Former Highlands principal sues district, claims retaliation |
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Madasyn Lee

The former principal of Highlands Early Childhood Center sued the Highlands School District, claiming its superintendent retaliated against her for taking unpaid leave and being in a relationship with a former teacher.

Heather Bigney quit her job as principal Monday, the same day she filed the federal lawsuit. The lawsuit contends Monique Mawhinney, now the Highlands superintendent, discriminated against Bigney and threatened to fire her after she took leave in April under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

The lawsuit contends that months of “heightened scrutiny, criticism and retaliation” caused Bigney to suffer from severe anxiety and stress. She had to see a therapist and eventually elected to take unpaid leave, the lawsuit says. It contends the behavior continued after she returned to work in July.

“This leave of absence was due to severe anxiety, stress and rapid weight loss Dr. Bigney experienced as a result of the adverse actions being taken against her by the District and Dr. Mawhinney throughout the 2018-19 school year,” the lawsuit says.

Mawhinney did not return phone calls seeking comment. District spokeswoman Jennifer Goldberg and school board president Debbie Beale did not return phone calls.

Bigney submitted her resignation in a one-sentence letter about 4 p.m. Monday, just a few hours before the school board accepted it during a public meeting.

The lawsuit contends the district intended to fire Bigney. She quit before that occurred.

“Heather Bigney is not happy that she had to do this,” her attorney, Charlie Steele, said Tuesday. “She is really disappointed that this couldn’t be worked out. We think it could have been resolved, but we were faced with an artificial deadline and she was going to be terminated. We were not going to tolerate her being terminated. Instead, we are saying no reasonable person would tolerate the conditions under which she was working, which was a constant threat of terminating her, which we think was unjustifiable.”

The lawsuit alleges that Mawhinney began criticizing and administering disciplinary actions against Bigney in September 2018 after she started dating teacher Jason Smith. Smith had just returned from a separate unpaid leave. Mawhinney, who became superintendent April 1, was the assistant superintendent at the time.

Smith resigned from his position as a fourth-grade teacher at Grandview Upper Elementary School in February. He separately sued the district in August.

In the lawsuit, Bigney cited several instances of what she believed to be retaliation by Mawhinney and school officials:

• Criticizing Bigney for having lunch at Grandview Elementary with Smith and other district employees, and for bringing to Grandview a student’s lunch box that had been forgotten on a bus and delivered to her school instead.

• Questioning Bigney over Facebook pictures of her and Smith in social settings outside of school and telling Bigney she had to “hold herself to higher standards.”

• Forcing Bigney to give up her district-issued cellphone, and enforcing district cellphone and internet use policies against Bigney and not other district employees.

• Scheduling a hearing to discuss Bigney’s alleged unprofessional behavior that included numerous allegations regarding her conduct as a principal.

• Alleging that Bigney didn’t perform certain job duties, such as meeting with kindergarten teachers to review their final projects, when Bigney herself was on unpaid leave.

• Criticizing Bigney for holding a teddy bear that belonged to a student during a meeting with the student.

School board members didn’t respond to phone messages or emails Tuesday seeking comment about Bigney’s resignation.

Aimee Zundel, an attorney who represents the district, said attorneys are reviewing both lawsuits by Bigney and Smith.

“Beyond that, I cannot comment,” Zundel said.

The school district complies with the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, Zundel said.

“It’s a federal law, and public school districts are required to comply,” she said.

Bigney anticipates serving as a witness in the federal lawsuit filed against the district by Jason Smith.

According to that lawsuit, Mawhinney told the principal at Smith’s school to purposefully lower Smith’s annual teacher evaluation scores, which resulted in him receiving an unsatisfactory rating. Additionally, Bigney had been present during a 2018 administrative meeting in which Mawhinney directed the principals of two teachers on unpaid leave, one of whom was Smith, to “be in their rooms every day until you find something.”

“I am just completely shocked that we couldn’t settle this given the facts that we’ve alleged,” Steele said.

Bigney had been overseeing preschoolers and kindergartners as principal of Highlands Early Childhood Center on Atlantic Avenue in Brackenridge.

She previously served as principal of Fairmount Primary Center and principal of Grandview Intermediate Center.

Staff writer Mary Ann Thomas contributed to this story.

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