Educator who settled harassment suit alleges retaliation
REEDS SPRING, Mo. (AP) — A Missouri educator awarded $500,000 over claims that she was sexually harassed by her superintendent is suing again, alleging that school board members poisoned her effort to find a new job.
Jodi Heckler was principal of an intermediate school in the Reeds Spring School District near Branson. She resigned in March as part of a settlement agreement.
Amid a national reckoning of sexual harassment, Heckler’s case has angered some residents living within the boundaries of the school district that educates about 1,800 students, with some calling for the ouster of superintendent Mike Mason.
The initial lawsuit said Mason sent unwanted text messages, repeatedly stopped by Heckler’s office, and in one instance, lifted her shirt from the back. She complained to the district’s Title IX coordinator who concurred that Mason’s actions amounted to sexual harassment, the lawsuit said.
The school board signed off on the $500,000 settlement in March, with Mason admitting no wrongdoing. At the same meeting, the board voted 6-1 to extend Mason’s contract and give him a raise. The one dissenting vote was cast by the lone female board member.
In April, about 650 people signed a petition calling for Mason’s removal. But the board has taken no action to remove Mason.
School district spokesman Ben Fisher declined comment on the lawsuits but said the district “wants everyone to know that it is steadfastly committed to providing an environment that is free from discrimination and harassment for all students and staff.”
A phone message seeking comment from school board president Earl Johnson was not returned.
Heckler, 45, said in a second lawsuit filed in July that despite a sterling job performance record that included awards and other recognition, she struggled to find a new job. The suit said she applied for more than 60 jobs before finally being hired as a fifth-grade teacher.
The suit said Heckler’s job search was hurt because at least two board members “made disparaging and derogatory statements, rumors, spoke ill of, and in general bad mouthed” her in retaliation for the harassment claims against Mason.
The Missouri Commission on Human Rights agreed that Heckler had a “right to sue” the district again. The district has responded by suing the commission as part of an effort to halt the second lawsuit. A court hearing is scheduled for Dec. 1.
Heckler’s attorney, Jay Kirksey, said the district’s lawsuit is “without merit.”