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Olsen lawsuit against school district dismissed, appeal planned

By Bob Conrad
Trina Olsen. Image: Ty O'Neil.

U.S. District Judge Miranda Du today ruled against Trina Olsen in her long-running dispute with the Washoe County School District. Du ruled in favor of the district by denying Olsen’s motion for summary judgment.

An appeal of the decision is already planned.

“We respect Judge Du, but we strongly disagree with the court’s reasoning in this case,” said Luke Busby, Olsen’s attorney. “We will be seeking review of the decision with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.”

Olsen filed the lawsuit seeking damages after she had to hire attorneys to defend herself against being terminated by the district. While the district ultimately reinstated Olsen, she said she had to spend tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees to get her job back.

WCSD’s hired attorneys argued that Olsen was provided due process the entire time the school district spent firing her, a process the began in the spring of 2017 until she was formally dismissed more than a year later.

The district put Olsen on paid leave for more than a year before former Superintendent Traci Davis fired her in July of 2018. The arbitrator found, however, that the district violated Nevada law by firing her prior to undergoing arbitration.

Attorneys hired by the district, Robert Dotson and Justin Vance, repeatedly denied that Olsen was “deprived of due process.”

Judge Du agreed.

“The fact that Plaintiff already won full reinstatement with back pay and benefits further weighs in favor of finding that she received the process she was due,” Du determined.

District’s arguments sidestep school policies 

A crux of the district’s defense against Olsen is that she was afforded due process throughout the prolonged effort to fire her. WCSD attorneys said her case should be dismissed because she allegedly did not report her complaints to an outside authority.

When Olsen raised concerns about school personnel giving marijuana back to a student,among other issues, she said she was rebuffed each step of the way. She complained not to her boss, then Hug High School Principal Lauren Ford, but Ford’s boss, Area Superintendent Roger Gonzalez.

School policies state external complaints may be filed with outside entities. Another policy, however, says staff are required to exhaust the administrative process with the district, before filing a complaint with the state or federal agencies.

School attorneys argued Olsen should have filed an external complaint, but since she didn’t, her complaint was insufficient.

“We know that the fear of retaliation remains, and most all are reluctant to proceed with any complaint, for fear of firing, drawn-out litigation and often hostile legal demands.” 

Again, Du agreed.

“Plaintiff must have reported her allegation against Ford to someone outside her organization for her tortious discharge claim to proceed past summary judgment, but she did not,” she wrote. “Instead, she complained to another supervisor within WCSD,Area Superintendent Gonzalez.”

School policies are inconsistent, but the school district’s spokesperson, Megan Downs, said the district has no intention of updating their policies. She did not respond to a question about whether the district would notify its employees of the conflicting rules.

“The District has no intent to currently amend Board Policies or Administrative Regulations because Board Policy 4505 is consistent with the District’s argument,” Downs said.

District admits to not following Nevada laws

The school attorneys admitted the district did not follow proper procedures when it fired Olsen, but they did not cite specifics.

“Frankly, though the process may not have strictly followed certain Nevada statutes, it is unclear what additional process could have been provided and, ultimately, providing any additional process would not have yielded a different result as Ms. Olsen was reinstated and continues to be employed with WCSD to this day,” the attorneys said.

Busby responded.

“Olsen’s case was not an inadvertent failure to strictly comply with an unclear or difficult provision of Nevada law,” he wrote. “The facts show that WCSD was made aware of the requirement that it await the outcome of arbitration, but it chose to simply disregard the law and to fire Olsen despite the law.”

He also said damages were clear.

“Olsen suffered additional pecuniary losses in her dispute with WCSD beyond the loss of her pay for six months, including being required to pay her former counsel $27,870 to represent her in the dispute,” he argued. “Olsen was also required to pay Arbitrator Dooley $4,931. This is roughly half of the amount Olsen recovered in back pay before taxes, and as such, any intimationthat Olsen did not suffer any pecuniary loss is simply false.

