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Palm Coast Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020 1 week ago

Sexual harassment, or not? Victim says Flagler Schools' process didn't work

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The state's Reemployment Assistance Program told Laura Lancaster that Flagler Schools was at fault.
by: Brian McMillan Executive Editor

One day, it was just too much, and she disappeared.

Laura Lancaster, on the morning of Nov. 7, 2019, was driving on Interstate 95 toward the exit that led to Matanzas High School. She was a bookkeeper with the Flagler Schools Transportation Department for the past several years, most of which were spent at the main office on State Road 100, near the Flagler Auditorium. But after she was sexually harassed by another employee there, she agreed to be transferred to an isolated office at Matanzas, so that she could keep away from him.

In the car with her that morning were several stuffed animals that she had removed from her State Road 100 office. She hadn’t bothered to take them out of her car because she had hoped the transfer would be temporary. Being at the Matanzas office made it more difficult to do her job — and she felt that it sent a message to her that she was the problem, instead of him. Why not transfer him, instead, and let her keep her office on 100?

Lancaster, 40, had told the district and the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office in August that the man, a Transportation Department coworker named Emilio Viera, 77, had kissed her on the neck and groped her breasts and buttocks a year earlier. She told the district about three other incidents that also made her uncomfortable.

He admitted to kissing her on the neck but nothing more.

She had been sexually abused for 14 years as a younger woman, and the recent incidents traumatized her to the point that attempted to kill herself in July.

As she was driving on Nov. 9, 2019, she felt ashamed. Ignored.

On an impulse, she passed Exit 293 and kept driving. Past St. Augustine to the north, she pulled over at a rest stop. She cuddled with her stuffed animals, and she cried.

She didn’t go to work that day. She didn’t leave the rest area. She barely left her car.

Two days passed.

Finally, a Jacksonville police officer knocked on her car window.

 

Afraid but ‘frozen’

The trouble began in May 2018, she said, when Viera kissed her and touched her. He later told deputies that he thought she had given him signals that the advances would be welcome. She said she gave him no signals; she pushed him away and hid in the bathroom.

The following day, Lancaster said, Viera drove down Bulldog Drive, following her car, honking his horn, flashing his lights, cutting her off, almost causing a T-bone collision, then getting out and banging on her window. She covered her ears, hit reverse and got away.

He denied it. A misunderstanding.

She said she felt afraid of him as a result, and she started keeping a pocketknife with her.

She debated whether she should report it at all because she didn’t want to lose her job. She kept quiet.

The memories of her past sexual abuse “froze me in my steps,” she said in a recent interview with the Palm Coast Observer. “I know a lot of people don’t understand how you can freeze up and not do anything.”

 

Using the knife

Months later, in April 2019, she said that he made comments about her tattoo and other sexually suggestive comments about her to others. She told her supervisor.

“If I was put through this, I can only imagine how many students have been ignored. I can only imagine a poor child trying to go through this.”

LAURA LANCASTER

In July 2019, she said, Viera winked at her in a suggestive way, and she lost it. She felt traumatized by the May 2018 incident still, and she began cutting her wrists.

“I went into a mental breakdown,” she recalled in a recent interview. “Instead of using the pocketknife on him, I used it on myself.”

She was Baker Acted and treated at Halifax Health, then at Palm Point Behavioral Health, where she told counselors that the triggers for her mental breakdown were her “work location” and “harassment.” She was discharged on July 22, 2019.

A counselor, Lancaster said, encouraged her to make a formal report of the May 2018 incident. It could be the only way to move past it.

So Lancaster took the counselor’s advice. She submitted a complaint to Flagler Schools, claiming she had been sexually harassed. She then arranged to meet a deputy in the Target parking lot, and she explained what had happened. She also requested a restraining order against Viera, which a judge granted, with the condition that Viera be allowed to continue working from the State Road 100 office as usual — but he had to stay away from her.

Lancaster didn’t feel comfortable at the State Road 100 office, so the district agreed to let her work at the Matanzas office, and the district investigated her complaint. And it got complicated.

 

District investigation

“It’s not that we didn’t believe her,” School Board Attorney Kristy Gavin said in a recent interview. “She requested counseling, so we set her up with counseling. We said we would accommodate her if she needed to leave work.”

Lancaster also had complained about a hostile work environment, unrelated to the Viera situation, but that wasn't admissible in the investigation of sexual harassment.

“She said she wasn’t comfortable coming back to work because of the other employees in the office,” Gavin said. “She wanted to have that situation resolved before she came back to the compound. There’s other dynamics going on.”

