Handling of harassment allegations against Superintendent draws concern

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — School Board members held a round-table discussion Tuesday to address concerns they have over the handling of sexual harassment allegations against Schools Superintendent Dr. Harry La Cava.

The discussion circled around former Human Resources Executive Director Kevin Browning’s complaint to the School Board that La Cava had retaliated against him by transferring him to the principal’s post at Pelican Island Elementary.

 

La Cava, at the School Board’s request, was not in attendance at the meeting Tuesday.

Browning claimed that La Cava moved him to a different job because he was investigating reports from staff members that La Cava was harassing a female employee.

“I believe Kevin (Browning) took advantage” of the situation, School Board Attorney Usher “Larry” Brown told the school board.

He explained that Browning did not notify the School District about the alleged sexual harassment until after he had been notified of his transfer to the elementary school.

It’s a charge Browning denies. Browning said after the hour-long School Board discussion that he still believes La Cava retaliated against him and that the timeline supports that.

He explained that he put the superintendent on notice in August or September 2009, after he first heard the allegations. Browning said he spoke face-to-face with La Cava, telling him to stop the alleged inappropriate actions.

Browning said in Brown’s investigative report, that La Cava said he would change his behavior.

Based on that conversation, which Browning said was not documented, he believes La Cava knew Browning was looking into the allegations well before La Cava decided to reassign the human resources administrator to Pelican Island Elementary.

According to School Board Attorney Brown’s report from the investigation, La Cava denied ever having a conversation with Browning about allegations that he groped a female staff member or engaged in otherwise inappropriate behavior.

Brown released the findings of his investigation earlier this month, saying there was no evidence that La Cava had retaliated against Browning.

The female employee never filed a sexual harassment complaint against the superintendent.

Brown told the School Board Tuesday that he had been tasked with investigating whether La Cava had retaliated against Browning — not the sexual harassment allegations.

“There was some flirting,” Brown told the School Board, adding that flirting is not the same as sexual harassment.

He also said that it was possible that there was an “innocent misunderstanding” between La Cava’s actions and how the employee interpreted those actions.

Regardless of the sexual harassment allegations, “I still did not find retaliation,” Brown told the board.

School Board member Claudia Jimenez questioned Browning’s actions and apparent lack of notice to officials about the allegations.

“I think there’s something there that doesn’t show good faith” on Browning’s part, she said.

Jimenez also questioned how effective a leader Browning could be at the elementary school as a result of not having moved on the sexual harassment allegations sooner.

“Where is there going to be trust?” she asked between the elementary school’s teachers and Browning.

After the meeting, Browning said he is not concerned with his ability to serve as Pelican Island’s principal, and believes he will be able to work with the teachers.

School Board Attorney Brown told the board members that it is up to the superintendent’s team to determine if Browning filed his retaliation complaint in bad faith. If so, Browning could be disciplined, suspended or terminated.

The board has recommended to La Cava, through Brown, that he not be directly involved in making that determination. If La Cava agrees to the board’s direction, Deputy Superintendent Michael Degutis would be responsible for deciding if Browning’s complaint was made in bad faith.

School Board member Debbie MacKay asked what the board’s responsibility is now that it is aware sexual harassment of an employee may have occurred.

“Apparently something happened,” MacKay said, explaining that a text message had been sent from the employee to La Cava and an outside attorney had been consulted.

According to Brown’s report, the employee said she sent a text message to La Cava in April 2009 “that she just wanted to come to work and do her job, and wanted nothing more from the Superintendent.”

The report also states, “The female employee said that the Superintendent’s behavior changed from that point forward, and that she had no problems since that time.”

Brown told the School Board Tuesday that the sexual harassment “case” was closed in 2009 with that text message. He added that there is no record of text message.

“This is not a morality issue,” Brown told the board, adding that from his perspective the board cannot remove La Cava from his post based on this investigation.

He also said that he is the School Board’s attorney, not the superintendent’s, and as such does not see grounds for terminating La Cava.

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