Former Lopez Island secondary principal accused of sexual harassment

Warning: This story contains explicit details of alleged sexual harassment.

Eight Lopez residents have filed a tort claim and a complaint with the Washington State Human Rights Commission against former Lopez Island Secondary Principal David Sather.

“Mr. Sather is accused of propositioning female staff, making sexual gestures, making sexual comments, sending electronic communications that were sexual in nature, engaging in stalking behavior, rifling through individuals’ personal effects, and taking actions that prevented the claimants from being able to do their job or advancing in their employment,” attorneys Lara Hruska and Shannon McMinimee wrote in a Sept. 6, 2019, press release about the complaints. “He is also accused of intentionally and negligently inflicting emotional distress and discriminating against the claimants based on their sex and marital status.”

Hruska and McMinimee work for Cedar Law PLLC, a Seattle-based education firm. The duo represents the six women and two men who approached the firm in June, a month after attempting to resolve their complaints with the school board, McMinimee said. She added that her firm has heard from approximately 60 people about Sather’s alleged misconduct. A financial figure has not yet been determined for damages in the tort claim.

“I doubt there is a single female employee that has worked on the Lopez Island campus … that does not have an experience with Mr. Sather to talk about,” McMinimee told the Journal. She clarified that this includes knowing someone who has experienced the misconduct.

In February, Sather applied for a teaching position in the school district and voluntarily vacated his principal position at the end of the school year, according to school board chairperson John Helding. Sather was set to teach high school social studies and history but is now on administrative leave, according to the Lopez Island School District’s school board.

Sather is being represented by Tyler Firkins of Van Siclen Stocks Firkins of Auburn, Washington.

“Mr. Sather strongly denies the allegations and looks forward to clearing his name through the appropriate process,” Firkins said. “Mr. Sather will not be litigating this matter in the media, but will instead litigate this matter in a forum where evidence is provided under oath, rather than simply trafficking in rumor and gossip.”

A history of reports

Sather began working for the Lopez Island School District in 2013 after he was let go from a school in Mosier, Oregon, where the superintendent said that his leaving was “what is best for Mosier School,” according to a story published in The Dalles Chronicle.

On Lopez, he was assistant principal and was then promoted to principal of the secondary school. In 2017, Sather was investigated by the school district on claims of sexual harassment after he began a relationship with an employee.

“Despite this earlier investigation and findings against him, it appears Mr. Sather has continued his longstanding pattern of creating discriminatory and sexually hostile work and school environments,” Hruska and McMinimee wrote in the press release.

McMinimee noted that an investigation by the Lopez Island School District regarding the 2017 allegations concluded that the relationship between Sather and the complainant was consensual and therefore of no concern. The complainant was an employee of the school.

“They seem to not understand that you can’t ever have a truly consensual relationship with someone who is your evaluator,” McMinimee said. “There’s no version of reality where you can write off quid pro quo as a consensual relationship.”

In a letter to Lopez Island School parents dated Sept. 3, 2017, the school board wrote it had concluded an investigation into potential sexual harassment by Sather. The board added that it had commissioned a third-party investigation that concluded Sather had partaken in inappropriate “conversation, bantering, and joking that included sexual conduct.” Because conversations of an explicit nature are not allowed in the workplace per school district policy, the board said that it was taking formal action.

“We directed Mr. Sather to cease any such conversations in the future and to take additional training on preventing sexual harassment and supporting a safe workplace,” the board wrote.

The letter also asserted that the disciplinary actions were comparable to what had been done at other school districts in similar circumstances, and Sather apologized to both the board and staff for his inappropriate behavior.

“While the board is disappointed with his lapse of judgment in this area, we continue to value the many contributions he is making to our school and students,” the board continued. “As such, we believe and expect that he will make the necessary changes to ensure a safe workplace.”

At the time, the school board was comprised of Helding and members Dixie Budke, Del Guenther, Clive Prout and Carol Steckler. The board remains the same with the exception of Chris Greacen, who replaced Prout in the November 2017 election, and Budke voluntarily left the board to serve as an interim principal. Budke chose to step into the principal position when the teaching position was offered to Sather in spring, Helding explained.

