“It is unsafe at this school. I’ve had two of my teachers injured as a result of breaking up fights.”
Trina Olsen arrived at Hug High School as an assistant principal in the fall of 2016. A 22-year Washoe County School District employee, she advanced from a long-term, board-certified teacher into an administrative position as a dean of students at two different high schools where she oversaw discipline and school safety.
She had a history of positive evaluations and no disciplinary actions. Olsen said she started at Hug High School as an assistant principal with no issues.
Then came the 14-year-old student who arrived at Hug armed with knives and was critically injured when he was shot by a school police officer. The Reno Police Department has yet to release a final report nearly two years later, according to school district spokesperson Victoria Campbell.
After the incident, Olsen said her position at Hug devolved into a Kafkaesque ordeal where she raised concerns about campus safety, lack of student discipline, and she begged for help and assistance to meet job demands. She said her concerns were repeatedly ignored.
She was ultimately fired from the district after what she and her attorney call false allegations by her immediate supervisor, then Hug Principal Lauren Ford, and a recommendation for dismissal by her area superintendent, Roger Gonzalez.
Gonzalez suggested that she file formal complaints about the conditions at Hug, then later recommended her termination, using her complaints as part of the reason for her firing.
By July of 2017, she was placed on administrative leave, and remained on leave for a year, at a cost to the district of about $120,000. She said she waited for months to get basic information about her position and to this day waits for an expedited and legally required arbitration by an impartial third party.
Throughout the saga, Olsen said that the district violated its human resources rules and regulations and Nevada laws regarding dismissal of school employees.
Campus safety questioned
“I attempted to advocate for upgraded campus safety equipment funding following our December 7th incident, but that request was unsupported.”
On Dec. 7, 2016, the student who came to Hug armed with knives was quickly shot by a school police officer.
At a press conference, District Superintendent Traci Davis praised the quick response by school police and personnel. “Had it not been for their quick actions and professionalism, I truly believe that the outcome could have been much worse,” she said.
Olsen said it was she who alerted school police and immediately placed the campus on lockdown. She saw the student get shot.
The student alleged that he was bullied at school. He survived and later faced charges for possession of a handgun. The Reno Gazette-Journal reported that he was ordered to a treatment facility in Texas in April.
Olsen said she was horrified by the incident.
“My training had prepared me for it, though,” she said. “After that event, I was scared to be on campus.”
She began to question safety at Hug. She raised concerns over adequate video surveillance to her supervisor, Ford, but said she never received a reply.
She later wrote, “Hug High School lacks sufficient campus safety equipment, which frequently inhibits investigations or calls for support and/or help. Video cameras are minimally operational as compared to other schools. … I attempted to advocate for upgraded campus safety equipment funding following our December 7th incident, but that request was unsupported.”
The district confirmed in August that surveillance cameras were upgraded at Hug and Wooster high schools just this year using funds from Washoe ballot question WC-1, approved by voters in 2016.
“There are digital CCTVs at every high school, and I believe every middle school,” said district spokesman Riley Sutton. “They are not all the same, as they have been installed in phases over the years, and, of course, technology is always improving. Wooster and Hug just got upgrades this summer. They were the first schools to get CCTVs, which meant that they were analog and have now been upgraded to very good digital.”
Sutton refused to explain the camera upgrades even though the district publicly promoted security enhancements, including video cameras, at many of its schools in March.
“Those aren’t the type of details school police are comfortable with us giving out, unfortunately,” Sutton said before implying that knowing details such as the number of cameras on campus would “make a school more difficult to run or a principal’s job harder.”
The district’s paralegal, Breanne Read, denied a public records request for this information.
Olsen said that after raising questions about campus safety and what appeared to be an overall lack of adequate discipline on campus, Ford began mistreating her.
On Saturday, April 22, 2017, Olsen later documented in a complaint that “Principal Ford engaged in a severe outburst against me in front of our administrative team.”
A school district administrator who would not speak on the record for fear of reprisal said that Ford “swears a lot. She has a sailor’s mouth.”
Hostile work environment alleged
“I felt like I was mandated to report something that could be illegal.”
One of Olsen’s complaints is that when marijuana was found on a student, a dean allegedly gave back a wallet that contained the cannabis, which is still illegal for minors, to the student without disciplinary action.
That dean reportedly told Olsen, when asked why the student wasn’t suspended, that Ford “had done this before,” meaning that Ford had allegedly been lenient on students. Olsen interpreted that to mean Ford had given cannabis back to a student without noted discipline.
Already on the outs with Ford, Olsen contacted a professional mentor in the district and asked for advice without naming names. The mentor encouraged her to have the dean self-report the incident to Ford.
