Lakota teacher, transgender advocate fights firing

Suspended Lakota teacher Emilly Osterling sues Butler County school system in federal court.

A Lakota Schools teacher suspended and scheduled for possible firing is suing the Butler County school system in federal court for allegedly targeting her after she publicly argued for expanded rights for transgender students.

The Journal-News was the first to report earlier this month that Emilly Osterling, a special needs teacher who worked at Liberty Junior School, was suspended without pay by the Lakota Board of Education.

Osterling filed a lawsuit this week in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati alleging she is being punished for publicly supporting an expansion of transgender students rights.

Osterling, who has worked for Lakota Schools since 2001, claims in the lawsuit the board’s stated intention to fire her at next week’s scheduled meeting is being done in retaliation for her stance and opinions shared with the board during a December 2017 public meeting concerning adopting an expanded policy of rights for transgender students.

The board’s recent resolution stating its intentions to end her employment was a violation of Osterling’s free speech rights and was “intentional, reckless and malicious,” she claims in the filing.

Earlier this month, board members approved a resolution listing district officials’ allegations against Osterling and their claims that she failed in meeting some of her professional duties with 18 special needs students dating back to 2016.

Board members, who voted 4-0 to pass the resolution with member Todd Parnell absent, said they are considering firing Osterling from the Butler County school district in response to a recommendation by Lakota Superintendent Matt Miller.

Osterling has been a prominent Lakota teachers union official and a National Education Association (NEA) board member and co-chair of the NEA’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Caucus.

The expanded policy she argued for was defeated by the board, but district officials said they would create a new Lakota Schools office to address the concerns of students’ with varying sexual orientation.

Osterling, who earned $73,788 annually, declined to comment Wednesday on her lawsuit, deferring to her attorney who was not immediately available to comment.

Lakota Schools Spokeswoman Betsy Fuller said Wednesday “because this situation is somewhat unique in that the board is pursuing termination proceedings against an employee, and a lawsuit has been filed, we are unable to comment further on this matter.”

Lakota’s five, elected school board members — all of whom are named in the lawsuit — did not respond to requests to comment.

According to Osterling’s lawsuit: “Almost immediately after Plaintiff’s expression of her opinions on these issues of public concern, and in retaliation for her exercise of her First Amendment rights, certain administrators employed by the Board began to gather documentation from Plaintiff’s peers, in an effort to build a ‘case’ to terminate her teaching contract.”

“On May 17, 2018, Plaintiff was informed that she was the subject of a fact-finding meeting, and that Defendants were moving to terminate her employment. Prior to May 17, 2017, Plaintiff had never been advised of any alleged performance issues, and had never received any notice of any complaints made about her,” states the lawsuit.

The filing further states: “On the basis of the flimsy and retaliatory allegations made against her, Plaintiff was placed on administrative leave by Defendants on or around June 17, 2018.”

The board’s 11-page resolution listed a series of allegations — none of them criminal — pertaining to Osterling’s dealings with 18 special needs students and their parents. The resolution cites “behavior which are willful and persistent violations of board policy” pertaining to staff ethics as well as Ohio’s code of professional conduct for educators “and federal laws governing how she educates and serves the students with disabilities.”

“As a result of errors, failures and unprofessional actions of Ms. Osterling, the board was required to provide hundreds of hours of compensatory education to students with disabilities that should have been provided with the hours during the respective school years by Ms. Osterling originally,” according to the board’s resolution.

A review by the Journal-News of Osterling’s personnel file showed no previous reprimands for any professional misconduct — or other transgressions — and her evaluations were nearly entirely positive.

In a Sept. 6 statement from Fuller, she said “Lakota’s students with disabilities deserve to be educated according to their identified needs as well as state and federal regulations.”

“When we discover that an employee is not fulfilling the requirements of their position, it is the board’s duty to ensure that the matter is fully and fairly investigated,” said Fuller.

“When severe failure to perform one’s job duties is discovered, the board can no longer work through and/or seek to improve an employee’s performance, but must consider termination,” she said.

The allegations made against Osterling in some instances go back two years and include claims she was negligent in maintaining records concerning Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for her special needs students.

The board’s resolution also refers to allegations of “impermissible and inappropriate destruction of student records” and claims she “failed to communicate with parents regarding their (special needs) students on IEPs.”

Moreover, the accusations made by the board include claims on some occasions with different students she “misrepresented and/or falsely stated” progress on students IEPs.

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