Teacher complained to the state, then lost her job

Lauren Strom complained about an understaffing violation at a Minneapolis day-care center where she worked. The center fired her.

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Lauren Strom has been an artist since being fired after complaining about not enough staff members at the day care where she worked.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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Lauren Strom was frustrated about understaffing at the Cradle Club, the downtown Minneapolis day-care center where she had worked as a teacher since October 2005.

So in January, without her employer's knowledge, she called the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) to say she thought the teacher-student ratio rule was being broken.

A state inspector confirmed that the rule was violated in Strom's classroom for 35 minutes on one day and issued a correction order to the Cradle Club. A week later, Strom was summoned to a meeting with the day care owner. The violation was Strom's fault, she was told. She was fired.

Strom sees it as a blatant example of retaliation. "Because I called and I called them out on something, they did wrong, they got rid of me," she said.

Cradle Club owner Maria Erickson said she didn't know until told by a reporter that Strom had called the state. Even if she had known, Erickson said, it wouldn't have changed her decision, which she said had nothing to do with retaliation and everything to do with Strom failing to summon more teachers to the toddler room that January day.

"Does she think she was doing best for the kids? I'm sure that's what she believed was best at the time," Erickson said. "No matter how wonderful a teacher you are, if you don't make every effort to follow the legal rules, you can't work here."

Day-care workers are required by law to report suspected abuse and neglect. The Department of Human Services depends on these tipsters to help enforce child-care rules. For less-serious violations, it's optional but encouraged.

"Reporting of licensing violations is critical to the care of children," said Laura Zrust, DHS licensing legal office manager. "It is important that staff do that as appropriate."

Strom, 26 and living in Minneapolis, had gotten rave reviews during her three-year career at the Cradle Club, located in Butler Square in the Warehouse District. She had received thank-you cards and commendations from her employer, with phrases such as "The parents trust her, the children adore her!" and "You are wonderful!" Even three weeks after she fired Strom, Erickson had this to say about her former employee: "We think she's very talented and very capable."

Strom also was willing to speak her mind about things she thought needed to change, said Jamie Angell, a former colleague at the Cradle Club. "If the kids weren't getting what they needed, she was one of the very first people to stand up to the owner, to the director," Angell said.

One of those things was the ratio problem. Under Minnesota's day-care laws, no more than seven toddlers per teacher are allowed. But Strom and others at the Cradle Club had complained to the director, Scarlett Radway, about the difficulty staying in ratio with the staff available. Erickson confirmed that those issues had been brought up by Strom and others, but said that they were being dealt with and that teachers had no excuse for violating the rules.

The conflict came to a head on the afternoon of Jan. 8. Much of the staff was in training. After a meeting, Strom walked into the toddler room, where the kids were supposed to be napping. She said she found the room degenerating into chaos. Some children were "bouncing on their cots, screaming and crying." Others were waking up. Strom quickly realized she needed more teachers to stay in ratio, so she called the director's cell phone. She got voice mail, and left a message. Radway, who was in a meeting, said her phone never rang.

Strom contacted another classroom and eventually found another staff member. By then, 15 kids were awake, putting the room one student over ratio. Strom decided to start taking care of the kids.

Once she saw the cell phone message, Radway came to the classroom, putting it back in the legal ratio. In Radway's view, the problem was solved. Strom became convinced that the ratio issue wasn't being taken seriously. On Jan. 21, she called the state.

The Feb. 5 visit from DHS inspector Chad Kratzke prompted a memo from Radway to the staff urging them to bring any concerns to her first, then Erickson. As for problems staying in ratio, Radway wrote, that is the teacher's responsibility, and if you violate that, "you will be written up as you are not following the state guidelines for ratio."

That same day, the state issued its correction order for being out of ratio between 2:15 and 2:50 p.m. on Jan. 8. The order didn't carry any penalty, but required the day-care center to prove it was now obeying the rules.

Erickson said the state's finding prompted the Cradle Club to do its own investigation. Erickson said she determined that Strom should have continued to make calls to staff to get the class in ratio before tending to the children.

At their Feb. 17 meeting, Strom read through a memo from Erickson that justified terminating her from the $14.50-an-hour job. The punishment went beyond the write-up described in the staff memo only seven days earlier. But Erickson said a harsher consequence was imposed because of the length of time the classroom was out of ratio, and because Strom was experienced enough to have known better.

The day-care center doesn't agree with the state that a violation occurred. It has appealed the correction order. But even if there was no violation, Erickson said, Strom's termination was justified, because then she made a false report.

Strom has had one significant vindication. Workers fired for "intentional or negligent conduct" generally can't collect unemployment benefits. But using the Cradle Club's own memos, Strom convinced the state that she wasn't aware of the "policy, procedure or instructions" that she was accused of violating. She received her first payment last week.

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