Teacher's Aide Says She Was Fired for Reporting Third-Grader With Drugs

Special Education Aide fired for reporting a third-grade drug dealer and sexual harassment of co-workerCourtesy Janine Fisher-Ethier
Janine Fisher-Ethier, a special-education aide at a Clawson, Mich., elementary school, has sued her former employer, claiming that she was unjustly terminated last year for reporting school violations, including an alleged drug-dealing operation run by a third-grader.

A special-education aide at a Clawson, Mich., elementary school has sued her former employer, claiming that she was unjustly terminated last year for reporting school violations, including an alleged drug-dealing operation run by a third-grader.

Janine Fisher-Ethier filed the lawsuit last month against Clawson Public Schools, co-worker Scott Just and Schalm Elementary School principal Patricia Pell in Oakland County Court.

They were served last week with the lawsuit, which the school district said is meritless.

According to the lawsuit filed Feb. 16, 2010, however, the "defendants terminated [Fisher-Ethier's] employment and otherwise retaliated against her because she had reported violations or suspected violations of laws."

Fisher-Ethier, 48, first became aware that a student was allegedly dealing drugs to other students on Schalm Elementary School property around April 2008, according to the complaint.

"The students were telling me that he was selling them for a certain amount of money and then I started to find them," Fisher-Ethier said in an interview. "I used to be an EMT so I knew to take the coding off the pills. I came home, ran the codes on the computer, and found out they were amphetamines."

The pills were found by several people at the school, including kindergarten students and a school secretary, she said.

"One girl found a tissue with pills in it in her desk," Fisher-Ethier said. "She said to me, 'This isn't mine, what do I do with it?' I told her to take it down to the bathroom and flush it."

The drug problem at the school was no secret, she said.

"There was a lot of shenanigans in the bathroom," Fisher-Ethier said. "We had ceiling tiles getting popped, money was being left. They were leaving pills in the toilet-paper dispensers."

Fisher-Ethier of Clawson spotted the suspected student in April 2008 attempting to enter an after-school program that he was not authorized to attend, according to the lawsuit.

She informed a "latchkey" supervisor of his alleged drug dealing and instructed her to prohibit the student from entering.

Within a week, Fisher-Ethier was reprimanded by principal Pell in front of her union president, according to the complaint.

"That's the day she told me if I didn't shut my mouth and walk away, she would fire me," Fisher-Ethier said.

Pell, she said, turned a blind eye to the ongoing problem and, according to the complaint, Fisher-Ethier was instructed do the same if she saw any more pills.

Pell placed a letter in Fisher-Ethier's file the next day, threatening termination for any future "breech [sic] of confidentiality."

In the letter, dated April 14, 2008, Pell wrote, "... on more than one occasion, you have overstepped your authority and shared confidential information with others. You have chosen to share information that has not been substantiated, thereby putting the reputation of yourself and students at risk.

Teacher Concerned for Her Own Son

"Some of the information you shared with community members was actually 'hearsay' reported by third-grade students. This disregard for the rights and privacy of others cannot be tolerated in our workplace."

Fisher-Ethier said that what she reported was not hearsay. "You always tell the kids, 'You see something wrong, you tell someone,'" Fisher-Ethier said. "[Pell] was trying to make all the kids seem like liars. But then I see the pills floating around. The kids were right."

Pell was even presented with physical evidence of the pills after the suspected student left his duffle bag in the school office and it was searched, Fisher-Ethier said.

"She probably threw them away," Fisher-Ethier said in the interview. "She didn't call the student, the police or the parents."

She said that worried her and she became increasingly concerned about the safety of the students. "Kids were misbehaving," Fisher-Ethier said. "They were all getting into trouble. We couldn't say anything. It was sad to watch."

She said she was also concerned about her own son, who has autism and was then in fifth grade.

"I was afraid of retaliation against him. I had informed his teachers and paraprofessionals of who the student was and that he was never to come near the classroom," Fisher-Ethier said.

Pell has declined to comment.

Her concerns about the suspected student grew on May 8, 2008, when the student "drew a picture and wrote a note threatening to kill a specific student," according to the complaint.

"His teacher had a tattletale box on her desk because we had so many problems in the school and the students snitched," Fisher-Ethier said.

The photo, which is now being held by police, showed a student bleeding from knife wounds, Fisher-Ethier said. Clawson police have yet to respond to repeated requests from ABC News to comment on the photo and other details of the case.

The picture and note were given to Pell, according to the complaint.

But Fisher-Ethier said Pell failed to notify the parents of the threatened child, although the information apparently filtered through.

