Former teacher’s aide files lawsuit against Whittell High math instructor
A former Whittell High School instructional aide has filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Alfred Haas, a science and math teacher who has worked at the school for more than 30 years.
Douglas County School District is also named in the lawsuit because the plaintiff, Janice O’Connor, claims the district failed to make a thorough investigation of her complaints and allegedly retaliated against her by decreasing her hours, forcing her to resign.
“One of the teachers there verbally harassed me and physically assaulted me on more than one occasion over a number of years,” O’Connor, 48, said in a phone interview Wednesday. “It was constructive dismissal. Essentially, I was forced to quit by action taken against me.”
O’Connor worked as an assistant to the special education teacher at Whittell from December 1993 to September 1999, a job that brought her in contact with Haas. According to the lawsuit, which O’Connor filed in October 1999, she alleges that Haas, 58, grabbed and touched her buttocks, brushed against her, leered and stared at her and made sexually oriented remarks, jokes and innuendos.
Joe Van Walraven, the attorney defending Haas and the school district, was tight-lipped about the lawsuit.
“We totally deny the allegations,” he said. “The school district and Mr. Haas totally deny that any sexual harassment took place at all, period.”
O’Connor claims she told school officials about Haas’ alleged behavior, but the resulting investigation by the school district was not satisfactory. Instead of disciplining Haas, she claims, they decreased the number of hours she worked each week and told her to avoid areas where Haas would be.
“There was an investigation. We contend that investigation was inadequate,” said Mark Mausert, an attorney who filed the lawsuit in the Reno U.S. District Court. “We contend that all witnesses weren’t interviewed and the right questions weren’t asked.”
After O’Connor told the school administration about Haas’ alleged behavior, Mausert claimed, Haas continued to abuse his client.
“We’re contending that Mr. Haas did this deliberately to intimidate her and make her life miserable,” Mausert said. “And he succeeded in doing that. It affected her health across the board. He would bump into her, interrupt her when she was talking to students. He was playing a sick little game where he tried to intimidate her at every turn.”
Haas has taught science and math courses at Whittell for 32 years and won a Teacher of the Year award five times.
“Anything that would pertain to sex harassment, I’m shocked and I don’t believe it,” said Larry Reilly, an English teacher and athletic director who has worked at Whittell for 21 years. “He’s one of the best teachers I’ve ever seen. I would have no problem if my daughter went to this school and she took science from Al Haas.”
Amy Sando, a former teacher at Whittell, taught English, drama and speech at the school for 13 years. Sando said O’ Connor often helped some of Haas’ students during class.
“This didn’t come out of the blue,” she said. “Throughout the year she was in my room, because she had students there, and she was upset from what Haas did or said. There were many incidents where she seemed upset. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know if Janice’s response was inappropriate.”
Pendery Clark, superintendent of Douglas County School District since 1992, said she couldn’t talk about the case.
“We are defending it vigorously and, of course, we deny the claims,” she said. “It will be decided in court. We have a very comprehensive and strong sexual harassment policy, whether it’s student to student, staff to staff or student to staff. We have procedures for investigation and procedures for the consequences.”
A trial date has not been set.
Holly Thornton-Sherman, who worked for nine years at Whittell’s career center and currently lives in Franklin, Tenn., said she has nothing but respect for Haas.
“I didn’t notice anything about this man as far as sexual harassment is concerned,” she said.
“I have three kids who have had him as an instructor and they said he’s one of the only teachers who prepared them for college.”