That’s what Olsen said she did. Believing nothing had been done, she later included the incident in one of her formal complaints to Gonzalez, the area superintendent and Ford’s boss, who suggested she file the complaints.
“It was a good-faith effort to report what I believed had not been properly handled,” Olsen said. “I felt like I was mandated to report something that could be illegal.”
Gonzalez and district officials then used the complaint as evidence against Olsen for alleged “false reporting. Never happened,” a district official allegedly scribbled on the margin of Olsen’s complaint form. That form, and its notes, were given to Olsen as part of her appeal to the district.
Olsen also claims that Ford did not appropriately evaluate her and other subordinates. On March 15, 2017, Ford sent an email to staff reminding them that observations required of district employees were due a week prior as part of the evaluation process. Ford’s list of observations of her subordinates was blank.
“Well … I suck. Mine are blank all across,” she wrote to selected staff later that day, indicating that her own observations had not been completed.
Nevertheless, when Olsen was evaluated by Ford, Olsen said it was the first time she said she was confronted with concerns about her performance.
She requested a meeting with Ford to rebut what she said was false information in her evaluation. She and Ford met for about three hours on April 21, 2017.
Olsen complained to Ford about what she said was incorrect information. Olsen said Ford replied that the information came from another assistant principal. When Olsen protested about its truthfulness, she said Ford told her the matter was between Olsen and the other assistant principal.
After their meeting, Ford changed part of her evaluation to list Olsen as “effective,” but the next day was when Ford dressed down Olsen in front of her colleagues, allegedly for causing an investigation about grade inflation at Hug.
“You don’t fucking get it!” Ford reportedly yelled at Olsen. Another administrator led Ford from the room to prevent escalating the outburst, Olsen said. The confrontation left her in tears.
In May of 2017, internal emails and personnel documents show that Olsen continued to raise concerns. That month, a coworker reported to her, “It is unsafe at this school. I’ve had two of my teachers injured as a result of breaking up fights.”
Olsen, who oversaw discipline at other schools, said that students were often not disciplined by Ford after incidents such as fights or drugs found on campus.
When Olsen complained to Ford about being overworked and not having support, Olsen said Ford ignored her plea.
“I was so overloaded with my duties at that school that I was up every morning all second semester-long at two or three in the morning just trying to keep up with my email load,” she later explained to district officials. “I had no help.”
Removed from campus
Olsen was removed from campus in May 2017. The reason: She allegedly sent a testing schedule spreadsheet to campus faculty that included identifying student information.
Olsen said when the mistake was discovered, she owned up to it but added that Ford reviewed the spreadsheet and directed her to send it. On Thursday, May 11, 2017, Olsen asked Ford to review the attachment. She also texted her.
“I sent the second draft, did you see it?” Olsen texted. “Am I good to send to staff?”
Ford had already replied via email. “Please send to staff,” she directed.
But it was Olsen who was ordered off campus while the incident was investigated. Ford was promoted to area superintendent weeks later.
On May 25, 2017, Olsen sent an email to area superintendent Gonzalez requesting a meeting with him to report numerous concerns.
On June 1, she again pleaded with him: “Can you and I please meet as soon as possible?”
Gonzalez replied: “If you have a formal complaint, please utilize the attached form.”
On June 6, she asked again to meet: “As mentioned in a previous email, I’d like to request a meeting to grieve about the work of my principal, Mrs. Lauren Ford. When are you available to meet so we [can] discuss these grievances?”
Olsen said Gonzalez never replied. What she received instead were disciplinary letters written by Ford, and later, another disciplinary letter written by Gonzalez.
“I went to Gonzalez because I felt like I couldn’t report to [Ford] because it was about her,” she later explained to district officials. “I was going to him because my complaint was about my supervisor, Ford.”
The district’s case
The school district began ratcheting up complaints against Olsen after she was removed from campus.
School personnel are usually expected to undergo progressive discipline, allowing the employee to improve her performance, explained a district administrator experienced in district discipline procedures, speaking on the condition of confidentiality. “It would be rare to bypass progressive discipline unless it’s something particularly egregious, such as hitting a child.”
The school district would not comment on Olsen’s case, but audio recordings and personnel documents provided by Olsen show that the district’s intent was to ultimately fire her.
Olsen received three separate letters totaling more than a dozen allegations of misconduct. Two typo-filled “letters of admonition” were given to her in one day, both written by Ford. Those letters outlined steps for improving her job performance.
She also received two separate notices by Ford that she was under investigation—and a third from Gonzalez. Among the complaints: Olsen “brought false claims and allegations against Lauren Ford.”
