Police at Hug High School after a school police officer shot a student who was brandishing knives. Image: Ty O’Neil.
Trina Olsen was reinstated as an assistant principal at the Washoe County School District by order of an outside arbitrator.
The arbitrator called the district’s firing of Olsen last year “overly punitive.”
The district’s case against Olsen cost more than $160,000. It cost Olsen $40,000 in attorney services needed to save her job.
The arbitrator said Superintendent Traci Davis broke Nevada law by firing Olsen before a legally required arbitration hearing.
The district denied wrongdoing. The district’s attorney, Chris Reich, said the school district stands by its administration.
Trina Olsen went back to work today.
Today was the first time Olsen was back on a district campus in an official capacity since July 2017. She had been ordered off school district properties for a list of disciplinary charges and a drawn-out firing process that an outside arbitrator last month called retaliatory, arbitrary, and capricious.
Olsen last week was put in a new position at Wooster High School after the arbitrator mostly vindicated her in a long-running dispute with the school district.
“The decision to move forward with dismissal seems to have prolonged the cost and pain to both Ms. Olsen and the district, which is particularly unfortunate, given that dismissal was not warranted,” the arbitrator wrote.
Davis fired Olsen last year despite numerous attempts by Olsen to remedy her situation internally. She requested an independent outside investigation, filed formal complaints, tried to meet personally with Davis, and pleaded more than once for help from school board trustees.
“It felt like there was a total disregard of factual evidence,” she said.
Dozens of pages of documents show her concerns were dismissed at each step in the process, specifically by Davis, her staff, the district’s attorneys, Area Superintendent Lauren Ford, retired Area Superintendent Roger Gonzalez, Deputy Superintendent Kristen McNeill, Director of Labor Relations Virginia Doran, and school board trustees.
“Neither I nor members of the Board of Trustees can engage with you on your personnel matter,” school board President Katy Simon Holland wrote to Olsen after Olsen sent trustees a detailed account of her case.
District officials took more than a year to fire Olsen. That included months of not communicating with her.
Arbitration before termination is mandatory by state law, but the district insisted it did not have to be held to the arbitrator’s decision.
“The superintendent shall have the final decision based on the (arbitrator’s) recommendation since the board of trustees delegated all employment decisions to be determined by the superintendent on February 14, 2006,” Labor Relations Director Virginia Doran wrote to the arbitrator, Andrea Dooley.
Dooley found that the district and Superintendent Davis violated Nevada law when they fired Olsen. Dooley called the district’s actions retaliatory and overly punitive.
Dooley chastised the district for its callousness toward Olsen after she called school police when a student brandished knives on the Hug High campus. The student, Logan Clark, was shot by police. He survived. His case remains unresolved.
“The December 7 (2016) shooting that was witnessed by Ms. Olsen was a significant event in the life of Hug High School, its community, and Ms. Olsen in particular,” Dooley wrote. “There was no evidence that the trauma of this event was addressed. Ms. Olsen must have had great personal courage and a deep reserve of competence to respond the way she did.
“The fact that she later felt like she was overwhelmed, under water, and needed help seems like an obvious consequence of witnessing a knife attack on students…”
Olsen’s “stellar track record as a teacher and dean of students” was also noted by the arbitrator.
Dooley said that the district failed to provide evidence for many of its claims against Olsen and documented that Area Superintendent Lauren Ford, Olsen’s then-supervisor, admitted that she “‘lost her cool’ and swore at Olsen” in front of her colleagues.
The arbitrator upheld two disciplinary actions against Olsen but said neither were grounds for termination. In one instance, Dooley maintained corrective actions should have been shared with Olsen’s then-boss, Ford, the very person who initiated disciplinary proceedings against her.
Ford was shown to have not followed district procedures for employee evaluations and failed to respond to many of Olsen’s requests for assistance. In another instance, Dooley documented that Olsen was singled out by Ford for discipline.
Ford was later promoted from principal to area superintendent. Olsen was put on paid leave.
One of the district’s main allegations against Olsen — that she made false statements about Ford — was not supported by facts, Dooley added. “The evidence presented by the district did not support the allegation that Olsen made false allegations or was dishonest.
“Olsen reported a hearsay statement and expected a fair investigation. This discipline is retaliatory and overly punitive.”
