A former Los Lunas High School teacher has filed a civil rights lawsuit against the district, the school board, the high school principal and the superintendent for allegedly violating her civil rights.
Nicki M. Bertenshaw filed the lawsuit in federal district court last week, charging sexual and disability discrimination, retaliation and violation of her first amendment rights.
Bertenshaw, who taught language arts, began working at LLHS in 1996 and was “constructively discharged” earlier this past school year in reference to her disability, the lawsuit said.
Superintendent Danny Burnett said he couldn’t comment on Bertenshaw’s specific allegations but said, “We categorically deny any of the allegations. We look forward to our day in court to prove her wrong.”
According to the lawsuit, Bertenshaw claims that, after she was reportedly threatened and assaulted by a male teacher in front of her students in September 1999, Principal Rex Henington refused to take action. Bertenshaw alleges the principal told her, “You brought this on yourself.”
The former LLHS teacher also claims Henington and Burnett imposed a “chain of command” policy that violated a collective bargaining agreement regarding her employment.
In January 2001, Bertenshaw was reportedly issued a written threat about insubordination allegations from Henington. The lawsuit claims he demanded that all communication to other school personnel pass through him.
Henington could not be reached for comment. A secretary at the high school referred questions to Burnett.
In April, 2001, near the anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado, Bertenshaw said in the lawsuit, administrators became aware of suspected bomb threats at the local high school.
Bertenshaw claims that, after she drafted a petition for teachers, which objected to the “lack of communication regarding the threats,” Henington reportedly authorized an “illegal search” of Bertenshaw’s computer.
She charges the principal handed her a letter of reprimand that same day.
“Henington and Burnett engaged in a pattern and practice of intimidation against female teachers who spoke out against their dictatorial and abusive conduct,” the lawsuit charges.
Bertenshaw says, as a result of accumulated stress, she ended up in the hospital and now suffers from an unspecified autoimmune disease “which does not interfere with her ability to perform the duties of her job.”
The former teacher presented the administration a letter from her doctor requesting efforts be made to avoid placing her in stressful situations. The lawsuit claims the school district failed to respond to her request.
A month later, Bertenshaw filed a sexual discrimination and hostile work environment complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She claims that, at the end of the school year, the class that she had been teaching for four years was given to another teacher.
Bertenshaw also claims the school district ignored her concerns about gas and sewer fumes and airborne debris in her classroom while coming to the aid of a male teacher in the same position.
“Male teachers were not subject to threats and reprimands for insubordination for ordinary, appropriate, and even invited communications with other school personnel,” the lawsuit claims.
Bertenshaw is asking the court to reinstate her to her former position, order the plaintiffs to refrain from retaliating against her, provide good recommendation to prospective employers, and reimburse her for costs and attorney’s fees.
She is also asking to be awarded compensatory and punitive damages from Henington and Burnett in their individual capacities.
The Los Lunas School District has not yet filed an answer to the charges.
Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.