Agency says East Wake Academy fostered sexually hostile work environment

aspecht@newsobserver.comJuly 29, 2013 

— A federal labor rights agency, in letters recently obtained by the Eastern Wake News, says East Wake Academy subjected two former teachers “and a class of similarly situated female employees” to a sexually hostile work environment.

East Wake Academy, founded in 1998, is a charter school in Zebulon known for its high test scores and graduation rates. About 1,000 students attend its elementary, middle and high schools.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission began investigating the school in September 2012 at the request of two former teachers who said East Wake Academy headmaster Brandon Smith sexually harassed them. Court documents show one teacher claims that Smith in August 2011 “pulled the back of her pants down” when asking to look at her tattoo, while the other teacher claims Smith admitted in January 2011 to having sexual thoughts about her.

Smith, who has repeatedly denied the claims against him, couldn’t be reached for comment.

According to the EEOC letters, the agency found sufficient evidence that Smith subjected the teachers and other employees to “unwelcome sexual comments, inappropriate touching and derogatory gender-based comments.”

The Eastern Wake News generally does not identify people who say they’ve been sexually assaulted. The letters did not say how many other female employees were interviewed.

Kelly Ensslin, an attorney for one of the former teachers, says the EEOC’s finding is “significant” because it adds credence to the teachers’ claims against Smith and the school. East Wake Academy fired Smith in March 2012 after the two teachers filed criminal complaints against him with the Zebulon police department, which later charged Smith with two counts of misdemeanor sexual battery.

The criminal case is ongoing. The teachers are also suing Smith for his actions personally and as headmaster of East Wake Academy.

“We believe that the EEOC finding is appropriate and supports the facts as we understand them,” Ensslin said.

Katie Hartzog, an attorney representing East Wake Academy and Smith, declined to comment. Mike Lester, chairman of the school’s Board of Directors, did not return calls seeking comment.

Smith’s personal attorney, James Hairston, cast doubt on the EEOC’s findings: “As far as I’m concerned, (the EEOC findings are) pretty much a one-sided story since we (Hairston and Smith) weren’t contacted ... or consulted.”

After the EEOC found that East Wake Academy violated the two teachers’ rights, the letters show that federal investigators invited the school to participate in conciliation – where the teachers and the school might reach a settlement. However, settlement negotiations failed, so the EEOC referred the case to the U.S. Department of Justice. There is no timetable for the DOJ to take action, Ensslin said.

Other allegations

The EEOC also investigated whether East Wake Academy leaders intimidated or retaliated against the two teachers, but the letters show the agency didn’t find sufficient evidence to make a ruling.

In court documents, the teachers allege that Lester, the board chairman, tried to protect Smith. Despite allegedly promising the teachers that Smith would not learn their identities, the teachers say Lester “took steps instead to protect Brandon Smith” by showing him the teachers’ written complaints about him. As a result, Smith then tampered with the school’s computer server to block access to the teachers’ email accounts, the teachers claim in court documents.

Recent developments

Attorneys for the teachers recently subpoenaed East Wake Academy board member Aubrey Edwards and Michael Durdin, an IT specialist for the school. However, the subpoenas were delayed when Hartzog, the attorney representing East Wake Academy, on June 28 filed a motion to quash their depositions. In the motion, Hartzog says attorneys for the two teachers should question Edwards and Durdin about Smith’s actions only – not actions taken by the school or about other people who claim to have been harassed.

Superior Court Judge Donald W. Stephens is reviewing Hartzog’s motion. Ensslin says Stephens has not yet announced a ruling.

Specht: 919-829-4826

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