Bloom Law’s Suit Gains Spotlight in Tri-City Herald.

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Ex-school bus boss sues Pasco district, claims racial harassment by his workers for years

Reprinted from the Tri-City Herald (Oct. 24, 2023)
By Eric Rosane

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A Pasco School District employee is suing the district and its superintendent, alleging a pattern of retaliation by top administrators for reporting racial discrimination and harassment during his time as transportation director.

The lawsuit was filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Richland by Jose Hernandez, who still works for the district but in another department.

The suit details charges of a hostile work environment, workplace retaliation and racial discrimination.

In court documents, Hernandez describes a “broken” system and “racially hostile work environment,” where he was subject to nearly a decade of racial slurs, anonymous notes, insensitive language, targeted graffiti calling him names on school district buildings and an alleged harassment campaign by a group of subordinates.

Employees would slip notes under his door, some saying, “Go back to Mexico,” “Speak English,” or calling him a slur.

He alleges hearing comments and “anti-Mexico jokes,” including, “Don’t f******* talk to me… I still can’t believe we have a Mexican for a director,” and, “Mexicans — like Mr. Hernandez — will steal the bus’s hubcaps,” and, “You people don’t like Trump because he wants to build a wall, why’d you even come to our country?”

Hernandez claims employees would use his picture as a dartboard target.

The harassment got so bad, the lawsuit says, that Hernandez was reporting one new instance of racially harassing conduct per month to his supervisor. He also alleges that another supervisor used the phrase “you people” to refer to Mexican-Americans in a derogatory manner.

“I encouraged humanism and open and honest conversations, but it was obvious that the district was not concerned about the racism, hostility or the vulgarity of hate words used toward me and others,” Hernandez said in a statement. “Through this lawsuit, I hope to bring change in our school system and provide a platform for others to come forward and take a stand.”

Hernandez claims the district did very little to investigate or discipline employees after he reported the abuse, and went so far as to retaliate against him by reassigning him after he reinstated a worker who allegedly drove a school bus while under the influence, and denying him a promotion.

Hernandez is requesting the court award him lost wages, damages for emotional harm and attorney’s fees, among other relief.

The district disputes the claims alleged by Hernandez in the 24-page document filed by the Seattle law firm, Bloom Law PLLC.

“Pasco School District does not tolerate discrimination, and the district and Superintendent (Michelle) Whitney adamantly disagree with the characterizations in Mr. Hernandez’s complaint,” said Anna Tensmeyer, director of public affairs, in a statement Tuesday to the Tri-City Herald.

“The district’s record illustrates prompt and reasonable responses to all reports of discrimination brought forward by Mr. Hernandez and the district’s support of, and dedication to, Mr. Hernandez as an employee,” it said.

Hernandez earned an annual salary of more than $162,000 as transportation director during the 2022-23 school year. When the district reassigned him as the migrant program manager, he was offered the same salary for two years. Today, he makes more than $170,000.

“While the district could have chosen a harsher response, Mr. Hernandez’s record of service and previous expression of interest in similar work were considered in offering him his current assignment,” Tensmeyer said.

Career with Pasco schools

Hernandez began working for the Pasco School District in 2006 as a dropout prevention manager and after four years was promoted to student achievement coordinator.

In 2012, he took a job as the district’s transportation director, where he oversaw the transportation of 11,000 students daily and managed 230 workers.

The lawsuit says he received “uniformly positive” reviews during his nine-year tenure as director despite witnessing and being subject to “pervasive” racial harassment.

Hermandez alleges a small group of bus drivers in the district, who call themselves the “Stearman Group,” engaged in “intimidating and racist conduct towards him because of his race.”

The school district’s transportation facilities are located on Stearman Avenue.

He says they directed threatening glares at him, refused to acknowledge his greetings, distributed social media pictures of offensive graffiti ostracizing him in 2016 and spread false rumors.

In 2019, the group also reportedly delivered an “intimidating and anonymous” package with a coffee mug inside, which read: “It’s a Stearman Thing. You Wouldn’t Understand.”

