Former school system employee alleges racial discrimination in lawsuit

A former Baltimore school system employee has filed a $1.3 million racial discrimination lawsuit against school officials, claiming that he was unlawfully terminated after three black high-ranking managers in the operations office sought to discredit his employment record because he was white.

Robert Shank, a former education building supervisor for the school system, filed the federal lawsuit against several members of the school system's operations office. It claims that Shank had a flawless three-year record overseeing facilities at 11 schools in the southern district until "racial jealousy" made him a target of department supervisors.

The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore on April 25, names the city school board and city schools CEO Andrés Alonso as defendants. In addition, it names several individual members of the school system's operations office, including Kevin Seawright, deputy chief operating officer; Jerry Watkins, director of facilities maintenance and inspection; William Watkins, manager of area facilities; and Jerome Jones, manager of labor relations.

The school system declined to comment on the lawsuit because it is pending litigation.

According to the complaint, at a staff meeting in December 2006 — after just a few months on the job —Shank was singled out and praised by Keith Scroggins, chief operating officer for the school system. Scroggins used Shank as a model for the rest of the group, saying, "If Shank can do it, so can the rest of you."

According to Shank's attorney, John H. Morris Jr., Shank became a target because of "the general circumstances of his being recognized" by Scroggins, who is black.

"One, he is white, and two, the event where he was recognized was in front of a largely black group of workers," Morris said. "Some of the workers took it poorly. After this meeting, his relationship with those people changed drastically."

The suit claims that after the December 2006 meeting "Seawright, Watkins, and Watkins created and falsified an escalating series of disciplinary actions against [Shank] and false and unfavorable performance assessments." The lawsuit alleges that the managers were targeting "the stupid white boy," who had outshined them at the meeting. Morris said there were witnesses to these statements.

In February 2009, Shank was terminated as a result of a history of poor job evaluations, the suit said. The termination was "not based upon a genuine belief that Shank was unwilling to do his job," the lawsuit said, but driven by "racial animus."

After his dismissal, Shank filed a complaint with the Maryland Commission on Human Relations, alleging employment discrimination, according to the federal suit. The commission investigated the claims and said in a formal decision that Shank had a right to bring suit for racial discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The lawsuit cites racial discrimination, two violations of the Civil Rights Act and a denial of due process. It seeks $300,000 in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages.

Morris said that Shank would like to have his record cleared. He also said that racial discrimination is a valid accusation in this case.

"There are certain circumstances that are racially inflamed, and that happens to be one of them," Morris said. "It goes both ways. And the law is such that if race is such a circumstance, it's substantial. And if it's substantial enough, you have a problem with the law."

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