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News >  K-12 education

Women sue East Valley School District, alleging the district failed to respond to workplace harassment, intimidation

A former East Valley Middle School principal harassed and intimidated female staff to the point multiple women quit after receiving little support from district leadership, according to a lawsuit against the school district set to go to trial later this month.

Tonette Lazanis, a former East Valley Middle School vice principal, and Kendra Smith, a former school counselor, filed the lawsuit against the district in 2019.

They and six other women who filed declarations in the suit say former principal Doug Kaplicky screamed at them, excluded them from meetings, made sexual jokes and even drugged one of the women while at a conference.

Kaplicky was escorted from the school in 2017 after the women filed grievances against him, according to court documents. He later resigned and is the principal at Adams Elementary School in Yakima.

The work environment didn’t get better after Kaplicky left, the women allege, saying their colleagues retaliated against them for speaking out against Kaplicky, who was well-liked by much of the staff.

The school district said they planned to do an investigation into Kaplicky’s actions but terminated the inquest after he resigned. The district also said it would bring in an outside firm to help repair relationships damaged during Kaplicky’s tenure, but never followed through on the promise, the suit alleges.

The district, through its attorney, Jerry Moburg, denied the women’s claims.

“There was not a hostile work environment, simple as that,” Moburg said.

At trial, Moburg plans to call witnesses who will testify their working conditions “were perfectly normal,” he said.

“We do not believe this claim has any merit,” Moburg said.

Smith, 46, said she always wanted to help people with disabilities, ever since she heard of her father’s struggles while in school.

She became a special education teacher and later a school counselor. She was hired at East Valley Middle school in the fall of 2016.

A member of the hiring committee made a comment that Kaplicky loved to hire beautiful women to work with him. That was the first of many odd comments made both by and about Kaplicky, Smith said.

Kaplicky was often unprofessional toward female staff, making sexist comments and comments about their personal lives, she said. It didn’t significantly impact her life until 2017, when the former vice principal who kept Kaplicky in line took another job and Lazanis was hired.

That fall, Kaplicky asked Smith to interrupt a meeting with the assistant superintendent and lie that an irate parent was on the phone and refusing to talk to Lazanis because she was incompetent, Smith said. When she refused, Kaplicky became hostile toward her, she said.

Not long after, Smith, two other women and Kaplicky went to a conference in Portland. They planned to go out and watch a baseball game together, but the other two women declined as Smith and Kaplicky were on their way out.

She had one or two drinks as they watched the game, Smith recalled in an interview regarding her allegations in the lawsuit. At one point, she got up to use the restroom, and when she came back she finished her drink.

“I start just feeling, like, dizzy,” Smith said. “And my feet start feeling like concrete and it’s like bits and pieces almost. I don’t know what happened.”

The next morning, Smith said she woke up violently ill, unsure of what happened the night before.

“I should have gone to the hospital,” Smith said, as tears welled in her eyes. “It makes me want to throw up even talking about it now, the not knowing what happened … weird … it’s a weird feeling.”

In his declarations filed with the court, Kaplickly denies those allegations and others made by Smith and the other women, and said he has no problem working with women. He was not charged with a crime. He didn’t not respond to multiple requests for comment.

After that incident, things got worse at work, Smith said. Kaplicky would make jokes about her to other male employees. Then teachers stopped showing up to meetings Smith would schedule with students and their families to discuss student needs. Teachers refused to follow accommodation plans or engage with Smith professionally.

“The kids were suffering because of that,” Smith said.

That’s when Smith filed a formal grievance against Kaplicky. He resigned days later, which was a “relief” for Smith.

But things just got worse from there, she said. Her colleagues continued to ignore her, even locking her out of the lunchroom on one occasion, when the assistant superintendent was present. Not long after, Smith resigned from the school district and went to work at her family business.

Long-time secretary Teresa Guszergan wrote in her declaration that Kaplicky was immediately condescending to her when she transferred to the school in 2015.

He would say things like, “I don’t know if you know how, but can you type up a list of names or a letter for me?” she wrote in court documents.

He also asked Guszergan to lie and say parents complained about school maintenance, when they had not. She, like many of the other women named in the suit, witnessed Kaplicky say derogatory things about other women and position office supplies into the shape of male genitalia.

Tammy Fuller, former principal of East Farms Elementary School, wrote in her declaration she noticed early in Kaplciky’s tenure he was rude to female employees. In 2014, Fuller reported Kaplicky’s behavior to the school district. Over the next few years, several women came to Fuller expressing concerns about Kaplicky’s behavior, she wrote.

Fuller also said things escalated with the hiring of Lazanis.

Fuller wrote that Kaplicky made it clear he did not like Lazanis. Fuller reached out to the assistant superintendent about the issue, who said she would personally look out for Lazanis.

Lazanis had issues with Kaplicky immediately, when he refused to meet with her before the school year began, she wrote. He ignored her emails, then would imply to other staff members she was incompetent.

On multiple occasions, he yelled and cursed at her during meetings, Lazanis wrote. Ultimately, Lazanis filed a grievance against Kaplicky.

After Kaplicky left, things got worse for Lazanis, who said the district didn’t take any action to protect the employees who filed grievances against Kaplicky, leading to her leaving the district in 2018.

In the court declarations, Kaplicky noted he was Washington State Middle School Principal of the year from the Association of Washington School Principals in 2017, the same year he resigned.

Filing the lawsuit was scary for Smith, but she said she thought of her daughter and how she wouldn’t want her to go through a similar experience, she said.

“I would never want her to ever have a boss like this,” Smith said. “I would never want her to work for a school district that wouldn’t protect her, that wouldn’t take it serious and do something about it.

“Nobody should be treated like this when they go to work.”

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