Gavin said Lancaster made it clear that she preferred to stay at Matanzas, rather than the 100 office. That was true, but Lancaster was under the impression after an Aug. 27 meeting with the district that she would be at Matanzas temporarily. It was difficult to perform her bookkeeping duties on the other side of the county from the majority of the employees for whom she was performing payroll services.

“My job suffered because I moved,” Lancaster recalled in a recent interview. “Payroll was going in late. People weren’t getting paid for their trips because they couldn’t get the paperwork to me in time” at the remote office.

She felt she was being punished for what Viera did.

“For somebody who just tried to commit suicide, putting them in an office by themselves … ” she said, her voice trailing off.

But when the district interviewed Viera, Gavin said, “He apologized and seemed remorseful. … Because of the years he had with us, and not having any prior discipline, it didn’t rise to the level of a support of his termination.”

That’s why Gavin believes Lancaster is still upset and has since filed a grievance: “The tipping point for Ms. Lancaster was that we did not terminate him. That’s her issue.”

 

Against the policy or not?

After multiple meetings with the district, after contacting all five School Board members, after thinking she was being listened to, Lancaster was shocked by the verdict from Chief Human Resources Officer Jewel Johnson.

The “one year old allegation of sexual harassment,” Johnson wrote on Oct. 17, 2019, “ … did not meet the definition required for a finding of sexual harassment.”

The definition is a standard one used across the state and is found in School Board Policy 662. Among the dozens of clauses, one way to define it that applies to Lancaster’s case is as follows: “Sexual harassment consists of unwelcome sexual advances … when … such conduct substantially interferes with an employee’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”

While Viera had not admitted to everything Lancaster accused him of, he did admit to kissing her on the neck. That was enough for the State Attorney’s Office to press a charge of battery, a misdemeanor, against Viera.

Why wasn’t it enough for the Johnson to consider it sexual harassment?

Meanwhile, a letter was placed in Viera’s personnel file on the same date, Oct. 17, 2019, informing him that he had been found guilty of violating the same policy — 662 — for inappropriate touching. “Any further action of this nature may result in further disciplinary action up to and including termination.”

Lancaster doesn’t understand how Viera could be reprimanded for violation Policy 662, but she was told it had not fit the definition in Policy 662.

“I think their policies need to be looked at,” she said.

 

‘They want you to come home’

Nov. 7, 2019. The police officer knocked on her window. Lancaster had been in the car for two days, leaving only to buy a drink from a vending machine at the rest area.

“Your family is worried about you,” the officer said. “They want you to come home.”

When she got home, Lancaster’s husband of more than 20 years was waiting for her with open arms.

“I got out of the car, and him and my daughter embraced me,” Lancaster recalled. “He held me, and he told me never to scare him like that again.”

For the next two months, Lancaster stayed in her home, rarely getting out of bed. She was in a state of massive depression, she said.

But she started sharing her story on social media, and the support came pouring in. Now, she is threatening to sue the district, which is why Johnson and the School Board members and Superintendent James Tager declined to comment for the story.

 

‘Attributable to the employer’

As of Nov. 7, 2019, Lancaster resigned from her job at Flagler Schools. She felt she had no choice. She sought relief from the state’s Reemployment Assistance Program, which responded of her decision to quit in a Jan. 31, 2020, letter, acknowledging that Lancaster quit because of “conflicts with co-worker(s).” The letter states that she “made a reasonable effort to resolve these conflicts.” It blamed Flagler Schools for the loss of her job:

“The reason for quitting was with good cause attributable to the employer.”

Moreover, the letter states that Lancaster is entitled any benefits she should have received since she quit in November. Flagler Schools has until Feb. 20 to appeal the ruling.

“I love that letter,” Lancaster said in a recent interview. “That makes me happy. Somebody actually seen where the wrongdoing was. The school district did wrong. How they handled the whole situation was wrong.”

In her upcoming appeal and planned lawsuit, she knows she will need to tell her story over and over. She’s nervous about that, but she feels it’s worth it. She is fighting the ruling that it was not sexual harassment — and the fact that she felt she had to resign from her job — because she wants to show others who feel they are victimized that it’s OK to come forward.

“If I was put through this, I can only imagine how many students have been ignored,” Lancaster said. “I can only imagine a poor child trying to go through this.”

 

Email Brian McMillan at [email protected].

Brian McMillan has been editor of the Palm Coast Observer since it began in 2010. He was named the Journalist of the Year for weekly newspapers in North America by the Local Media Association in 2012. He lives in Palm Coast with his wife and five children. Email...

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