Former high school administrator files federal ‘whistleblower’ lawsuit against OUSD

Cleveland McKinney, former vice-principal at McClymonds High School in West Oakland, has filed a lawsuit against the Oakland Unified School District, alleging he was demoted and fired for exercising his free speech to complaining of “unsafe and discriminatory school conditions, including contaminated water, disproportionate suspensions of black children, staff assaulting students, embezzlement (and) sexual harassment of female students.

“I’m a whistleblower,” McKinney said in an interview with the Oakland Post. “They forced me out once I started talking about a lot of the injustices that were happening and how they treated the black community (in West Oakland) the same way.”

Reached by the Post, the district said it does not comment on ongoing litigation.

While he faced threats of demotion and loss of his position, several hundred members of the McClymonds community attended a school board meeting to protest the retaliation against him.

McKinney’s lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in December 2020 by Sonya Z. Mehta of Oakland civil rights law firm Siegel, Yee, Brunner and Mehta. The lawsuit seeks an unspecified sum of money, including damages for lost wages, emotional distress, and pain and suffering.

Depositions began in recent weeks for the case, which is expected to go to trial in August 2022. In addition to the district, the complaint names former McKinney bosses, OUSD High School Instruction executive director Vanessa Sifuentes and l former McClymonds manager Jarod Scott as defendants.

Before facing retaliation and being fired by OUSD, McKinney had an impeccable record as a teacher and school administrator since around 1996, according to the lawsuit.

McKinney was originally hired by OUSD in 2014 to help implement a 2012 lawsuit filed by the Civil Rights Office against the district for “discriminatory discipline, including wrongful suspensions, of African students.” -Americans”.

State statistics indicate that in 2020-21, McClymonds had 357 students, 78% of whom were black.

In her position at OUSD, McKinney worked with the Civil Rights Office and the Department of Education to help create new disciplinary policies and train teachers to discipline students.

“McClymonds has appointed McKinney the onsite administrator with responsibility for school-wide discipline pursuant to the requirements of the 2012 agreement,” according to the lawsuit.

McKinney’s relationship with his bosses began to deteriorate on August 22, 2016, when he reported that the water in the McClymonds locker room looked “dirty and orange”.

“(He) requested that the water be tested based on his reasonable belief that the water was dangerous and harmful to the students,” the lawsuit said.

McKinney and others, including former McClymonds basketball coach Ben Tapscott, urged the district to conduct testing in all parts of the school while students and teachers were still using the water.

Officials told school staff there was nothing wrong with the water. “They advised to let the water run for five minutes, even for cooking water in the kitchen,” even though the water was still dirty after letting it run, according to the complaint.

A manager said she wouldn’t spend $100,000 to fix the corroded pipes and the filters would be enough, according to the complaint.

McKinney has also met regularly with his bosses about disproportionate discipline in violation of the 2012 Civil Rights Bureau agreement.

“He complained about teachers suspending black students for not having pencils, asking to use the bathroom, talking or chewing gum — and teachers unnecessarily berating black students.”

He also complained about a staff member beating students, including punching “a girl in the throat during a meeting with many witnesses”. The administration declared that the complaint was unfounded.

McKinney also complained about the mismanagement of a $50,000 donation for student activities that was redirected to the salaries of administrators, a Spanish teacher who did not know Spanish, a extreme mouse infestation and an after-school program that falsely claimed to provide services to students.

He pushed the administrators to redevelop the locker room. The entire school football team, which was African American, “had to strip and change on the football field and leave their gear on the field due to the dire state of the locker room. The students were forced to undress in front of adults,” the complaint states.

In February 2018, Executive Director Sifuentes told McKinney, “Why are you so concerned about helping these people and everyone else? Why not just follow what we do? What do you gain from it? »

In July 2018, McKinney’s bosses at the school moved his office to a basement space that was “musty with a musty smell, (and) the carpet was filthy,” according to the complaint.

In this room, he immediately started coughing and wheezing due to allergies and asthma.

McKinney met with the superintendent of OUSD. Kyla Johnson-Trammell in September 2018 and December 2018 about her complaints, but she took no action, according to the lawsuit.

In August 2019, McKinney was demoted, removing him from his certified assistant director position and reclassified to a classified program manager position. On March 17, 2020, he was told that he had no job for the coming year and was made redundant due to budget cuts.

“I had no due process,” McKinney said. “When you speak on behalf of the students and the community, it puts a target on your back, and they come after you.”

The Oakland Post’s coverage of local news in Alameda County is supported by the Ethnic Media Sustainability Initiative, a program created by California Black Media and Ethnic Media Services to support community newspapers throughout California.

Martha K. Merrill