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Whitehurst files federal lawsuit against school board, school superintendent

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By Tom Wilmoth

 

            Having filed charges against Bedford County Public Schools with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging that she was the victim of discrimination on account of her sex, Dr. Cherie Whitehurst has taken the issue to the next level, filing a federal lawsuit against the Bedford County School Board and Superintendent Dr. Douglas Schuch.

            The lawsuit, filed in federal court today, claims that Dr. Whitehurst was retaliated against by the board for alleging the discrimination “despite being presented with clear evidence of the improper and illegal actions undertaken by its superintendent” and against Dr. Schuch individually claiming he discriminated against Dr. Whitehurst “on the basis of her sex, thereby denying her the equal protection of the laws as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

     Stacey Haney, an attorney representing the school board, stated in response to the lawsuit: "The School Board and Dr. Schuch vehemently deny any liability to Dr. Whitehurst and they intend to vigorously defend this lawsuit.  We believe that these claims are without merit and we plan to proceed accordingly.  We do not intend to comment further on the pending litigation at this time."

            Prior to filing the lawsuit,  Dr. Whitehurst had to file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. On Feb. 4, the lawsuit states that the EEOC granted Dr. Whitehurst a Notice of Right to Sue.

            In the federal lawsuit, Dr. Whitehurst is seeking from the school board:

            • Back pay since the effective date of her promotion;

            • Front pay, including benefits, until June 30, 2027;

            • Compensatory damages in the amount of $300,000;

            She is also seeking individually from Dr. Schuch:

            • Compensatory and punitive damages for a total of $5 million.

 

The lawsuit: evaluations

            The lawsuit notes that during her role serving on the Central Office staff she received “superlative evaluations” for her work.

            Those evaluations from Dr. Schuch, entered as evidence as part of the lawsuit, notes that she exceeded expectations and that believed she would make an “excellent superintendent.”

            “I have depended on her leadership daily, and I have fully trusted her to function as superintendent in my absence. Bedford County Public Schools is truly blessed to have such a remarkable leader in service to our students,” the lawsuit stated, quoting from a 2010 evaluation by Dr. Schuch.

            The lawsuit quotes a 2012 evaluation from Dr. Schuch that stated in part: “Over the past three years I have observed her transformation from a superstar high school principal to an equally impressive leader, mentor, and trainer of principals” and “. . . I do not believe that she realizes just how amazing her school division leadership skills have improved the quality of our organization and specifically the quality of our school principals.”

            A 2014 evaluation shared in the lawsuit quoted Dr. Schuch as stating, “our school division is blessed that she will be expanding her responsibilities in the future as our Deputy Superintendent, where her talents and visionary leadership will undoubtedly benefit our schools and community.”

            A 2017 evaluation stated: ““Dr. Whitehurst has continued to dedicate herself to the students, families, and employees of Bedford County Public Schools. Her loyalty, work ethic, humility, and integrity have been a model of servant leadership that inspires those who encounter her daily. Under

Cherie’s leadership, we have achieved many milestones as a school division. Bedford County Public Schools is very fortunate to have such a dynamic leader and educator serving as Deputy Superintendent and its Chief Academic Officer.”

 

The lawsuit: discriminatory actions

            The lawsuit, however, goes on to claim that during the times those evaluations were being given “Dr. Whitehurst was also becoming the object of regular discriminatory actions and comments from Schuch.”

            The lawsuit states: Over the course of nine years, what were initially viewed as isolated events of discrimination evolved into a sustained pattern of bullying and unfair treatment – all on the basis

of Dr. Whitehurst’s sex – that culminated in multiple discriminatory acts in May and June 2018.”

            Dr. Whitehurst claims in the lawsuit that she was treated differently from her male counterparts within the school division, stating:

            • Dr. Schuch would not eat lunch alone with her fearing that someone might allege they were having an extramarital affair;

            • Dr. Schuch repeatedly made candid comments that reflect his true feelings regarding the inferiority of women in the workplace compared to men;

            • On multiple other occasions across various years, when Dr. Whitehurst has “respectfully questioned Dr. Schuch regarding a particular decision or the rationale for such a decision, he has often remarked that Dr. Whitehurst was ‘cycling’.” The lawsuit stated that “the use of this term is patently offensive, clearly referring to a woman’s menstrual cycles and the misogynistic stigmas associated with them, and it demonstrates Schuch’s belief that, if a woman is questioning his logic or reasoning, she must be experiencing her period.”

            • Dr. Schuch, when questioned by Dr. Whitehurst about a subject stated that “talking to you is like talking to my wife,” giving the connotation that “Schuch believed Dr. Whitehurst was nagging or pestering him when she should have been quiet and known her place.”

