A former Fort Lee HS teacher alleges the “termination/non-renewal” of her contract was retaliation for complaining to administrators about a male student sexually harassing her.
Fort Lee High School failed to protect a female teacher from a male student’s sexual harassment and terminated her employment for complaining, according to a lawsuit filed in Bergen County Superior Court.
Carol E. Martinez sued the Fort Lee Board of Education and Superintendent Kenneth Rota alleging the district violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination related to sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and retaliation.
Great first three years for Carol Martinez at Fort Lee HS
A teacher at Fort Lee HS from September 1, 2015, through the end of the 2018-19 school year, Martinez received high marks and complimentary performance reports for most of her career. Fort Lee HS Principal Lauren Glynn gave her numerical ratings of 3.03, 3.05, and 3.08 during those years, respectively, and wrote in a report dated April 30, 2018, that:
Throughout the school year, Mrs. Martinez has proven to know her subject matter well and has demonstrated an understanding of how students learn. She often anticipates students’ conceptions and confusions and develops multiple strategies to overcome them. Positive interactions among students are observed in her classroom as well as successful teaching of useful social skills.
The report did state that “Mrs. Martinez has unintentionally shown a lack of sensitivity in regards to student’s beliefs while speaking of current events,” but that she “often takes advantage of teachable moments and corrects misunderstandings.”
Allegations of student sexual harassment in 4th year, no administrative support
Unfortunately, things didn’t work out during year four. Starting in September of the 2018-19 school year, Martinez allegedly became the target of a student with a history of sexually harassing teachers. Despite complaining to the school’s principal and two vice principals about the student’s behavior, Martinez was essentially ignored and no “corrective actions against the student” were taken, according to the lawsuit.
Specifically, the complaint states “the student would constantly stare at her with his mouth open, leering at her, looking at her up and down in a sexually suggestive manner.”
Over the next two months, during the course of various meetings related to the situation, Martinez was allegedly told by VP Peter Vilardi “[h]e just likes you. He means no harm,” and when she asked about her right to safety, VP William Diaz told her “teachers are not a protected class.”
Bad performance review in 2019
Eventually, after a contentious meeting with the student’s mother on December 18, 2018, the child was removed from the classroom before Winter Break. By April 30, 2019, Glynn clearly felt different about Martinez’s performance than years prior – giving her a numerical rating of 2.27 and writing the following about her relationship with students in a report:
Ms. Martinez wins the respect of some students but has had issues with building relationships with others. Students feel she is sometimes harsh, unfair, and disrespectful with students and/or plays favorites. Ms. Martinez sometimes uses questionable judgement. She tries to be sensitive to the culture and beliefs of students’ families but sometimes shows lack of sensitivity.
Notice of Non-Renewal
On the same day of Glynn’s 2019 performance report, Superintendent Ken Rota “hand delivered a letter” to Martinez entitled Notice of Non-Renewal of Employment For the 2019-2020 School Year, according to the lawsuit. If her contract was renewed, Martinez would have received tenure on the first day of the 2019-20 school year.
Additionally, in a separate letter from June 18, 2019, Rota wrote the specific reasons for her termination were:
The decision to not recommend your employment contract for renewal was based upon your performance, which failed to meet expectations in multiple areas, including but not limited to the following: preparation and implementation of effective, engaging, and comprehensive lesson plans; incorporation of State and District-mandated elements into lesson plans; effective and appropriate communication with parents; effective and appropriate communication with students; implementation of recommendations by superiors for improved classroom performance; effective classroom management.
Good luck in your future endeavors.
Attorney says bad performance rating was “pretext for wrongful termination”
When asked to comment on the lawsuit, Jay Chatarpaul, Martinez’s attorney, told Real Garden State that “[the district] could not fire her for complaining of student sexual harassment or bullying, as that would be an admission of violating various laws.
“Thus, they gave Ms. Martinez low performance rating, and then they fired her/refused to renew her teaching contract on the basis that her “performance was deficient.” However, this was a pretext for wrongful termination.”
Despite how things ended in Fort Lee, Chatarpaul noted that Martinez is currently employed by an Essex County school district.
Judge lets case move forward, no comment from Fort Lee BOE
After lawyers representing the Fort Lee BOE & Rota filed a motion to dismiss the case, Bergen County Superior Court Judge Lisa Perez Friscia dismissed one count related to gender discrimination, but allowed the other claims of hostile work environment, sexual harassment, and retaliation to proceed.
When reached by phone, Fort Lee BOE Business Administrator Haqquisha Taylor said Rota would call Real Garden State to provide a comment on the lawsuit’s allegations. An email to a Fort Lee teachers union representative did not receive a response. If/when either comments, this article will be updated.
Of note, no details were publicly available, but on May 5, 2020, the district settled a lawsuit from 2018 brought forward by a black mother whose daughter suffers from sickle cell anemia and was allegedly subjected to harassment after correcting her white teacher’s lesson about the disease.