In May 2008, the parents contacted Clawson police, who then reached out to Fisher-Ethier, according to the lawsuit.

Fisher-Ethier spoke with her union president "for advice on how to respond, given [Pell's] previous threats to her job," according to the complaint.

On his advice, she decided to give police a written statement detailing her account of the third grader selling amphetamines and the death threat. At the time, Fisher-Ethier said, "it most likely would get [me] fired."

Clawson Public Schools cut ties with Fisher-Ethier the following year, after she was accused by co-worker Scott Just of "improper transition of a student."

Infraction Purportedly on Videotape

Just alleged in November 2009 that Fisher-Ethier "instructed two students to haul a special-education student down the hallway by his hands," according to her lawsuit.

She denied what she called Just's retaliatory allegations for complaints she had lodged months earlier when she witnessed his alleged ongoing sexual harassment of a female co-worker.

Fisher-Ethier approached Just and told him to "cease his harassing conduct" after witnessing it in or around the fall of 2008, according to the complaint.

Eventually, Fisher-Ethier and other concerned staff encouraged their co-worker, Carrie Burnard, to report the alleged harassment to Pell in February 2009.

In an interview with ABC News, Burnard said Pell told her "she didn't want to have to tell her boss, because if she did, [Just] would have to be fired and she didn't want that to happen."

Burnard said Pell apparently failed to inform the superintendent. "I was told it was not any of my business to know if he was even talked to," Burnard said. "My principal said it was her issue to take care of."

Burnard continued to work at the school, she said, and did not speak to Just again.

ABC News was unable to reach Just for comment.

Weeks later, the superintendent's office summoned Burnard to a meeting where she met with Pell and was given an evaluation labeling her an "unsatisfactory teacher," Burnard told ABC News.

Burnard said the complaints mentioned in her evaluation "were not truthful" and were "all related to incidents that [she] had with Scott Just.

"She said I didn't work well with my grade-level group. Well, that was Scott Just and another teacher," Burnard said.

Burnard said she was handed a letter of resignation April 14, 2009, which she refused to sign. She was terminated a week later.

Burnard's allegations later resurfaced, in November 2009, in a conversation Fisher-Ethier had with another school employee, according to the complaint.

Fisher-Ethier told her co-worker she had seen Just sexually harass Burnard in the past, which Burnard corroborated.

Within an hour of the conversation, Just "falsely and maliciously" aired his grievance against Fisher-Ethier, according to her lawsuit.

The allegations arose from an incident in which she was having trouble walking a student with Down Syndrome to the restroom, Fisher-Ethier told ABC News.

Two students noticed her trouble and attempted to bring the student off the floor. "As they started to pull him, I verbally told them to stop," she said. "But I told them not to drop his arms because the child wore glasses and I didn't want him to smash them. If they had let go, he would've fallen nose-first.

"I was in the middle of giving instructions when Mr. Just came flying out. He immediately screamed at the kids, 'If an irresponsible adult asks you to do an irresponsible thing, don't listen to that adult,'" Fisher-Ethier said.

Fisher-Ethier defended her actions in two separate meeting with Pell. Her union informed her Nov. 15, 2009 that she would face disciplinary action if she did not resign, according to the lawsuit.

When Fisher-Ethier learned of this, she e-mailed every member of the school board and outlined each alleged violation she had previously brought to the attention of Pell and Clawson police.

Fisher-Ethier met Nov. 29, 2009, with Clawson Public Schools superintendent Cheryl M. Rogers, Pell and a union representative. She was given an official letter of termination "without notice of hearing, warning, prior suspensions of other progressive discipline," according to the complaint.

In the letter, Rogers wrote that the accusation of mistreatment of a student "was documented by the testimony of teachers Scott Just and Kelly Soueidi who witnessed the transport, and it was further evident from the review of the incident on video ... As a result of your actions, you have jeopardized the well being of a child."

Fisher-Ethier's attorney, Deborah Gordon, has requested a copy of the alleged videotape that Fisher-Ethier has never seen.

In an email to ABC News, Rogers wrote, "The matter has been referred to our legal counsel for handling. We believe the suit lacks merit, and the District looks forward to having the claims adjudicated in a court of law."

She has declined repeated requests by ABC News for further comment.

Fisher-Ethier said she hoped the court will rule in her favor under Michigan's Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act and the federal Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989, which protects employees from being discharged, threatened or discriminated against for reporting a violation of law or regulation.

She is seeking more than $75,000 in her lawsuit, for lost wages and damages for "tortious interference with an advantageous business relationship or expectancy; defamation; and violation of Plaintiff's due process rights."

This story has been revised.