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Bias Suits Name Rio School District

The actions filed by three white employees allege racial discrimination and harassment by Latino administrators.

April 22, 2004|Holly J. Wolcott | Times Staff Writer

Two teachers and a secretary have filed lawsuits against the Rio Elementary School District and its former superintendent, alleging racial discrimination and harassment by a Latino administration.

The lawsuits also allege the white employees were retaliated against for reporting to the Ventura County Grand Jury last year that then-Supt. Yolanda Benitez and others had improperly sought to impose a pro-bilingual educational program in the largely Latino elementary school district.

The lawsuits, filed separately last week and in late February in Ventura County Superior Court, seek a combined $6.2 million in damages from the Oxnard district and Benitez.

One suit also names three former and current board members and two current administrators.

Greg Ramirez, the district's attorney, could not be reached for comment. And Benitez, who herself has sued the district over her firing in the wake of the grand jury report, said she had not seen one lawsuit and could not comment on the other.

"The district has a legal obligation to provide me counsel [for the two lawsuits] and I am waiting to be contacted," Benitez said.

In the first suit, Marcia Joedicker-Marino, a second-grade teacher at Rio Plaza Elementary, and Claudia A. Sanders, Benitez's former secretary, allege the defendants accused them of being "biased against Mexican people" and encouraged others to express hatred toward the women.

The lawsuit names several past and current board members.

The defendants were responsible for "orchestrating and condoning offensive racially and ethnically-motivated actions directed at [the plaintiffs], including allowing parents, students and employees to shun them, to make racially derogatory statements and other insults to or about them, and even spit on them ..., " the lawsuit states.

The suit, which seeks at least $5.6 million in damages, also alleges that Joedicker-Marino, who is white, was denied teaching materials that Latino teachers received, and that Sanders, who is also white, was involuntarily transferred while Latino staff members were not.

The pair contend they were denied pay raises and personal leave time afforded to Latino employees and that administrators kept secret files on them and not on other non-Latino employees.

In the other lawsuit, Rio Lindo second-grade teacher Martha Neary alleges Benitez and the district subjected her to derogatory statements, sabotaged her school projects and made "false accusations of dereliction of duty against Neary in the presence of parents...."

The lawsuit, which seeks at least $600,000, also contends employees often switched from speaking English to Spanish when she entered a room so as to exclude her from discussions, and that employees were told not to associate with Neary, who is white.

"The unlawful discrimination and harassment to which Neary was subjected are severe and pervasive and ... occurred on a continuous basis," the lawsuit states.

In both lawsuits, the women allege emotional distress.

George Perez, a former board member named in the Joedicker-Marino and Sanders lawsuit, said Wednesday he did not believe there was a lot of substance to the women's claims and described the lawsuits as "flagrant."

"I'm not too happy," Perez said.

"We have a very diverse employee staff in the school district and I think we've worked well to try and keep it that way."

Perez, who was on the board from 1994 to 2000, said the women would have a "hard time trying to prove any of these allegations."

School district board member Simon Ayala, also named in the Joedicker-Marino lawsuit, said he was surprised to learn of Neary's complaints because he has known her since attending school with her as a child and that if she was experiencing problems she should have come to him.

Also named in the Joedicker-Marino lawsuit is school board member Anthony Ramos and two assistant superintendents, David Lopez and Mary Anne McCabe.

Like Perez, Ayala said the district's biggest concern now would be finding money to fight the lawsuits.

"With budget cuts, we don't have any money to be litigating and I don't know where they think we're going to get the money to do this. It's absurd," Ayala said.

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