“The Lopez Island School District has failed to protect these eight claimants from Mr. Sather’s unwanted sexual advances and sexually hostile work environment,” the attorneys wrote in their press release. “Specifically, Superintendent Brian Auckland has not acted when Mr. Sather’s inappropriate behavior has been reported to him.”

The accusers

Ali Smith is a longtime employee of the Lopez Island School District and is one of the eight clients represented by Cedar Law PLLC. She is currently the office manager of the Lopez Island Elementary School.

“I’ve watched this go on for years, and I’ve just had enough of it,” Smith said. “I’ve been there for a long time, almost 20 years.”

She alleged Sather “talks about everyone … absolutely everyone, not just employees — it’s the parents. He wants to know if they’re single.”

Smith explained, “It makes you uncomfortable to work there, and unfortunately a lot of us became almost desensitized to his remarks; we just got callous to it and it got sickening. It’s time for him to go, and people need to stand up together. … Finally, that’s happening.”

She believes, she said, Sather should have never been allowed to stay after the investigation in 2017 found that he had been inappropriate.

“He’s wronged people over and over and over again,” Smith said. “The sad thing about it is that the administration has allowed it.”

Smith’s husband Brad Smith is also one of the complainants. He said he’s personally witnessed Sather’s alleged indiscretions.

“I don’t know how else to put it other than ‘locker room talk,’” Brad Smith said, who has worked as an athletic coach for the school over the years.

According to Brad Smith, Sather has reportedly “blatantly” looked down female employees’ shirts “numerous times” in front of him. Sather also allegedly made comments about how it was unfortunate that Brad Smith had returned to the island from his annual trip to Arizona because it meant Sather would have to stop dating Brad Smith’s wife. This statement was made in front of both of the Smiths and a student, the couple claimed.

“I was so humiliated that he said that in front of a student,” Ali Smith said. “I could hardly breathe.”

According to Della McCullough, bus driver, paraeducator and the head of the district’s classified staff union, it’s not just employees about which Sather would talk explicitly. She explained that when she would talk to Sather, her supervisor, about problems she’d seen with special needs students, he would reportedly say to her, “We could change that child’s behavior if I was to ‘blank’ the parent all night.” He allegedly continued, telling her that the child would then find him in the kitchen in the morning making breakfast for the student’s mother.

She added that Sather then questioned what was wrong with the teacher. He’d allegedly ask if she had “‘something up her butt,’ then offer to put something in there for her,” McCullough explained.

McMinimee said that it had been reported to her that Sather would attempt to use administrative secretaries to obtain information that was not for educational purposes. Such inquiries were whether the new employee “had baggage,” meaning where they married or had children.

One such administrative secretary is Jennifer Norvelle, Auckland’s secretary. She has worked for the Lopez Island School District for 2.5 years.

“I considered myself a friend and a coworker to my district employees and to David [Sather] personally,” Norvelle said.

In the time that she’s been with the school district, she reportedly heard several comments of a sexual nature from Sather, most indirect, and many about his ex-wife. Over the past few months, when concerns began being raised, she continued, the comments became more direct and targeted.

“I definitely feel all of his behavior was always fishing behavior,” Norvelle said. “It was a lot of conversation about women and intimacy.”

She claimed that Sather would regularly ask her for “playdates.” She assumed it meant getting their children together to play.

“I didn’t think it was appropriate because I am married, and I don’t typically set playdates with our kids with the father. It’s typically the mom,” Norvelle said. “It didn’t feel right.”

McMinimee said it appears that what Sather meant by playdates was that while their children played, he and the mother would be intimate. Sather had allegedly told Norvelle that the incident investigated in 2017 was because a playdate had gotten sexual. Sather had told Norvelle, “I’ve been intimate with women before, and I’ve made them pass out.”

Sather also supposedly joked to Norvelle that she would file a Title IX claim against him. It’s a federal mandate that prohibits discrimination against someone based on their sex, and in schools it protects students from sexual harassment. At the time, Sather was the Title IX coordinator for the district.

As of this publication, Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s website has Auckland listed as the current Title IX coordinator, while Lopez Island School District’s website says it’s Budke.