            The lawsuit states that when she went to human resources about the comments, her concerns were “inappropriately shared with Schuch, who – without consulting Dr. Whitehurst – made a referral

for her to BCSB’s employee assistance program” which was used as “a weapon against” her. The lawsuit states Dr. Whitehurst also contacted the school system’s attorneys about Dr. Schuch’s “discriminatory conduct” but his behavior did not change.

 

The lawsuit: the demotion

            The lawsuit goes on to claim that Dr. Schuch’s conduct “reached its crescendo” while the two of them were interviewing a principal candidate in May 2018. Dr. Whitehurst claims that Dr. Schuch made a comment to the candidate that showed he believed that sex and race “affect one’s approach to a job.” She claims that when she questioned Dr. Schuch about the comment after the interview had concluded, she was recommended for a demotion from her position as deputy superintendent to school principal for the 2018-2019 school year. “Ironically (for a school system), this document misspelled the word ‘principal’,” the lawsuit added.

            “Schuch blindsided Dr. Whitehurst when he presented the Principal Contract to her and, during his conversation with her, failed to identify any specific action taken by Dr. Whitehurst that necessitated his recommendation that she be demoted,” the lawsuit states.

            The lawsuit states that the demotion would result in a professional step backwards as well as the loss of $3,600 from her salary package for an automobile entitlement.

            The lawsuit goes on to question an independent investigator’s report that the Bedford County School Board had paid for, calling it “one-sided,” but noted that still “in the final line of the Investigation Report, the investigator cautioned Schuch and BCSB against further retaliation against Dr. Whitehurst.” One day after the report was filed, the lawsuit states that Dr. Whitehurst was demoted to a teaching position within the school system.

            The lawsuit includes a copy of the demotion letter and notes that it states: “Schuch wrote that ‘[t]he reasons for my recommendation include your unwillingness to effectively understand and support the organizational structure of the school division. Additionally, your attitude and personal interactions with many school division leaders have created a professional climate that limits collaboration and impedes progress in implementing the BCPS strategic plan’.”

            Eventually, the lawsuit claims that Dr. Whitehurst was offered a position as an instructional coach which “resulted in a reduction of Dr. Whitehurst’s total compensation from $132,766 to $114,262.00, a loss of more than $18,500.00 annually.”

 

The lawsuit: the lasting effects

            Ultimately, as a result of the actions of Dr. Schuch and the school board, Dr. Whitehurst claims that she “suffered a variety of damages, including, but not limited to, the following: loss of wages, both in the past and in the future, as well as physical and emotional pain, mental anguish, embarrassment, inconvenience, and the loss of enjoyment of life, which will most likely continue in the future.”

            It adds that “ Dr. Whitehurst has been physically unable to be present in the work place due to the emotional trauma that she has experienced there as a result of the discriminatory actions of Schuch and BCSB. Being in the work place causes ocular migraines, anxiety attacks with hyperventilation, exacerbation of depression, and a general decline in emotional stability.”

            Dr. Whitehurst has been on leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act since August 9, 2018, which leave will continue through the end of the current academic year and exhaust her accumulated sick leave, the lawsuit noted.

            “Dr. Whitehurst is no longer able – either physically or emotionally – to work in the field of education, which will require her to retire from her field of choice multiple years earlier than expected, at significant personal financial cost, and seek employment elsewhere,” the lawsuit stated.

           

           

Her career

            A Bedford native, Dr. Whitehurst graduated from Liberty High School in 1980

and received her Bachelor of Science in Education from James Madison University in 1984. She

began her teaching career in the Harrisonburg area with Rockingham County Public Schools

following her graduation in 1984, and she remained there until she and her husband returned

to Bedford in 1990.

            In the summer of 1990, she began her career with Bedford Count Public Schools (BCPS) as a middle school teacher, first at Forest Middle School for three years and then at Staunton River Middle School for another three years. During this time, Dr. Whitehurst completed her Master of Education in School Administration with Lynchburg College (now the University of Lynchburg), and in 1995 she was named Bedford County Public Schools Teacher of the Year.

            Dr. Whitehurst was promoted to the position of assistant principal at Staunton River Middle School and later served as assistant principal at Jefferson Forest High School, for the 1998-1999 and 1999-2000 academic years. She  went on to serve as principal at Staunton River High School for six years and then moved over to Liberty High School as principal. In 2009, Dr. Whitehurst was named assistant superintendent for the school division and in 2014 was named deputy superintendent.

            For the 2017-2018 school year she had a total compensation package of $132,766.