COMPTON — A Compton Unified School District employee was hospitalized last month with emotional stress allegedly caused when a supervisor threatened to either fire or never promote her unless she practiced Buddhism.
Vergie E. Seymore, a senior secretary in instructional support services, claims that Assistant Supt. Elizabeth S. Norwood harassed and intimidated her into attending Buddhist meetings, chanting a mantra and nailing a shrine to her living room wall.
"She won't even go near that," said Linda Ruffin, Seymore's sister. "She won't even go in the living room."
Earlier this week, Seymore was feeling too ill to come to the phone when a reporter called, her sister said, although she consented to pose by the Buddhist shrine for a photograph. "She (is) taking so much medication," said Ruffin, "the doctors seem to think she's developed an ulcer. . . . She has these terrific headaches. . . . She doesn't even want to talk about it."
Union Plans Damage Claim
But Seymore's attorney confirmed that she filed a workers compensation claim in May, citing "stress and harassment" and seeking medical benefits. This week, the California School Employees Assn.--representing 1,200 workers in the Compton system--is preparing to serve the district with a $2-million damage claim on her behalf, according to senior field representative Leonard Bonilla.
"I've been involved in representing classified school employees for 22 years," Bonilla said, "and it's the first time I've ever run across this. As a matter of fact, the whole thing is incomprehensible in this day and age."
For more than two years "I have been harassed by Mrs. Norwood because I would not become a practicing Buddhist," Seymore charged in a letter written June 23 from her hospital bed at Kaiser Permanente Mental Health Center in Los Angeles.
"On April 26, she (Norwood) called me in and said, 'Look Vergie, if you don't practice the way you should you will remain a senior secretary forever,' " Seymore wrote. " 'I am in the position to either upgrade your desk or create a new certificated position for you,' " Norwood allegedly said, " 'but you just will not be consistent with the practice'."
Norwood declined to comment this week, saying that she doesn't believe it is proper to publicly respond to charges still in litigation. For the past three years, she has managed the district's instructional services, ranging from coordinating teaching resources to developing curriculum.
But Supt. Ted D. Kimbrough came to his assistant's defense, stating that "as far as I know, there's no truth to (Seymore's charge) at all." He confirmed that Norwood is Buddhist. But he said he has never received any complaint that she was proselytizing or pressuring any school employee. Norwood's record as an administrator, Kimbrough added, is "impeccable."
Kimbrough was critical of the employees union for also sending school trustees what he described as "a character assassination letter" on June 30 recounting the allegations.
The union letter complained that district officials were wrongly denying Seymore some of her sick pay as a result of the dispute and claimed that "Mrs. Seymore's illness is due to the direct actions of (Norwood)." The letter also claimed that "the type of action alleged . . . is not only detrimental to the Compton Unified School District as a whole, but is also a violation of employees Civil Rights. CSEA has substantiated that the allegations made by Mrs. Seymore are not (an) isolated situation." And the letter claimed that Norwood has made "the same or similar" approaches to other school employees "who can be identified"--but the letter doesn't name them.
"It seems to me to be an out-and-out attack on an individual," Kimbrough said. "I'm very upset and concerned that people would write such a letter" instead of allowing Seymore's allegations to be confidentially handled within the district's personnel system.
For weeks, the dispute had been quietly unfolding without public attention.
Stephen Belgum, a workers compensation lawyer representing Seymore, said he took a sworn statement from Norwood in July that tended to shed "some credibility" on his client's allegations. "I frankly was very skeptical, although frankly I've learned to believe anything out of Compton." (Only a few weeks ago, one of the district's trustees filed a workers compensation claim seeking lifetime medical care for stress created by her dealings with Kimbrough.)
Belgum said Norwood admitted that she "encouraged" Seymore "to use some of the beneficial portions of Buddhism, at least. And Norwood explains it by saying, 'Seymore comes to me and says how can I cope,' and she says, 'I'm a Buddhist, here's what I do.' She does admit taking her to some kind of Buddhist convention."
But Norwood denied putting any job pressure on Seymore, Belgum said.
'Tremendous . . . Pressure'