Teacher questions N. Charleston graduation results in lawsuit

A former North Charleston High School teacher has filed a lawsuit against the Charleston County School District claiming she was retaliated against after she questioned why some failing seniors were allegedly given extra opportunities to graduate.

A former North Charleston High School teacher is suing the Charleston County School District, claiming she was reprimanded for reporting that some failing students had been given extra chances to graduate.

Valerie Paquette said in the lawsuit she is the victim of retaliation under the state’s whistle-blower law, which provides protection to state employees, including teachers, who report suspected violations. The teacher also is accusing the school district of libel and defamation.

The lawsuit, filed May 27 in the Court of Common Pleas, is seeking unspecified actual and compensatory damages from the school district as well as the payment of Paquette’s legal fees. The lawsuit also requests the removal of any letters of formal reprimand from the teacher’s personnel file.

Paquette, in the lawsuit, claims school administrators retaliated against her following the end of the 2013-2014 school year after she raised concerns with the superintendent and the school board about what she believed were questionable advantages some failing seniors received in order to graduate. The teacher claims she received letters of “formal reprimand” between June and August of 2014 from Principal Robert Grimm and Associate Superintendent James Winbush, who oversees North Charleston High. Former Superintendent Nancy McGinley also issued a written notice that the teacher had been “insubordinate,” according to the lawsuit.

Those reprimands, the lawsuit claims said, “wrongly ... and libelously” accused Paquette of wrongdoing and kept the teacher from new employment opportunities. Paquette, who taught computer and business classes at North Charleston, was reassigned to Morningside Middle School for the 2014-2015 school year.

Attorney Larry Kobrovsky, who is representing Paquette, declined to make his client available to answer questions. The lawyer said he believes Paquette’s case is one of the first in the state to invoke the whistle-blower law for an educational complaint.

John Emerson, the Charleston County School District’s attorney, said the district doesn’t comment on pending litigation. Neither Grimm nor McGinley, who are not named as defendants, returned phone calls or emails seeking comment.

The lawsuit comes at a time when the school district has touted success in reducing failing schools and received the state’s highest academic rating of “excellent” for the first time last year.

North Charleston High, however, has continued to struggled academically. The school has received the state’s lowest rating of “at risk” on its school report card for more than a decade.

Grimm’s contract, according to the lawsuit, provides the principal with goals-based bonuses that include improving the school’s graduation rate. Under Grimm’s leadership, the school’s graduation rate has had a modest increase from 45 percent in 2012 to 53.9 percent in 2014. North Charleston’s pass rate on end-of-course exams has increased more significantly, rising from 42 percent in 2012 to 65.6 percent in 2014.

Although the lawsuit notes the importance of graduation rates and end-of-course exam scores in determining a school’s rating, it stops short of connecting Paquette’s allegations with any kind of plot to improve the school’s performance.

Among Paquette’s claims is an example of a student who was given a final exam back to complete questions that had been left blank. The additional answers “resulted in a grade being changed to passing after the deadline,” the lawsuit said. And in another instance, the lawsuit claims a failing student was allowed to enroll in a computer class and pass an “entire year course” based on work “which allegedly took place entirely in the weekend before graduation.”

Paquette also claims that Grimm instructed her to give no student a grade below 61. Under the state’s required grading scale, any grade of 69 or below is failing. The grading scale doesn’t go below 61.

Kobrovsky declined to elaborate on the allegations made by his client, saying “the lawsuit speaks for itself.” He said he couldn’t speculate as to whether Paquette’s claims were isolated incidents or whether there could be a more widespread problem at the school, adding that he has no other cases involving similar claims at North Charleston High School.

Kobrovksy called Paquette “courageous” for stepping forward “to prevent what she thought was a wrong.”

“We all have a stake in the integrity of our educational system,” Kobrovsky said.