The former principal of Webster Elementary School in Manchester has filed a wrongful termination and whistleblower lawsuit against the school district, claiming she was fired for threatening to expose a “litany of illegal practices” in city schools, including staffing issues in the Emotional Behavior Disorder program and a failure to notify authorities after she was stabbed and suffered a concussion in separate confrontations with students.
The lawsuit, filed Friday, names Superintendent Dr. Bolgen Vargas, Assistant Superintendent Amy Allen and the school district as defendants.
The lawsuit claims former principal Sarah Lynch suffered “harm, including loss of income, emotional distress and other damages” as a result of her firing. It seeks damages and attorney fees.
In the lawsuit, Lynch claims school administrators told her she was let go for improper use of school funds and failure to follow protocol in hiring a new assistant principal at Webster.
To date, school officials have refused to comment publicly on why Lynch was put on paid leave just prior to the opening of school.
“We have not received a complaint, so we have no comment at this time,” Vargas wrote in a statement in response to questions about the lawsuit and the Webster School’s Emotional Behavior Disorder (EBD)program.
In an interview last week, Lynch said she is ready to tell her side of the story after months of being urged to remain quiet about the reasons for her dismissal.
She also said — if given the chance — she would gladly take her old job back.
“Absolutely, I would,” she said.
The 2018-19 school year marks Lynch’s third year with the school district. She was an administrative mentor in the Lawrence, Mass., school system when she started at Webster Elementary School on July 1, 2016, hired after a community forum that featured two finalists.
Located on outer Elm Street, Webster Elementary School serves much of the North End and is also a magnet school for elementary-age students who do not speak English as their first language.
Co-workers say her presence has been missed at Webster since school began Sept. 5. Many parents and staff said she was greeting parents and children the previous week at kindergarten orientation.
On Sept. 10, the district sent a letter home to parents from Vargas saying Lynch was on a leave of absence. Former Beech Street School Principal Elinor Murphy is now serving as substitute principal.
On Nov. 2, Vargas sent another letter to parents and staff saying Lynch had been permanently dismissed.
Lynch said she noticed problems stemming from understaffing at Webster’s EBD program soon after she started.
“My first year we had two classrooms, and my second year they added a third classroom but didn’t add any other teachers,” Lynch said. “Although the classroom was approved, none of the staff was approved — so we had 27 students and only two teachers and two full-time paraprofessionals for all of those kiddos.”
Lynch said that on several occasions police were called to the school when things got “out of control.”
“There were students running around, leaving the classroom, defecating on the stage and throwing it at people, and others stripping down to nothing,” Lynch said. “If we had an emergency drill, we couldn’t let them leave the room because it was unsafe.”
The lawsuit claims the school district “turned the Webster School into a dumping ground for troubled kids,” using the EBD program as a “warehouse.”
Lynch said she repeatedly complained about the lack of funding, as only $5,212 was budgeted for training and staffing for the program, but administrators ignored her warnings, Lynch claims.
She believes the lack of staffing contributed to her being stabbed in the abdomen by a student on Sept. 25, 2017.
“We went to take away the first knife and everything went well, but he had a second knife in his desk,” Lynch said.
Lynch said she was “beaten by a student to the point of a concussion” on Feb. 22.
“Nobody in the administration supported me when that happened,” Lynch said. “What was sad was 40 kids from fourth grade were all downstairs doing their LEGO League, and they all saw it happen.”
“There was no hearing or anything to figure out how to help this kid — not to punish him necessarily, but how to help him so he doesn’t engage in this aggressive behavior,” said her attorney Kirk Simoneau of the Manchester law firm Nixon, Vogelman, Slawsky and Simoneau. “The complaint shows the district was well aware of this. The people at the school were warning them, and they just ignored it.”
The district has reduced the EBD program to two classrooms for the 2018-19 school year, but Lynch claims it remains understaffed.