It was her complaint coming back to haunt her. Days later, in July 2017, she was notified that she was being placed on administrative leave. She was also banned from school district properties.
Documents show that the district’s allegations of false claims rested in part on Olsen’s report about the marijuana incident and complaining that “Ford does not have the ability to evaluate an employee following WCSD administrative procedures.”
“This further demonstrates your willful neglect or failure to observe and carry out the requirements of this title.”
Ford, Olsen alleged, had filled in her observation information retroactively.
“She did not put in the observation information until after evaluations were due to the district,” Olsen said. “She also tried to change my evaluation a month after it was final—to make it more negative.”
She complained about her evaluation change to Gonzalez.
His response: “I would suggest that you follow your supervisor’s direction and if there are comments or a response you would like to make to your evaluation that you use the [district’s system] as requested.”
Gonzalez also said that Olsen spoke about her investigation to a colleague after being told not to. Olsen said she did have contact with a colleague but provided no information about the investigation. The district later claimed that Olsen made “very threatening and unprofessional comments to him.”
“Not true,” Olsen said.
She was also admonished by Gonzalez for the testing spreadsheet with identifying student information and allegedly changing student grades without Ford’s permission. In addition, she didn’t clearly communicate to Hug department leaders about a testing schedule, and she didn’t present to teachers a video about test security, Gonzalez wrote in June.
The video is on the website, Olsen said, and she directed teachers to view it there.
She said she felt relief from work pressures after being removed from campus but worried about who was going to conduct required testing of students.
She texted two colleagues.
“I have been paper-thin for awhile, at least I’ll get some rest tonight,” she told them. “I really feel bad they won’t let me finish [testing].”
Gonzalez used this text message as evidence to get rid of Olsen.
“This further demonstrates your willful neglect or failure to observe and carry out the requirements of this title,” he wrote about the text. He accused her, with these and additional alleged infractions, of violating Nevada law.
Going to the top
With a termination pending, Olsen went to the top. She wrote a letter to Superintendent Davis requesting a 15-minute meeting.
“I am a 22-year veteran of WCSD with many ‘high effective’ evaluations, especially in the last 5 years,” she said. “I have never been disciplined or reprimanded until now, nor received a single mark of less than effective. … You stated in a recent publically [sic] broadcasted meeting [with the school board] that one of your goals was to listen to your employees more. I respectfully ask for that opportunity.”
The opportunity never arrived. Instead, the district asked her to resign during a mediation meeting.
Olsen’s attorney, Michael Langton, said that in December of 2017, the district used “mediation as an attempt to pressure Ms. Olsen into signing her resignation and a confidentiality agreement in exchange for $5,000 and a neutral recommendation. When Ms. Olsen refuses, the WCSD threatens to fire her ‘tomorrow.’”
“The WCSD used mediation as an arena to intimidate and bully me into resignation without just cause,” Olsen later complained to Superintendent Davis.
“The WCSD used mediation as an arena to intimidate and bully me into resignation without just cause.”
She said communication with district officials was virtually nonexistent for the next six months after mediation. She crafted a lengthy letter expressing her concerns, including a timeline of incidents, and sent them to the school board.
One trustee replied. She said they could not respond because Olsen had an attorney.
Olsen said she hired Langton to protect her career because she said she was being falsely accused of misbehavior.
Olsen said the district stopped paying her in July after Gonzalez recommended her dismissal on June 28 of this year to become effective July 5. She said she was not notified of the suspended pay until weeks later.
“Since your status is recommended for dismissal, your pay has been suspended,” Human Resources Technician Selene Lewis wrote to Olsen on July 23.
Olsen said that even if her firing was legitimate, the district would still owe her pay from June 11 through July 5 of this year.
Further, Davis formally notified Olsen on July 26, 2018, that she was terminated as of July 6, 2018. A day later, Olsen received an identical letter of termination from Davis, but the date was changed to be “effective July 5, 2018.”
Langton immediately fired back requesting an expedited arbitration.
Nevada Revised Statutes reads, “if a timely request for an expedited hearing is made … the superintendent must not take any further action relating to the recommendation to dismiss the probationary employee until the written report from the arbitrator is filed with the superintendent and the probationary employee.”
This statute, Langton said, means that Olsen should still be a school district employee. At press time, the district has not scheduled an arbitration hearing, according to Langton.
A formal “whistleblower retaliation claim” by Olsen was also sent to the district in mid-July. Virginia Doran, the district’s director of the department of labor relations, responded that since Olsen was no longer an employee, she could not file a complaint. She called Olsen’s claim “procedurally defective.”
