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Court favors Palmerton district

Published June 21. 2018 12:23PM

A U.S. District Court judge ruled against a former Palmerton Area School District kindergarten teacher in her lawsuit stemming from her 2015 dismissal.

In her lawsuit, Lauren Smith claimed she was fired over a book of drawings she had made and in retaliation for critical comments made on the district’s handling of individualized education plans.

The lawsuit named Superintendent Scot Engler and Towamensing Elementary teachers Shanna Matthews Koscinski and Lisa Ward as defendants.

“The record does not contain any evidence of actual malice or willful misconduct on the part of any of the three defendants,” Judge Jeffrey L. Schmehl wrote in his order, handed down last week, which closes the case. “(Smith) has nobody but herself to blame for her predicament.”

A book of drawings at the heart of the case “was intended as a personal gift for an assistant teacher and contained drawings intended to be humorous about certain people the teachers knew and classroom situations they had experienced,” Smith’s original complaint stated.

Another Towamensing staff member, according to the complaint, contended the book of drawings made fun of students and teachers in a demeaning, derogatory way.

Smith, in her complaint, said many of the allegations about the book were untrue.

“There is no sufficient evidence in the record from which a reasonable jury could conclude that Engler relied on fabricated descriptions in the book to justify his decision to terminate (Smith),”Schmehl said. “On the contrary, the undisputed record reveals Engler conducted a thorough and unbiased investigation which revealed (Smith) portrayed the very kindergarten students in her class, with whom she had been entrusted to protect and nurture, in a humiliating and degrading manner.”

In her 2017 deposition, Smith said her mother took the book from school and her father later burned it.

After an internal investigation, Smith was fired in early 2015 by an 8-0 board vote.

In his deposition, Engler testified that he “found enough commonalities to show (Smith) had created a book degrading and humiliating to children, and he had an obligation to the kids and the district to protect them.”

According to correspondence from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, it also investigated the complaint and concluded “(Smith) had in fact created and shared an unprofessional and offensive booklet that depicted staff and students in significantly degrading ways.”

With regard to Smith’s comments on the district’s IEP handling, Towamensing Principal Christine Steigerwalt testified that she “never heard complaints that students at Towamensing who should have IEPs were not getting them.”

Smith’s attorney, Scott Fegley, withdrew from the case in 2017 after telling the court she “completed at least two applications for employment after her discharge from Palmerton in which she knowingly misrepresented that she had not been discharged from any prior employment.”

Schmehl gave Smith 90 days to find a new lawyer, but wrote Thursday that she had failed to do so.

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