Lynch said her medical bills from those assaults remain unpaid, as the district has denied her workers’ compensation benefits. The bills are now in collection, she said.
The lawsuit claims Nicole Lavallee, a districtwide consulting teacher for students with emotional behavioral disorders, warned the district of her concerns for Webster’s EBD program on Oct. 11, 2017, saying, “this is the most challenging group I have seen in my 10 years. I have been at Webster each day this week, and I will say yesterday was unbelievably unsafe as we essentially ran out of hands to maintain the safety of both staff and students and needed (Manchester police) to come and assist.”
According to the complaint, Lavallee warned Assistant Superintendent Allen that “the lack of staffing is a safety concern and will become a liability.”
According to Simoneau, school officials used two pretexts to fire Lynch — improper use of school funds and failure to follow protocol in hiring.
In response to questions about the alleged improper use of funds, Lynch said Webster School owed a vendor, Tucker Library, $1,611 for work done at the school as part of a library renovation project. The complaint states the school district instructed Lynch she could not pay the bill using funds held in various accounts and the vendor continued efforts to receive payment, eventually turning the matter over to a collection agency and threatening Lynch with a personal lawsuit.
The lawsuit claims athat on March 12, 2018, via email, Lynch was instructed by Ernest Kilman, the Manchester School District accounting supervisor, to pay the bill in response to a threat of a lawsuit.
Around that time, the complaint states, a donation from Hannaford Supermarkets was made to the school that was not listed among the funds Lynch was ordered not to use, and Lynch said she made the decision to use that money to pay off the debt owed to the vendor by the school.
According to the complaint, on Sept. 4 the district put Lynch on paid administrative leave as they “investigated” alleged improper use of school funds and hiring practices.
“When I first met Sarah, I said it boggles my mind that you are in trouble for paying your school’s bills,” said Simoneau, her attorney. “It still boggles my mind.”
Lynch was told she could not communicate with any district employee for any reason under the threat of immediate termination, a threat also communicated by the district’s attorney to the Manchester Education Association and made known to Lynch’s friends and colleagues, the complaint claims.
“Ms. Lynch’s colleagues were told they could not attend a planned vacation with Ms. Lynch without risking their jobs,” the complaint states. “Ms. Lynch was also instructed to lie about her leave.”
Lynch said she was instructed by Allen and district Human Resources Director Pam Hogan to tell anyone who asked that she was “sick.”
According to Lynch, this directive led many people to believe she was suffering from cancer — some parents and neighbors even brought food to her home.
Lynch said someone also wrote graffiti on her car suggesting she was put on leave for abusing a child.
In late October, Lynch was officially fired. Under state law, only a vote of the school board can carry out the dismissal of a teacher or administrator. The Manchester school board had to provide Lynch the reason for this action and give her the right to a “full and fair hearing” on those reasons.
The same law lists grounds for dismissal being the employee was “immoral, incompetent or failed to conform to regulations” of the district.
Lynch had the option to seek that hearing in public or private.
Lynch said she elected not to appear at a hearing on the matter as she had already been told if she spoke with witnesses to prepare her case, she and others would be fired.
“Calling it a kangaroo court would be an insult to kangaroos. We thought we would get a fair hearing in the courts, where the school district can’t intimidate a judge and a jury and can’t intimidate Sarah.”
“All 12 (school board) members voted that I am terminated,” Lynch said. “Not one person reached out to me — not one — to ask a question. I’ve never spoken to one of them, including Dr. Vargas and Amy Allen, about this matter. It really bothered me.”
Lynch said she was told by her union’s attorney that she had two choices — walk away quietly with a severance package or be publicly fired.
“I would much rather take it publicly, because I am not going to walk away,” Lynch said. “This is something that I love and love to do. I just want to make it super clear to the parents and kids that I would have never left. That, to me, is the hardest part. To tell them I was sick, or for them to think I might have done something awful to one of their kids, makes me sick. I would never, ever do anything like that.”