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July 4, 2020

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Former Evergreen schools teacher sues after MAGA hat dispute

Washougal man seeks lost wages, emotional damages

By , Columbian Education Reporter
Published:

A Washougal man who brought a “Make America Great Again” hat to an Evergreen Public Schools employee training session on diversity and racial equity has filed a federal lawsuit alleging he was defamed and deprived of his civil rights because of his political beliefs.

Eric Dodge, a former teacher, names former Wy’east Middle School Principal Caroline Garrett and district human resources manager Janae Gomes in the complaint filed in United States District Court. The complaint alleges that Dodge suffered “emotional devastation” and a “recurrence of debilitating stroke symptoms” after being “verbally attacked and defamed by his new principal for the political opinions he held as a private citizen — specifically, statements in support of President Trump,” according to the complaint.

The incident occurred over two days during a series of staff training sessions prior to the beginning of school, including a first-day session on implicit bias, diversity and racial equity, according to district documents. Dodge said in the complaint that he had the cap with him during those sessions but did not “wear or purposefully display” the hat inside either Wy’east or at a different training session the second day at Evergreen High School.

Public records obtained from the school district offer a more detailed timeline of events, including concerns expressed by multiple teachers about the hat, a district investigation that revealed no wrongdoing and, ultimately, Garrett’s resignation from her position at the middle school.

Garrett did not respond to a request for comment, and Evergreen Public Schools declined to comment on the specific allegations in the lawsuit. The district does not comment on pending litigation.

Dodge was assigned to teach science at Wy’east Middle School for the 2019-2020 school year following a leave of absence after he had a stroke in 2017, according to his lawsuit. The position at Wy’east was new to Dodge, who worked at the district for 17 years.

On Aug. 22, Dodge arrived for racial equity training at the school, and had put on the “Make America Great Again” hat on his way into the building. In his lawsuit, Dodge said he had previously purchased the hat as a “conversation-starter, with the idea of explaining that ordinary and normal people support Trump, despite some of Trump’s flaws,” and to protect his head from sun damage. Dodge said he removed the hat once he entered the building.

According to an investigation by Clear Risk Solutions, which the district contracts with for risk management services, several teachers expressed concerns to the training’s instructor, as well as to administrators, about Dodge bringing the hat to school. One teacher, Amy Matsumoto, told investigators she was “shocked” to see Dodge with the hat in a cultural diversity training. She pointed out the school’s large population of Latino and Hispanic students who may feel uncomfortable if Dodge chose to wear the hat in class.

According to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, about 35.1 percent of the school’s 868 students identify as Hispanic or Latino. Trump’s comments about Latino people, particularly Mexican immigrants, have been criticized as being incendiary and racist since he first announced his campaign for president.

Following the training, Garrett approached Dodge to ask him about the hat. According to the Clear Risk Solutions investigation, Garrett said she told Dodge she was not concerned about his politics, but about “the impact he was having on the learning environment of his colleagues,” some of whom felt “worried, upset, threatened and intimidated.” She advised him to use “good judgment” in wearing the hat, then left.

The following day, according to the investigation and lawsuit, Dodge left his hat in his car when he went to Wy’east. Later in the day, however, he donned the hat to wear in the parking lot to a training at Evergreen High School.

According to the investigation, Garrett received a text from a teacher concerned that Dodge had again decided to wear the hat at a school event. She approached him later in the day to talk to him.

There, Garrett and Dodge’s stories split.

Dodge alleges Garrett became “aggressive and hostile,” demanding to know “what is the f—ing deal with you and your hat?” Dodge also claims Garrett berated him, calling him a “racist,” “bigot,” “homophobe,” “liar” and “hateful person.”

Garrett, meanwhile, described a more leveled approach to investigators. Garrett said she told Dodge other teachers were “offended, worried and confused,” and that she didn’t want to see him wearing the hat anymore. She further denied calling Dodge a racist or a bigot, and said she didn’t remember raising her voice during the conversation.

Dodge filed a complaint to Human Resources, which Dodge claims was handled in a “biased and unfair manner.”

Dodge said the district asked him to withdraw the complaint but he refused. The district, per its nondiscrimination policy, escalated the complaint to the formal investigation conducted by Clear Risk.

Investigators found that Dodge did not violate district policy by wearing the hat, and also found that Garrett’s actions did not violate the district’s harassment, bullying and intimidation policy. Dodge appealed the complaint to the district’s board of directors.

The school board, again, found no violation of district policy, but asked Garrett to attend the next school board meeting to answer “outstanding questions about whether you conducted yourself in an appropriate or professional manner,” according to a letter the district sent to Garrett.

At its Dec. 10 meeting, the school board met in executive session to discuss the performance of a public employee, an allowed exemption from the Open Public Meetings Act. Ten days later, Garrett, who was hired by the district in 2010, resigned effective April 2, but left her job immediately and took all her accrued vacation and sick leave leading up to the April resignation date, according to district records.

Garrett also received severance equal to her salary from April 2 through June 30. According to the district’s salary schedule for principals, Garrett’s base annual salary was $150,170.

Dodge, who has been on leave from the district since early in the 2019-2020 school year, is seeking lost wages and emotional damages. One of his attorneys, Michael Estok, described the events as “textbook violations” of harassment, intimidation and bullying policies.

“People who are public employees enjoy certain First Amendment rights,” Estok said. “They shouldn’t be targeted or treated differently because they have certain political viewpoints. That’s what’s going on here.”

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