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September 20, 2017
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School board trustee alleges harassment was form of retaliation for running on reformative platform

By: Katherine Minkiewicz
September 8, 2017

After a lawsuit for damages against the Rohnert Park-Cotati Unified School District was dropped last month by recently elected board member Tim Nonn, Nonn is now alleging that “his blindness was used as a political weapon” against him in the form of harassment and the alleged refusal of letting Nonn pick his own aid.

Nonn, whose lawsuit went on for several months, is now claiming that he was harassed due to the fact that he ran for the school board on a reformative platform, wanting to change the status quo and address several concerns he has toward the district regarding health and safety conditions, special needs programs and academic achievement.

“Last year during the campaign we had a debate… I stated several times during the debate that I saw the school board was dysfunctional because the school board’s duty is to manage the superintendent and because the three school board members who are supporting Superintendent Haley vote the way he recommends 100 percent of the time,” Nonn said. “Then I talked about the need for student academic achievement, the need to improve health and safety conditions — because there have been repeated instances of hazardous conditions for students and staff, the three-month gas leak, the mold going on for months at Lawrence Jones Middle School… So I was talking about making major changes in the leadership in the school district. When I started office in December, I was immediately met by hostility by the superintendent and the three board members because they don’t want change. So I wasn’t surprised at the hostility, I knew that was going to be there, but I was surprised the hostility would extend to using my blindness as a weapon against me and I thought that was low.”

These concerns and desires for change have been reflected throughout the community via parent reviews of Lawrence Jones Middle School and several letters to the editor received from those in the community over the past two months.

Regarding academic achievement, one parent who remained anonymous wrote a negative review concerning academics on movoto.com for Lawrence Jones saying, “My son attended the Lawrence E. Jones school for the 6th, 7th and 8th grade years and has progressively went from passing to a total fail by the end of the 8th grade year with a total of four “F” grades in every core subject: math, English, history and science. I’ve talked to teachers, the counselors and attended all the open house nights and got nowhere. Now I have to keep him home to home school him to try to save him from a similar fate in high school.”

According to greatschools.org, a school review site that also tracks school standardized test scores, Lawrence Jones has test scores that fall below the state average, with math, English and science all significantly below the state average scores.

A letter submitted to the Voice by Rohnert Park resident, Chrissa Gilles spoke of some safety concerns and criticized the board’s slow response in taking action after a gas leak had occurred at Rancho Cotate High School in February of 2016.

Gilles wrote in the letter, “The fact that there were leaks posed a serious hazard to students, staff and the neighboring community members. Who can know if there would have been an explosion, illness, or maybe nothing for a day or week or ever? It was eventually taken care of but not with the sense of urgency that some community members would have expected.” 

Weeks later in a September one letter submitted by Richard Cole, similar thoughts of needing to make changes to the school board were expressed.

“We need to take action and get our school board district back in efficient working order,” Cole said.

Nonn says that his alleged harassment in response to bringing up these concerns and voicing the need for change, has been going on for nine months from November 2016, to April 2017 and included mockery aimed at his disability.

In an interview Nonn said at board meetings pieces of paper would be placed in front of him with the expectation that he could read them and when touring schools, board members would point in a direction and ask him to look at an object.

“Marc Orloff told me I was lying about being blind, even though he had the letter from the doctor saying I was legally blind and I need a reader. All three of them said that they saw me reading documents. Constantly Mindy McKeon shoved a paper in front of my face and said ‘read this,’ and I said, ‘I can’t. And she goes, ‘well just try.’ I can try from here to eternity and I won’t be able to read it. One time this employee was walking around the district office pretending they were walking blind with a cane and everyone was laughing. One time, Superintendent Haley was bringing me on a tour of the schools and we were at Lawrence Jones Middle School and he pointed to a field and he said, ‘Hey Tim look at that field out there, oh I forgot you can’t see,’ in this real sarcastic mocking tone and then burst into laughter,” Nonn said.  

Janet Lowery, a retired special-ed teacher, whom Nonn wanted as his reader, said in an interview it was clearly obvious that Nonn needed an aid for reading and that she too saw similar signs of harassment and accusations of Nonn “faking” his blindness.

“It was obvious to many of us that he needed help in terms of reading documents and in terms of having the powerpoints explained to him because of his eyesight. They fought the fact that he was blind even in the mediation. Mr. Orloff and Mr. Haley were accusing him of not being blind. None of us could believe this, we were all incredulous,” Lowery said. 