Langton, who’s been an attorney for decades on many employment cases, said Doran’s statement was strange.
“I’ve never ever heard of that,” he said. “Whistleblower complaints are often filed after an employee has been fired.”
Outside investigations requested
Olsen’s ordeal appears to mirror concerns about bullying and hostile work environments within the school district.
Prior to Olsen’s ordeal unfolding, 14 administrators anonymously requested an investigation into “complaints of ongoing issues with the Office of Student Services,” according to Deputy Superintendent Kristen McNeill.
McNeill wrote in a memorandum to Alyson Kendrick, president of the Washoe County School Principals’ Association (WSPA) that the administrators complained of “ongoing issues with the Office of Student Services (OSS) including communications, technical support, bully/harassment and the OSS being hostile, aggressive and defensive.”
The district hired an outside firm to investigate claims made by the 14 administrators.
“[The district’s lawyers] believed that given the nature of the investigation and the fear and mistrust of the investigation process expressed by the WSPA and its members in the complaint letter, it was appropriate and prudent to hire an outside firm to conduct the investigation,” McNeill explained.
“This is a huge problem. I give you hard evidence,
and you overturn a valid bullying [complaint].
I’m speaking because I’m totally frustrated.”
The price tag of the investigation was a reported $48,000. The Reno Gazette-Journal requested a copy of the report but was rebuffed by the district. After taking the district to court, the RGJ prevailed, and the district was ordered to release the records.
The district’s board of trustees, however, voted unanimously to keep the investigation confidential. The school principals’ association said it had no problem with the report being made public with names redacted, but the district is appealing the court order.
Two individuals were named in the complaint: Chief Student Services Officer Byron Green and his subordinate Jenni Ricci.
“Because this investigation involved serious allegations regarding two Leadership Team members, Superintendent Traci Davis was kept informed as the investigation progressed,” McNeill explained to the principals. “Appropriate action has already been taken and will continue to be taken to cause improvement to happen in order to help ensure that all District employees are in safe and respectful working environments.”
Ricci is no longer with the district. McNeill submitted to Superintendent Davis an “investigation report of my findings, conclusions and recommended administrative actions regarding the complaint allegations against Dr. Green. Superintendent Davis agreed with most of my conclusions and recommended administrative actions.”
Others want more investigations.
Three parents complained to the school board in December of 2017, a few months after McNeill wrote to the WSPA’s Kendrick, about lack of accountability when bullying was reported. Jerry Bowden, a parent, said his daughter was the target of bullying and cyberbullying. She allegedly spoke out and faced retaliation.
“The latest and greatest thing I got was this appeal that was assigned by the deputy superintendent to Lauren Ford,” he said. “There’s so many discrepancies within [the district’s] personal findings. When I try to go through the process of appealing this up, the policy stops me from appealing any further.”
Bowden urged the board to hire an independent investigator.
“This is a huge problem. I give you hard evidence, and you overturn a valid bullying [complaint],” he complained to the board. “I’m speaking because I’m totally frustrated.”
Olsen also requested an outside investigation of her claims. She said her request was ignored. Olsen’s case remains unresolved. She admitted to making mistakes but also begged for help from her superiors, the very ones who later recommended her firing.
“I was requesting guidance and help constantly, and my principal was largely unavailable to me,” she said. “I’m not here to attack Lauren. I’ve never been here to attack Lauren. My reason for these complaints was not an attack on my principal. I wanted a safe way to report what’s happening on campus. The investigation process is so flawed—it allowed [Ford] to investigate claims made against her.”
Olsen’s attorney Langton said litigation may be the next step. He said that the district is trying to position her as a probationary employee—despite her teaching career and prior years as a dean—in order to tilt legal interpretations in the district’s favor.
“In my view, she’s been wrongfully terminated for a number of reasons,” Langton said. “First of all, she’s a 22-year employee with an impeccable record, who gets a promotion and then is informed of what she perceived to be a bad act by her supervisor.
“The school district wants to take the position that she’s a probationary employee and therefore has no rights. They’ve accused her of filing false reports, but I don’t believe they can prove that at arbitration. This could be a test case.”
The school district declined comment for this story and refused to make available the personnel mentioned for their responses.
This story was published in partnership with the Reno News & Review and first appears in today’s print edition of the Review.
CORRECTION: Breanne Read is the district’s paralegal, not an attorney as previously identified.
Trina Olsen said she only went public with her situation because her concerns were repeatedly ignored by school district officials. Watch her speak in July to the Board of Trustees explaining some of her concerns. She was fired two days later.