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Scappoose district settles gender lawsuit for nearly $500,000

Before the case moved to trial, the Scappoose School District settled a lawsuit last week with three women educators who alleged the district, under leadership of former Superintendent Paul Peterson, was a sometimes hostile and discriminatory workplace.

Current Scappoose Superintendent Stephen Jupe, hired this year, said the lawsuit was working through the pretrial process when the district’s insurance provider decided it was best to settle with former high school Principal Sue Hays, middle school Principal Pamela Reynolds and Sauvie Island Academy Director Darla Meeuwsen.by: SCAPPOOSE SCHOOL DISTRICT - The Scappoose School District recently settled a looming lawsuit with three female administrators, including the former principal of the high school (above). The suit claimed a culture of male hierarchy and gender bias.

Jupe, speaking on behalf of the school board, said liability insurance covered the settlement, including lawyer fees, and no district dollars were expended.

The trio was seeking $7.5 million in damages through its joint lawsuit filed 2011 in Multnomah County. But on Oct. 3, the women agreed to settle for nearly $500,000.

“The insurance company made what they considered to be the most cost-efficient decision,” Jupe said.

The attorney representing Hays, Reynolds and Meeuwsen said the resolution was reached in good faith.

“After going through a major part of the discovery process, the district realized that it had serious exposure for the actions of the former superintendent,” said Portland attorney Thomas Boothe.

The plantiffs initially took their cases to the state Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI), where in late 2010 they alleged nearly 60 specific examples of what they claimed were instances of discrimination and harassment. Each made separate allegations, but as a whole the claims painted a picture of a district and superintendent that favored men over women: routinely passing them over for promotions while being condescending and, at times, hostile.

The employees withdrew their BOLI filing after the agency raised questions about the strength of one of the complainants’ claims. When that required review ended, the plantiffs were free to take their case to court.

Many of their allegations were reiterated in the May 2011 lawsuit.

Court documents reveal some of the educators assertions:

In Hays’ instance, she claimed Peterson made derisive statements which she took as insults regarding her sexual orientation, including commenting that she may prefer “whiskey to coffee.” She said she sought counseling because of job-related stress, stemming in part from what she considered hyper-scrutiny of her work. She was also prescribed antidepressants and blood pressure medication during that time.

Meeuwsen cited numerous instances when she felt she was passed over for promotions despite her belief she was better qualified than the men who were eventually hired. In 2011, she left the Scappoose School District to take a position as director of the Sauvie Island Academy charter school, which the district sponsors. She said she “sought escape” because she “realized it was futile to remain as an employee of the district under Peterson.”

Reynolds believed her starting pay of $80,080 at the middle school wasn’t high enough — the pay range maxed out at $82,667 — considering she had been principal of Otto Petersen Elementary for seven years prior to her promotion. She said she remained at a lower point of the district’s progressive pay scale while other male administrators moved up in salary. She also claimed Peterson would micromanage and interfere with her work, which she said was dismissive.

“With the case behind us and a new superintendent in place, I will continue to do what matters the most to me — helping educate our district’s children,” Reynolds said.

Hays was removed as principal in 2010 and reassigned to “director of curriculum,” a position that had not existed for several years and, a few months after Hays took on the role, was cut from the budget.

Hays was often a target of criticism during her tenure in Scappoose for having what some perceived as an abrasive demeanor.

While they stated sharing common experiences, the plaintiffs point out in a court document that they were not close to one another.

In court documents, Peterson said he was aware some women in the district looked at it as a “good old boys club.” He denied it was, saying he knows not to show favoritism to one gender over another and that district rules applied equally to all.

Peterson was released early from his district contract in June 2011 after accepting a job as assistant superintendent of the Northwest Regional Education Service District, located in Hillsboro. He declined to comment on the lawsuit’s settlement.