Denver Public Schools Hit With Discrimination, Retaliation Lawsuits

The lawsuit against Denver Public Schools filed by Tisha Lee, vice president of student services at Emily Griffith Technical College, is moving forward.EXPAND
The lawsuit against Denver Public Schools filed by Tisha Lee, vice president of student services at Emily Griffith Technical College, is moving forward.
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Even as it's dealing with the myriad challenges related to education during the pandemic, Denver Public Schools is facing two lawsuits stemming from a claim of discrimination at Emily Griffith Technical College. The first was filed by Tisha Lee, who contends that she lost out on landing the executive director position at the institution in part because she's Black, while the second is being pressed by Barbara Lindsay, a member of the interview panel allegedly fired because she told Lee about racist rhetoric directed against her during the hiring process.

According to attorney Darold Killmer of Denver-based Killmer, Lane & Newman LLP, which represents both Lee and Lindsay, "Other panelists had said, 'We should hold her to a higher standard as a Black woman,' which is obviously racially discriminatory. And concerns were also raised among the interview panelists as to whether Ms. Lee would have the fundraising skills necessary for the job as a Black woman — the implication being that she doesn't know as many people with money, which is another old racist trope."

DPS has put forward a motion to dismiss Lindsay's complaint, but Killmer is optimistic that won't happen. After all, the school district took the same tack against Lee's lawsuit — and last week, on March 29, U.S. District Court Judge William J. Martínez issued an order allowing it to move forward.

"Denver Public Schools is aware of each lawsuit as well as the recent ruling on the Lee case," notes DPS spokesperson Will Jones in response to Westword's inquiries about the accusations. "As a matter of policy, the school district does not comment on ongoing litigation. Therefore, we are unable to provide further details on any matters related to either case."

For his part, Killmer says, "Judge Martinez got it exactly right when he rejected DPS's efforts to throw Ms. Lee's case out. It's really an arrogant effort to say, 'You don't even need to look at this case, because DPS doesn't discriminate.' That bald assertion is false, and the judge said, 'Let's go into the discovery process on this and see what a trial shows.'"

Lee is vice president of student services at Emily Griffith. But when she tried to take a step up the ladder at the college, what she experienced is "in many ways emblematic of a lot of discrimination in today's workplace," Killmer continues. "Tisha has labored for over a decade for DPS. Everyone says she's excellent at what she does, and she ascended to the level of vice president. When the executive director position came up in 2019, she applied, and she was definitely the best qualified person for the job — and as she progressed through the process, she was consistently determined to be one of the top candidates."

But the day before a key interview was to take place, Killmer says, Lee "received an email saying, 'You're not actually interviewing at all. Never mind.' That was obviously strange and disturbing to Ms. Lee, and she couldn't figure out why she was eliminated. But they ended up hiring Stephanie Donner, a white woman with virtually no higher education experience. But she was in the privileged position of knowing important people; she'd worked with John Hickenlooper on previous campaigns," and also served as his general counsel.

Although Lee was disappointed by this outcome, Killmer maintains that his client "was determined to put her nose down and keep working. But then Barb Lindsay, who was on the interview panel, revealed to her that there had been some racist comments by other members of the panel about Ms. Lee's application."

Lee subsequently filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency charged with enforcing anti-discrimination statutes — a required precursor to the lawsuit. And Lindsay? She was fired by Donner.

Lindsay's dismissal was subsequently analyzed by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, Killmer reveals: "Because Barb is white, her case wasn't about racial discrimination, but about retaliation. She was retaliated against for providing truthful, honest information — and the commission actually found that retaliation had taken place, which is unusual. Typically, agencies investigate things and say, 'You can go to court if you want to.' But the Colorado Civil Rights Commission made a finding that Barb Lindsay was retaliated against. She still has to go to court to enforce her rights, but that demonstrates the strength and truth of Ms. Lindsay's complaint."

Donner, who had worked for Hickenlooper when he was governor, left a post as chief legal counsel for Hickenlooper 2020, his presidential campaign, to take the executive director job.  She's named in the lawsuit, but is no longer at Emily Griffith; she's now senior legal advisor for the National Vote at Home Institute. Randy Johnson, an education veteran, was named executive director in November 2020.

Killmer acknowledges that many people of color work for DPS, but he argues that "there is a ceiling above which they have a very difficult time climbing. Ms. Lee was the best qualified person for the executive director position, and she was pushed aside for a less qualified white woman."

He adds: "DPS is like a lot of major employers with a discrimination problem. They seem to be insistent on ignoring it, and insistent on punishing people who speak out against it. It shows DPS has a long way to go before it attains equality and equity within its ranks."

Click to read the order in Tisha Lee v. Denver Public Schools, et al., the original complaint, and Barbara Lindsay v. Denver Public Schools, et al.

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