a month," the suit said.

Kebler asked Ludwell to immediately investigate and "remediate the false rumor" to stop it from spreading throughout the SAU, according to the suit.

While the suit said Ludwell indicated that he would investigate and take action to stop the rumor, Kebler claims nothing was done and that the alleged inaction violated district policy requiring the superintendent to investigate the rumor and file a report on the complaint within 10 days.

Two weeks later, Kebler claims she was informed by Ludwell that he had spoken to three staff members who were aware of the rumor.

"By that point, the rumor had become widespread throughout the SAU 44 workplace, causing Anne's emotional distress to increase and a hostile work environment to develop," the suit said.

Kebler met with Ludwell again on Nov. 30, 2011, and asked if any action had been taken, the suit said.

"In response, Superintendent Ludwell then asked Anne to tell him what she thought he should do. Anne then suggested that, at the very least, staff training and education could help to stop the false rumor from spreading even further outside of SAU 44," the suit said.

Kebler claims he still did nothing. His alleged failure to take action "had the effect of reinforcing the rumor," causing it to spread to school board members, her family, friends and the community, the suit said.

iPad rumor swirls

In February 2012, the suit accuses one of the so-called "Doe Defendants" who is believed to have started the rumor with spreading another "false" rumor that Kebler had misappropriated special education resources and funds to buy an iPad for the "benefit of the SAU 44 employee who was allegedly in an affair with Anne."

Kebler complained to Ludwell again, but claims no action was taken even after it was determined that no money had been misappropriated, the suit said.

According to the suit, Kebler later met with the Joint School Board to discuss the rumors and how she had repeatedly brought her complaints to Ludwell.

"After this meeting, Superintendent Ludwell sought out Anne and blamed her and her comments for the Joint Board's renewal of his contract without a raise. That same day, Superintendent Ludwell gave Anne her performance evaluation, where for the first time in her 15-year career in administration, the ranking of her performance in five different areas decreased," the suit said.

After her meeting with the Joint School Board on June 25, 2012, the suit claims the board asked Ludwell to investigate the rumors and make a report; Kebler has never seen a report.

The "emotional distress," "mental anguish," and "severe stress" over the "hostile work environment" and damaged reputation caused Kebler to become depressed, the suit said. She took a medical leave in October 2012 and has now resigned, her lawyer said.

Kebler seeks damages for lost wages and other benefits, the depression she suffered, legal expenses, and enhanced compensatory damages because the defendants' conduct was committed "wantonly, maliciously, and/or oppressively," the suit said.

Bruce Patrick, a Strafford School Board member who chairs the Joint SAU Board, could not be reached for comment.

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