Olsen said she felt vindicated by the arbitrator’s decision, which ordered the district to put her back to work. Dooley also directed the district to pay Olsen’s salary from July until now — $46,000.
The cost of the district’s actions, in having to pay salary and benefits, now tops $165,000, Olsen said.
The arbitrator also said that Davis violated state law — Nevada Revised Statutes 391.824(6) — by firing Olsen before the arbitrator’s decision was issued, as ThisisReno reported in September.
Dooley ordered the district to reinstate Olsen.
“Because the dismissal should not have been implemented until after receipt of this written report, the employer must reinstate Ms. Olsen and make her whole back to July 5, 2018,” she wrote. “Upon receipt of this written report, the superintendent will then follow the provisions of 391.824(6). It is the opinion of the arbitrator that the district has been arbitrary and capricious in its decision to dismiss Ms. Olsen and recommends that the superintendent review Ms. Olsen’s file to determine whether she is eligible for placement as an AP or for some other position.”
“If the board doesn’t use this as a precedent for change, it will just perpetuate the behavior of district leadership and continue to promote a culture of fear for employees.”
Dooley’s decision was sent to the school district on Friday, December 14, 2018. State law mandates that the superintendent shall, within five business days, either forward to the board of trustees a recommendation for Olsen’s termination or take no further action in firing her.
School District Attorney Chris Reich, rather than follow the arbitrator’s directive, tried to make Olsen give up her rights and to sign what Olsen said amounted to a gag order.
Reich instead sent on December 27 to Olsen’s attorney a draft “settlement agreement” that would have added conditions to the arbitrator’s decision.
District Tried to Suppress Arbitrator’s Decision
Olsen said her attorney, Michael Langton, conveyed to her that Reich asked her not to speak to the news media after the arbitration decision was made. Reich also wanted Olsen to agree to keep Dooley’s document suppressed.
“No party may release the terms and conditions of this agreement to any third party except as required by law,” Reich wrote in the draft agreement. “The terms and conditions of this agreement and the (arbitrator’s) award will not be released to any individual or entity who does not have a strict need to know except as required by law…”
Reich also wanted to prevent Olsen from criticizing the district, including giving up her right to file a grievance or a future complaint.
“Olsen and the district agree they shall not disparage or malign one another with respect to any matter related to their employment or service, professionalism, ethics, work ethic, character or integrity (including) the district, its employees, and its officers,” Reich wrote.
Olsen refused to sign the document.
Refusing to be Silenced
“People need to know how the district treats its employees,” she told ThisisReno. “This whole situation has been embarrassing to me and continues to negatively affect my family financially.”
She said her legal fees cost about $40,000. That amount won’t be reimbursed by the school district.
It wasn’t until January 9 — nearly a month after the arbitrator’s decision was delivered — that Reich agreed to reinstate Olsen with back-pay and benefits.
“The district disagrees with the analysis and findings of the arbitrator in this matter and supports the actions of the district administrators.”
District officials declined to comment for this story, but Reich said the district stands by its administration.
“While the district disagrees with the analysis and findings of the arbitrator in this matter and supports the actions of the district administrators, Superintendent Traci Davis and the district respect the arbitration process,” he wrote.
Olsen said she’s never had a reason to speak out against the district or her supervisors, nor had she had any disciplinary actions in her 22-year career. She plans to raise her concerns, for the second time, with the school board of trustees at the board’s monthly meeting tomorrow at 2 p.m.
“I was forced to go public because my concerns were repeatedly ignored. I filed complaints that still have not been investigated,” Olsen said. “If the board doesn’t use this as a precedent for change, it will just perpetuate the behavior of district leadership and continue to promote a culture of fear for employees.
“I’m not the first to go through this, but without decisive change from the board, the decisions of this administration will continue to be a tax liability for this community.”
The Washoe County School Board meets Tuesday, January 15, 2018, at 2 p.m. at the school district’s administrative building, 425 East Ninth Street. Watch the meeting online.
Bob Conrad is publisher, editor and co-founder of This Is Reno. He has served in communications positions for various state agencies and earned a doctorate from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011, where he completed a dissertation on social media, journalism and crisis communications. In addition to managing This Is Reno, he holds a part-time appointment for the Mineral County University of Nevada Extension office.