A Brookings-Harbor special education instructional aide filed a lawsuit Thursday for more than $3 million against the Brookings-Harbor School District and her employer, the South Coast Education Service District (ESD).
Elisabeth Cohen claims in the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Eugene, that her First Amendment rights (free speech) were violated and the ESD retaliated against her for complaining about inadequate equipment, facilities and support for herself and disabled students in the school district.
The claims were filed under federal anti-retaliation provisions, Oregons Whistle-blower Act protecting public employees, and anti-retaliation provisions of Oregons employment discrimination statute related to people with disabilities.
Cohen also filed a claim for intentional or reckless infliction of emotional stress.
Also named in the lawsuit were school district Superintendent Paul Prevenas, the districts Director of Special Education Bill Saunders, ESD Superintendent Rick Howell and ESD Director of Special Education Christopher Kit Rainey.
According to Cohens attorney, William R. Goode, she is seeking $650,000 in subjective damages and $250,000 in economic damages under the federal claims and Oregon Whistle-blower claim.
Cohen is also seeking $500,000 punitive damages against each district under the rehabilitation claim and $250,000 punitive damages against each individual on the free speech claim.
Goode said in a press release that a similar lawsuit was filed by a former special education teacher against the Portland Public Schools and two supervisors who did not renew the teachers contract. On Nov. 16, a federal jury in Portland returned a verdict after a two-week trial awarding the teacher more than $1 million.
Cohen, who is currently working as an instructional aide at Brookings-Harbor High School, has been an advocate for the rights and services for students with disabilities and has appeared in several Pilot stories about the topic.
Her advocacy and dedication to students has not been without a price retaliation, Goode said.
The Pilot, which was notified of Cohens lawsuit late Friday, was unable to reach Prevenas or Rainey for comment.
Saunders said he was not aware of the lawsuit, but added, Our district doesnt employ her. Christopher Rainey is her boss.
Howell told The Pilot that he wasnt aware of the lawsuit and was surprised to hear about it.
She filed a complaint with the states Employment Relations Department several months ago, Howell said. They came out to the (Brookings-Harbor High) school and did an on-site investigation.
My understanding was that everything was OK. There were no problems.
He declined to comment further until he had a chance to review the lawsuit.
Cohen works for the ESD, which the school district contracts with to provide special education services.
In her lawsuit, Cohen said she reported incidents and situations in which disabled students were subjected to discrimination, and were not provided free and appropriate education including after-school activities that were equal to services provided to non-disabled students.
She said she also reported inadequate facilities and services for the disabled students, hazardous facilities, improper employee conduct, including falsified reports or lack of required reports, mismanagement of funds, and failure to fully disclose information to parents of disabled students.
Cohen claims she reported these deficiencies at various times within the ESD and school district to her immediate supervisor and others including Howell, Saunders, Prevenas and Rainey.
Cohen also reported what she considered problems with The Pilot and other newspapers, a labor organization, the Oregon Department of Education and one or more members of the states Legislature.
Cohen claims her advocacy was greeted by retaliation on the part of the ESD and the school district.
That retaliation, she said, included being subjected to intimidation and a hostile work environment, including adverse transfer of assignments, denial of other positions for which she applied and was qualified, increased surveillance, poor job evaluations and threats of being fired.
In addition to punitive damages, Cohen is seeking $450,000 in general damages for her stress, mental anguish, humiliation and damage to her reputation.