“Olsen was deprived of her income for six months, was required to pay attorney’sfees and costs associated with WCSD’s allegations and has suffered continuing and irreparable harm to her reputation and career,” Busby added.

Olsen, during a deposition, also said, “This entire process has been extraordinarily emotionally taxing and humiliating because WCSD has been trying to gaslight me from the beginning when I knew what I did was right.”

District still denies giving a student marijuana

The school district, through its attorneys in Olsen’s case, continued to minimize the incident in which a school employee gave cannabis back to a student because the student was serving as a drug informant.

Their attorneys called the marijuana “residue,” Olsen’s reporting of the incident as “allegations” and the incident itself as an “alleged incident.”

It’s the same tact used by former Superintendent Traci Davis and prior WCSD Trustee Katy Simon Holland. Despite evidence to the contrary, including a statement by one of their own superintendents, both refused to admit the marijuana was given back to the student.

“Drugs were never returned to either of these students, and the arbitrator’s decision is even confused over this issue contradicting itself in parts,” Simon Holland and Davis wrote in a letter after This Is Reno first publicized the incident. “The district may have considered lesser discipline for students who may have possessed minuscule amounts of substances that may or may not be drugs, who immediately recognized the problems with their actions, apologized, and after the fact, provided information to law enforcement.”

Another law firm, paid by WCSD, investigated the matter and confirmed the employee gave marijuana back to the student.

“Student A lost his wallet. The wallet was found by a teacher. The teacher opened the wallet and observed a small amount of marijuana in the wallet. The teacher returned the wallet to Employee 1. Employee 1 made the decision to return the wallet to the student without issuing consequences,” attorney Anthony Hall wrote in July of 2019.

A WCSD employee confirmed to This Is Reno that there was cannabis in the wallet.

“It was a nugget with a recognizable odor,” the teacher said. “I’m 100% sure the dean gave the student back the marijuana—no question.” (The district’s attorneys tried to pin this statement on Olsen, according to court records. They asked her if she was the one who reported this to This Is Reno. She was not.)

Former Area Superintendent Gonzalez even wrote, as part of the process to fire Olsen, that the student had served as an informant in an investigation, and that’s why the student was given leniency.

“Further, all three witnesses confirmed that because of numerous mitigating factors, including that Student B provided the name of his supplier… the normal consequences of the possession were not applied,” Hall confirmed.

The school attorneys, however, repeatedly refer to the incident as an “alleged incident” during which the school dean had only “allegedly returned drugs to a student.”

Olsen’s attorney, Busby, wrote, “Despite Mr. Gonzalez’s plain statement … WCSD later disputed that it used students as criminal informants. The letter … also states that it would be defamation to suggest that an administrator did not turn drugs over to law enforcement, essentially threatening Olsen with a defamation suit.

“However, [an employee’s] text messages clearly show that she did, in fact, return drugs to a student.”

Employees still skeptical of administration

School district spokesperson Megan Downs said the district agrees with the court’s decision today.

“The District has maintained all along in this matter that it provided due process, as it does to all of its employees, and today’s Order by Judge Du affirms the District’s position,” she said. “The District always seeks to, and will continue to, treat its employees respectfully, and when issues arise, the District will continue to follow the law and provide its employees due process.”

Employees familiar with Olsen’s case called it disheartening. A teacher called the district’s attitude vicious.

Although new Superintendent Kristen McNeill has said she will not tolerate any retribution against employees who speak out, this teacher, who would not comment on the record in fear of reprisal, said they will likely never file a complaint against the district.

Olsen’s case was cited as a reason.

“I don’t know anyone that would feel comfortable following the complaint process, in or out of the district,” the teacher said. “The lack of clarity is not a bug, it’s a damn feature designed to manipulate the desired outcome.

“We know that the fear of retaliation remains, and most all are reluctant to proceed with any complaint, for fear of firing, drawn-out litigation and often hostile legal demands.”

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