A former special education teacher at a Brooklyn Park high school has sued the Osseo School District, saying her complaints about administrators’ racially charged comments led to her dismissal.
The teacher, Sharon Booth, had complained that statements by Park Center High School principal John Groenke and assistant principal Jill Knutson were offensive to black students and staff.
Booth, who is black, said her complaints led to retaliation, including unfair teaching evaluations and her eventual dismissal.
Booth’s attorney, Richard Wylie, said she tried to resolve the matter short of a lawsuit.
“She asked them to simply reassign her to another high school, and they wouldn’t,” he said. Booth is seeking her job back and compensation for lost wages, “not to get these people ousted or fired.”
Osseo school officials declined to comment, due to the pending federal litigation.
Booth became a full-time probationary special education teacher who started with district in 2012. She received the highest possible evaluations for the 2013-14 school year.
Groenke became Park Center principal in 2014 and Knutson was assigned as an assistant principal. The student body was approximately 82 percent black and the school had five black teachers, according to the complaint.
In September, Groenke sent an article about white privilege to the staff. At a staff meeting in October, he allegedly used a racial epithet when talking about a childhood experience with racism. He showed a Comedy Central “Key & Peele” video featuring a black teacher mispronouncing white students’ names.
During the meeting, Booth told the principal that she found the video offensive; Groenke told her they would discuss it later, which never happened.
A few days later, Knutson reportedly referred to black male students as thugs, which has taken on a racially charged meaning. Booth complained to Knutson, Groenke and human resources director Janet Thomas-Bouyer.
Booth said in her complaint that for the next two months, Groenke and Knutson “attempted to coerce” her into accepting Knutson’s less racially charged view of “thug,” including making disciplinary threats. Groenke observed Booth’s classroom and told her she needed to be more accepting of other perspectives.
Booth complained to school board member Linda Etim, who apparently told Osseo Superintendent Kate Maguire that Knutson and Groenke should be fired.
On Dec. 12, district officials suspended Booth for seven school days and deactivated her e-mail account for refusing to accept the assistant principal’s view of “thugs” and for her refusal to meet with Groenke and Knutson. Thomas-Bouyer said Booth should be fired for defying the principal.
On Feb. 24, Booth filed a claim of discrimination with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The district then refused to renew Booth’s teaching contract. Booth had asked district human resources executive director Judy McDonald whether she could teach in another Osseo district school, to which McDonald said no, and that she and the principal found her “bad for the school and bad for the district,” according to the complaint.
The trial could get underway in the next several months.