He also learned secondhand of other racist comments and conduct toward he and other Latino employees on either a weekly or monthly basis.

“Mr. Hernandez frequently felt anxious and physically sick after hearing of this racist treatment of him and others,” the lawsuit reads.

Despite reporting the harassment to his supervisors, Hernandez claims they repeatedly failed to take “prompt or effective remedial action.”

Within his first year as transportation director, Hernandez claims he told his supervisor that bus drivers were engaging in appalling racist conduct. Not much was done at first, he says, but investigations were slowly opened.

In 2016, the district formally investigated Hernandez’s reports of racist conduct. He claims investigators never spoke with him and that he was left uninformed about the outcome.

The district also formed a “climate assessment committee” that year, but Hernandez claims it fell apart.

In 2017, after Hernandez and others reported racist comments made by transportation workers, the district issued a non-disciplinary letter to employees to “maintain professional behavior at work” and “be respectful of co-worker’s beliefs, values and privacy.” The letter stated “no one will discriminate, harass or intimidate others.”

Two years later, in November 2019, the district opened another investigation based on hostile work complaints from Hernandez. But he says investigators failed to look into his concerns. No corrective actions were taken based on the report, but Hernandez claims in the lawsuit that Whitney acknowledged to him that “people needed to be fired based on that report.”

“Because of the district’s repeated inaction and failure to take prompt or effective remedial measures, Mr. Hernandez was continually exposed to a racially hostile work environment for years,” court documents read.

Hernandez said he would frequently feel physically ill, and the environment was emotionally distressing.

“Mr. Hernandez gained a reputation, especially towards the end of his tenure, as someone willing to call out the district’s inaction on issues of race intolerance,” claims the lawsuit.

The district never disciplined nor fired a single employee based on Hernandez’s claims, says the suit.

Tensmeyer says while the district was unable to identify who sprayed the graffiti and sent the coffee mug, they enlisted the support of law enforcement and third-party investigators in an attempt to hold someone accountable.

“In other situations, the district took prompt and appropriate measures to address misconduct and prevent any further violations. Additionally, the district implemented measures in Mr. Hernandez’s department to improve the climate with demonstrated success,” she said.

Intoxicated bus driver

One of the main reasons Hernandez was reassigned, according to the district, was because of allegations that in December 2021 he allowed a district school bus driver to continue driving despite an alcohol test identifying a low level of alcohol in his system.

Hernandez claims he placed a bus driver back on duty after verifying the driver took a blood-alcohol test and was below Washington’s state legal intoxication limit. The driver “blew” an alcohol concentration of 0.014 and 0.016 when tested.

In Washington state, a person is considered legally drunk if they have a blood alcohol measure of 0.08 percent or higher. Hernandez claims the two breath tests were below the limit and would be classified “negative” by Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration standards.

But Pasco school policy states an employee is not allowed on duty or to remain on duty “to perform safety-sensitive functions while having any alcohol concentration.”

“As an administrator, it was Mr. Hernandez’s responsibility to know and enforce this policy,” the district said in a statement.

“In the subsequent third-party investigation, Mr. Hernandez admitted to not knowing of Policy 5259 (zero-tolerance policy) and stated that if he had, he would have not permitted the school bus driver to ‘move until HR got a hold of him.’”

But Hernandez says placing drivers back on duty when they blow below 0.02 is consistent with the agency’s and PSD’s “zero-tolerance standard for alcohol,” and that the district used the incident as an excuse to retaliate against him for reporting racial harassment.

In November 2021, Hernandez said he proposed to an assistant superintendent a “meeting with the school board” to discuss his concerns about the hostile environment.

A month later, Pasco School District placed him on administrative leave from December 2021 to March 2023, citing allegations of misconduct due to the incident with the bus driver.

The lawsuit says the district ultimately determined that while he acted reasonably in allowing the driver back on duty, he had violated the district’s “zero-tolerance” policy. He was denied a promotion to the executive director of operations and placed in “the district’s version of Siberia.”

“The district’s justification was nothing more than a cover-up for race discrimination and retaliation,” court documents read.

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