A former Killybrooke Elementary School teacher is suing the school district for alleged workplace harassment and age discrimination, court records show.
Debbra DeMarco filed a lawsuit Sept. 4 in Orange County Superior Court against the Newport-Mesa School District and Killybrooke Principal Lorie Hoggard.
DeMarco, who was 43 years old at the time of the alleged harassment, claims the district forced her to quit because of her advancing age and because she was more expensive to keep on staff than a younger teacher.
She was paid $93,000 annually because of her 12-year tenure at the district and her advanced degree, said Joel W. Baruch, the attorney representing DeMarco.
"They can't legally discriminate against her because she's over the age of 40 and makes more money," he said.
The district declined to comment on the matter, according to a written statement by spokeswoman Laura Boss.
DeMarco, who has a doctorate degree in educational leadership from USC, began working at Killybrooke in August 2000 as a teacher in grades 3-5. She received tenure after working at Killybrooke for three months. She was a high performing and reliable employee, according to the complaint.
The alleged harassment began in 2011 when the district hired Hoggard as Killybrooke's principal. Soon after, DeMarco alleges that Hoggard began to harass, intimidate and discriminate against DeMarco, the complaint stated.
She accused DeMarco of drinking alcohol during the school day in October 2011 — an accusation DeMarco adamantly denied.
A month later, Hoggard asked her to submit her lesson plans for review on a regular basis and began coming into her class to observe her. From December 2011 through the end of January 2012, Hoggard would sit in DeMarco's class every day and observe, the complaint stated.
In January 2012, Killybrooke's school nurse, Marcia Marthaler, entered DeMarco's class in the middle of a lesson and smelled her breath. Marthaler allegedly reported to Hoggard that the teacher was under the influence of alcohol, according to the complaint.
That day, DeMarco received a letter from John Drake, director of certificated personnel, informing her that she was being put on paid administrative leave while the district conducted an investigation into allegations that she was drinking on the job. DeMarco was placed on leave for one day, according to the complaint.
DeMarco met with Drake that summer to discuss transferring to a different school within the district. She applied for 34 positions and underwent 25 interviews, but was not offered any positions.
"She couldn't transfer because she was making more money than many of the other teachers," Baruch said. "That creates an age-related problem."
Nicholas Dix, executive director for the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers, said this isn't an uncommon practice in the district and it's an issue he has discussed with Supt. Fred Navarro.
Dix expressed his concern about hiring practices, especially related to school transfers of existing teachers in Newport-Mesa, in a letter dated Aug. 20, 2012, to Navarro.
Dix wrote that he expects teachers "who have long standing reputations in the district, a verified record of student achievement as evidenced by student data, years of classroom experience, district awards, community recognition and well demonstrated adjunct capabilities would fare well under the established selection criteria."
However, he wrote that is an expectation that has not been met.
"In fact, many of our veteran teachers have been unsuccessful in their bids for vacant positions," Dix said. "This trend is very concerning because of the disparate impact it has on our unit members over the age of 40."
Navarro declined to comment on the matter.
In the fall of 2012, DeMarco was reassigned to be a kindergarten teacher at Killybrooke and Hoggard continued to sit in on her class on a daily basis. Hoggard accused DeMarco of making racial comments in reference to a child at school during a meeting with Drake and Dix.
Though she denied the accusation, DeMarco was forced to take three hours of racial tolerance training classes in response to the incident, according to the complaint.
A few days later, DeMarco's doctor advised her to take a leave of absence from work due to increasing levels of anxiety and health-related issues attributed to work stress. She has not worked in Newport-Mesa or any other school district since, Baruch said.
DeMarco was forced to quit her job at Killybrooke because of the alleged harassment she experienced from Hoggard, he said.
"She's unable to get a job in Newport-Mesa," he said. "What kind of job can she get? She was making $93,000 a year, plus benefits. That's more than most teachers in that district."
The district has until Oct. 4 to respond to the complaint.