Newport High School teacher Roger Coplen says two female co-workers are sexually harassing him and one of their husbands assaulted him with a handshake.
Newport police are investigating the handshake, and the sexual harassment charges are now before state and federal agencies after being dismissed by school officials. The high school is in turmoil and morale has plummeted, insiders say.
“It’s gotten pretty out of control, really,” said teachers’ union president Larry Sauer. “It’s just ripping apart teachers’ relationships and the conditions under which they work.”
The case may or may not be related to a similarly bizarre incident in May 1994, in which the school’s principal fired a starter pistol at one of the women.
Coplen, 51, claims high school counselor Sylvia Campbell, 36, and Pam Veltri, 42, a Newport School District administrator, have harassed him with unwanted physical contact, sexual gestures, dirty jokes and sexually provocative language. He says he can’t get them to stop.
Their attorneys say the charges are absurd and the women are frightened of Coplen.
Superintendent Rich McBride says he conducted a thorough investigation and found “no merit” to Coplen’s claims. The complaint has advanced now to the state Superintendent of Public Instruction for a hearing.
Coplen also filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Washington Human Rights Commission. The agencies work together, and one of them will investigate.
Campbell, too, filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charging the school district failed to deal with a pattern of harassment by former Principal Lou Musso Jr.
Campbell’s Seattle attorneys, Anne Preston and Susan Coskey, declined to discuss their allegations against Musso.
Musso said at the time that starter-pistol incident was a joke gone awry, but he resigned and pleaded guilty to fourth-degree assault. He served five days in jail and is now working as a checker at the local Safeway store.
Coskey and Preston said they have “strong concerns” that Coplen’s charges are related to the Musso incident.
“A very good friend of Mr. Musso is now bringing bizarre allegations against Mrs. Campbell out of nowhere,” Coskey said.
The Musso family referred a request for comment to the former principal’s attorney, Carl Maxey, who was not immediately available for comment. Coplen is represented by an associate in Maxey’s Spokane law firm, John Cooper.
Cooper said Coplen and Musso “are on good terms. I don’t know as I would describe them as friends. I would describe them as professionally on good terms.”
Coplen insists his complaints have nothing to do with Musso.
Musso was a teacher at the high school when Coplen graduated in 1962, and Musso was principal when Coplen returned from Utah in 1991 and obtained his first teaching job.
Coplen said he worked previously as a telecommunications engineer for the Bell System, as regional engineering manager for a Bell System contractor and as a drug and alcohol counselor in private practice. He is certified as a counselor in Washington, and said in his complaint that Musso planned to have him fill in temporarily for Campbell against her wishes.
Although Coplen contends sexual harassment is his primary concern, his initial 15-page complaint makes few such allegations against Campbell and none against Veltri. Coplen says now that he left out sexual harassment charges about Veltri because she and the superintendent are friends.
In an interview, though, Coplen said both Campbell and Veltri “touch people with sexual parts of their body” and Veltri “made sexual comments in front of me.”
Coplen’s initial complaint, filed March 5, suggests his sour relationship with both women grew out of non-sexual grievances about his working conditions.
The first incident he describes was Veltri’s visit to his classroom shortly after he was hired. He said Veltri complimented him and said the district wanted to send him to a workshop in Moses Lake but wouldn’t pay him for the extra time.
In April 1992, Coplen said, Veltri informed him that her investigation found no basis for “gender discrimination” charges another teacher made against him. He challenged her right to conduct the investigation and suggested it was in retaliation for his withdrawal from the workshop.
Then Coplen said he climbed out his classroom window in June and saw Veltri replacing an animal skull on his car after he had removed it.
“This was a joke that all the teachers were doing,” Veltri’s Spokane attorney, Bill Powell, said. “The thing got passed around.”
Coplen said he thought at first that the skull was a “message” from a boy who had threatened him with a pitchfork.
Similarly, Coplen’s grievances with Campbell start with allegations that she used her position as counselor to load his classes with troublesome students. He says in his complaint that he didn’t recognize the harassment until late in 1993, when Campbell told him that she and Veltri were close friends with “a history of harassing other males.”
Coplen claims Campbell said she and Veltri “wanted to run the district together, Pam as the superintendent, she as the principal.” He said Campbell also told him she and Veltri once filled a male teacher’s sleeping bag with popcorn.
“It was clear to me that they felt they could do whatever they wanted to do without recourse,” Coplen wrote.
Campbell’s alleged harassment of Coplen became sexual in May 1994 when she made a sexually obscene gesture at him and in September 1994 when she “placed her hand on my arm,” Coplen said in his complaint. Coplen’s complaints are “basically a bunch of rambling nonsense,” Powell said. Campbell’s attorney Preston said the allegations are “beyond bizarre and they are offensive. I think the most important thing is that the school district completely and fully investigated them and found them to be wholly unsupported.”
The most recent development was on June 2, when Coplen claimed Campbell’s husband, Bruce, deliberately injured his hand when they shook hands at the high school. At Coplen’s request, Newport police were assigned to provide security at the high school graduation ceremony.
And Coplen now contends his detractors unfairly portray him as paranoid.
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