Arizona Schoolteacher Sues School District Claiming Religious Discrimination

PHOTO: Janet Seplow, 65, sued the school she worked in for 16 years after she claimed they responded inadequately to swastikas vandalized on her personal property.Courtesy Janet Seplow
Janet Seplow, 65, sued the school she worked in for 16 years after she claimed they responded inadequately to swastikas vandalized on her personal property.

A former schoolteacher is suing a Phoenix school district for religious discrimination, alleging she was the target of several hate crimes involving swastikas that went unacknowledged by the principal and created a hostile work environment that forced her into early retirement.

Janet Seplow, 65, who is Jewish, claimed in a lawsuit filed June 21 in Maricopa County Court that Alhambra School District No. 68 discriminated against her and unfairly punished her when she complained about the alleged discrimination.

Seplow is suing for monetary compensation, but the amount she is seeking was not disclosed in the complaint.

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Between May and November 2008, Seplow alleges she encountered anti-Semitic vandalism on three separate occasions at the Montebello school in Phoenix. In May 2008, she found what she described as a "massive" swastika painted on the door of her classroom. In October of that year, she found another swastika fixed on her car, and filed a police report. In November, she found that students had taken her identification card and covered it with a swastika and a note saying, 'Hitler should have killed you, you f**king bitch.'"

Seplow described her reaction as one of "absolute gross sadness" and said that after the first incident she became so emotional she found it almost impossible to enter her classroom.

In the complaint, she alleges that the school did not launch an investigation after the first incident, and that the principal, Jeffrey Sprout, refused to walk to the parking lot to look at her car after it had been vandalized. He told her not to file a police report, according to the lawsuit. Only one of the students involved in vandalizing her ID card was punished, and was given a seven-day suspension, according to the lawsuit. Seplow told ABC News that she did not know exactly how many students were involved in the acts of vandalism.

After her car was vandalized with the swastika, Seplow told the school district's human resources department that she believed Sprout was anti-Semitic, and she requested a transfer because, she said, the incidents were traumatizing her. She was denied a transfer.

Seplow had been with the Montebello School since 1994, according to court documents. She told ABC News she had worked in various capacities at the school, serving as head of staff development and curriculum, in addition to teaching language arts.

"I was a damn good teacher. I loved my students, and I loved what I did," she said.

But in January 2009, Seplow said she received an evaluation from Sprout stating she had poor communication skills and was not getting along with her students. The complaint filed in court states that Sprout admonished her in the evaluations for telling human resources she believed he was anti-Semitic. He called the accusation "categorically false."

Sprout, who is currently the head of human resources in another Arizona school district, referred all comments to the Alhambra School District.

Robert Haws, the legal counsel for the Alhambra School District, wrote in an email to ABC News that no discrimination occurred, and that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission initially ruled in Alhambra's favor.

According to the lawsuit, Seplow filed two charges with the EEOC, one in December 2009, and one in June 2010. The lawsuit maintains that the EEOC ruled on the charge filed in 2009 and found reasonable cause to believe there had been a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and issued a right to sue notice for the charge filed in 2010.

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"If Ms. Seplow chooses to serve the lawsuit and tries, for a second time, to prove her accusations, we are confident Alhambra will prevail again, because there was no discrimination or retaliation," Haws wrote.

Seplow told ABC News that Sprout's performance evaluation had major implications for her career. "In Arizona there is no teacher tenure, no unions. If a principal decides they want you out of a school, all they have to do is give you bad evaluations," she said.

On Oct. 26, 2009, according to the complaint, Seplow submitted her intent to retire at the end of the year. At 62, she said she was retiring four years earlier than expected.

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She had every intention of finishing out the year with her students, she said, but that November she was told she would assume the role of permanent substitute teacher.

Seplow, who has a doctorate in education, was placed on administrative leave in January 2010 for allegedly making inappropriate statements while she was substitute teaching. She retired at the end of that month. The early retirement, cost her, she said. Although she teaches part-time at Grand Canyon University and the University of Phoenix, she said she could not secure another full-time teaching position.

"If you don't have a recommendation from the school district you worked with for 17 years, it's hard to get anyone to hire you," she said. "I spent all year looking for a position.

"I lost my profession, I lost my job, I lost everything," Seplow said.

A date for mediation between the two parties has not yet been set.