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California teacher alleges in lawsuit that boss pressured her to change student grades

The exterior of the gymnasium on the west end of the campus of Clovis North High School photographed on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023.    (CRAIG KOHLRUSS/Fresno Bee/TNS)
By Robert Rodriguez and Laura Diaz The Sacramento Bee

A former Clovis North High School chemistry teacher is suing Clovis Unified School District claiming retaliation after she complained to school officials that she was being pressured by her supervisor to change students’ grades on multiple occasions.

The teacher, Toni Ognibene, alleges in the civil lawsuit that between November 2019 and June 2021 her learning director Katie Scalzo gave her subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle suggestions to boost the grades for eight students.

Scalzo’s comments came in the form of text messages or emails, which Ognibene carefully compiled. The messages regarding the students’ grades included phrases such as “it would be a really good idea to do this,” “you should do this” and “this needs to happen.”

Ognibene was new to the district and still going through the process of becoming a fully credential teacher; she felt as though she couldn’t say no.

“I didn’t want to do it, but along with being against it for ethical and moral reasons, my credential was at risk,” she said. “And this was a directive from my direct supervisor. It wasn’t really poised as a choice.”

Ognibene believes the learning director was friends with the parents of the students whose grades she changed.

Clovis teacher alleges retaliation in lawsuit

Soon after her teaching credential cleared, she filed a complaint against the learning director.

That is also when Ognibene alleges the retaliation began. In her lawsuit, she accuses school officials of retaliating against her with false accusations, an unsatisfactory performance review and removing her from her position as a chemistry teacher.

The 42-year-old Ognigene is suing for emotional distress, mental anguish and economic damages.

Ognibene, who is a USC graduate, calls herself a rule follower and is adamant about student’s earning grades because of the work they do, not because their parents are friends with a school administrator.

She didn’t have any problems under her previous supervisor, known at Clovis Unified as a learning director. In fact, she earned exemplary evaluations for the 2018-19, 2019-20, and 2020-21 school years. That all changed with the arrival of Scalzo, according to the lawsuit.

“With the new learning director, grades were not based on merit for some students, which is a problem,” Ognibene said in an interview with The Bee. “No one should be afraid to tell the truth, but I was being pressured to change grades and inflate them.”

Scalzo declined to comment on the lawsuit, referring questions to district spokesperson Kelly Avants.

Said Avants: “We are aware of the suit, disagree with its allegations, and are working through the court system accordingly.”

Teacher given ‘Memorandum of Concern’

Conflicted over the grade changes, Ognibene reported what happened to one of the high school deputy principals and later filed a formal complaint with the district on June 9, 2021.

She believed administrators would want to know that she was being directed to do something highly unethical and unfair to other students.

Two months after filing her complaint, Ognibene was given a “Memorandum of Concern” by Scalzo, alleging she was tardy, failed to respond to students and parents within 48 hours, failed to maintain an updated grade book, and for not responding to faculty members within 48 hours.

In an August letter to an administrator, Ognibene complained that she was being retaliated against for filing the complaint against her supervisor.

During her evaluation for the school year 2021-22, Ognibene failed to meet a single standard and was deemed to be in need of improvement. She was placed in a district program for struggling teachers known as the Peer Assistance and Review (“PAR”) for 2022-23.

For Ognibene, her sudden fall from exemplary teacher to needing help in the classroom was devastating.

“It was embarrassing and frustrating,” she said. “It was gaslighting; it was emotional abuse. I felt like I was going crazy.”

According to the lawsuit, the retaliation continued. In April 2022, she received a letter of reprimand over an anonymous letter from a student alleging she used derogatory terms, violated the school’s restroom policy and made statements about ethnicity.

Ognibene denies the accusations and said she never was shown the letter.

Her attorney, Oshea Orchid with Public Employees Legal LLP in Los Angeles, said she has seen this pattern of behavior with other clients and their employers.

“Management is more focused on protecting the agency and its public image than fixing the issues that are being brought up,” Orchid said. “I would like the school district to be responsive to the allegations and thoroughly investigate.”

The district made good on its plan to move Ognibene. She now teaches at Granite Ridge Intermediate School and may be the only teacher with a single subject credential teaching general science in the district.

Scalzo is also no longer at Clovis North. She is principal at Gettysburg Elementary School.