When Nonn filed the lawsuit with the school district after the board said they were going to provide him with their own reader, allegedly not allowing Nonn to choose his own independent reader, Nonn and Lowery said throughout the suit the board continued to accuse Nonn of faking his own blindness, even after sending a doctor’s note confirming he was legally blind.

The letter from Nonn’s doctor, Brien A. Seeley, clearly states, “Nonn’s ocular status is now one of legal blindness in both eyes due to permanent visual impairment. He needs a scribe and a reader to perform his work.” The Voice received permission from Nonn for using Doctor Seeley’s letter. 

“I think the judgement is that his vision is not as bad as he claims it to be. His vision has gone down drastically from last year. So, there hasn’t been the consideration for the fact that he’s blind,” fellow school board trustee Leffler Brown said of the case.  

According to Nonn, Superintendent Haley believed the choosing of an aid to be an interactive process instead of one where Nonn himself would have the ability to choose his aid.

“He kept referring to it as an interactive process, but he’s thinking when an employer is negotiating with an employee around their disability and their needs, in that case there is an interactive process. But I’m not an employee of the district, he is, I am not. And that is a different section in the Americans with Disabilities Act and that it says in the ADA that the presumption should be that the person with disabilities knows what accommodations they need. So for instance me being visually impaired, I know I need a reader. So under the ADA it gives the person with the disability the presumption that they know what they need,” Nonn explained. 

With the ADA stipulations in mind, according to Nonn he had expressed desires of having his own chosen independent reader so there would be no bias or conflict of interest, however, Superintendent Haley’s secretary Mindy McKeon was initially chosen by the board to temporarily serve as his reader instead of his requested aid, Lowery.

In a recent Press Democrat article, School Board President Tracey Farrell said the board “had tried to accommodate Nonn and offered him in January ‘the same thing’ outlined in the tentative settlement.” The ‘same thing’ being the independent reader that Nonn requested. The article further states that Haley also wanted a neutral reader.

In a statement to the Voice from Superintendent Haley and Farrell, they said of the accommodation process with Nonn, “In regards to his desire to rely on Janet Lowery, either as a scribe or a reader, it was explained to him repeatedly that he could use her anytime he wanted to do so. In regards to the recent settlement, which is pending approval in the court, there really is nothing that we were not prepared to provide back in January.”

However, in a January email exchange between Nonn and the case lawyer, (which was obtained and used with permission by Nonn) they note that the district wasn’t sure of the seriousness of Nonn’s eyesight loss and had provided him with ‘magnification tools’ to help him read. The statement reads, “I understand the District has Mr. Nonn’s prescription and that Mr. Nonn has indicated that he cannot see enlarged documents or visual displays and that magnification tools are not effective… I am not sure if anything that has been provided has been helpful...” The email provided by Nonn later says, “We are also not sure in what context Mr. Nonn cannot see documents…”

In the Press Democrat article, Farrell said they had offered Nonn the same deal that he had been asking for in January, however, in this correspondence with the case lawyer, it shows that the District was still unsure of his legally blind status even when the doctor’s letter had been sent two weeks earlier and had instead provided him with ‘magnification tools,’ where the helpfulness of these tools provided were questioned by the same lawyer.

Nonn says of the alleged harassment and the drawn out lawsuit that this was an effort to obstruct his efforts to help change the district by not allowing him equal access to school board meetings.

In the same statement sent via email by Superintendent Haley and Farrell, they said they have never seen any hostility by board members directed towards Nonn and denied the claims of harassment.

“I have not witnessed anything of the sort. In fact, I have witnessed the opposite in terms of assisting Mr. Nonn. I have seen district staff, school staff and his fellow board members go out of their way to assist him and make accommodations… Mr. Nonn has been treated with respect by district staff and to my observations, by his fellow board members,” Farrell wrote.  When asked if the school board has had similar disputes in providing accommodations, Farrell replied with a “no.”

Yet, there have been several other union complaints and PERB — Public Employment Relations Board cases, one involving the growth of mold in several Lawrence Jones Middle School classrooms. The most recent one involved Tech Middle School teacher Maha Gregorgetti, who sued the district after Farrell and Orloff visited her classroom unannounced after she sent in a complaint to the superintendent regarding one of the fences at Rancho Cotate High School. In this particular case, it was ruled that this was an “illegal intrusion” and an intimidation attempt by the two board members.

“We are being targeted.” Nonn said. “People are saying they are too scared to speak out in fear of losing their job.”