When Norvelle began to feel most uncomfortable about working in close proximity to Sather, she asked him to only communicate with her via email.

“I was trying to get him to give me some space and he would not respect that space,” Norvelle said. “I was nervous. I didn’t feel well about it. I was sick to my stomach.”

Norvelle is responsible for compiling the school board’s meeting packets — no small task, she added. Earlier this summer, one such board packet went missing. She said that she believed it was Sather who took the board packet, as he had admitted to going through her things before.

“I’ve never had it missing before,” she said. “It doesn’t just disappear.”

McMinimee said Sather was both impacting Norvelle’s ability to do her job well and creating extra work for her. Norvelle felt it was time to tell her husband of Sather’s actions. Previously, she added, she was afraid to tell her husband for fear of upsetting him and afraid to tell anyone else for fear of losing her job.

“[My husband] was highly offended; I was highly offended,” Norvelle said. “When I started pushing back, saying this is not appropriate, … I felt very fearful. I was afraid to go to work.”

One of the final straws for Norvelle was when Sather reportedly said he had heard Norvelle and her husband were divorcing.

“I was kind of appalled because it’s the farthest thing from my mind,” she said.

In June, Norvelle went to Auckland with her concerns. She said she felt ignored and dismissed. Norvelle continued to report Sather’s statements by contacting school board chairperson Helding via email. He was on vacation, she said, and he supposedly asked her, “What do you want me to do?” She tried to get a response from Auckland again in August.

“He never really replied to my concerns,” Norvelle said. She expressed concern over the fact that Sather had left the principal position but placed into one of teaching, where he would be with the students. “It’s so unsafe, it’s sickening. It makes me sad to think that young women could be vulnerable to that behavior.”

Just a few weeks before school began this fall, accuser Sarah Rucker resigned from her position as a paraeducator with the district. She wrote a letter explaining her reason for leaving.

“I said that I didn’t feel safe or comfortable in the school environment,” Rucker said.

She added that notes from the most recent school board meeting stated that Auckland “clarified” her language, saying she resigned because she has an infant she didn’t want b exposed to germs.

“That entire statement that he made to the board was a complete fabrication,” Rucker said.

She explained that Sather was friendly, humorous and supportive in the beginning, but later Sather noted a student had “luscious young breasts.” Rucker was the employee with whom Sather had reportedly had a sexual relationship with that prompted the investigation in 2017. She said it started with the same sexual talk other women in the district reported he had used with them.

What’s next

The members of the school board released the following statement on Sept. 12:

“On behalf of the Lopez Island School District and School Board, we want to acknowledge that our district is in the middle of a very trying time.

“As many in our community are aware, allegations of verbal sexual harassment between adult staff members were brought forward to the district. Members of our staff have reported feeling unsafe in the workplace, which is something we never want to occur.

“We know that there are many questions in our community, as well as information being shared — both accurate and inaccurate.

“The district and board take allegations of improper conduct very seriously and we are committed to having a safe workplace for our staff and an environment that fosters learning for our students.

“At this time, the district has placed the individual accused of inappropriate behavior on administrative leave and has engaged a professional third-party investigator to gather facts related to the allegations presented. The investigator is now in the process of gathering information.

“We are committed to a thorough and fair investigation. If it is determined that misconduct occurred, appropriate action will be taken by the district and the board, and outcomes will be shared with the public.

“Because we are in the midst of a process intended to thoroughly and impartially explore the facts, and one which involves confidential personnel information, we are limited in what we are able to share with the community at this time.

“We will be holding our regularly scheduled school board meeting on Wednesday, September 25. Any additional information that we are able to release will be presented at that meeting. Additionally, members of the community will have the opportunity to address the board in the public comments section of our agenda. The meeting will begin at 6 p.m. in the Multipurpose Room of the Elementary Building.

“We recognize the tremendous impact this situation has had on the individuals involved, our district and our community as a whole. Despite the attention this issue has demanded of staff and faculty, they continue to provide quality education and a sense of normalcy for our students. That cannot be overlooked and it is truly appreciated.

“It is our commitment to work through these difficult times together and return our collective focus to educating our young people. We appreciate your patience as this matter is thoroughly and impartially investigated.”