A Real Class Act

What happens when four women accuse a high school principal of sexual harassment? So far, not much.

Miami Northwestern Senior High School principal William E. Clarke III is facing two federal sexual harassment lawsuits from female school employees under his supervision. In addition, sexual harassment complaints against Clarke have been filed with the school district by two other female Northwestern employees. The four cases have overlapped and intertwined in such a way that one administrator noted that Clark was the subject of a "pattern of allegations."

Yet after four formal complaints, a flurry of correspondence among administrators (including the school district superintendent), and even direct conversations among administrators and Clarke, only one of these four women has had her allegations investigated. And that investigation concluded there was "insufficient evidence" that Clarke had harassed the woman.

Attorneys for two of the women now say that in treating these cases as unrelated events, the school district failed to see the larger picture. And a sordid picture it is, with allegations that Clarke was repeatedly propositioning women to have sex with him and that he was openly carrying on an extramarital affair with another school employee.

"The school board has been on notice as to all of the allegations made against Clarke," says Cristina Saenz, an attorney representing Sonja Renee Miller, one of the women who claims to have been victimized by Clarke's sexual advances. "They knew, but instead of protecting my client, they chose to ignore it."

Miller, 31 years old, is a clerical worker. Jacqueline Hazel, 44 years old, is a teacher/counselor. These women each filed separate suits against both Clarke and the school board. The lawsuits claim that the 50-year-old principal regularly tried to pressure them into having sex with him, and that he retaliated when they refused. Hazel declined to comment for this story. Miller, after initially agreeing to an interview, also declined.

In their suits, both Hazel and Miller are asking for monetary damages as well as Clarke's removal as principal of Northwestern. The Hazel case is scheduled for trial in September. Miller's is slated for March 1999. School officials have not yet investigated the other two complaints.

Clarke declined to comment on any of allegations. "I'm just going to leave it alone," he says. Clarke's attorney, W. George Allen of Fort Lauderdale, did not return phone calls seeking comment. School board attorney Patricia Bass (who, along with her supervisor Phyllis Douglas, is representing both the school board Clarke) also would not comment. But in written responses to the lawsuits, the school board and Clarke deny every alleged incident of sexual harassment.

District spokesman Henry Fraind says that the administration takes all claims of sexual harassment seriously. "But it can't just be word of mouth," he adds, "you have to make some supportable type of allegation. Most of the time when someone comes out and [makes allegations] out of the clear blue sky, these are investigated and are thrown out."

Before arriving at Northwestern, his alma mater, in 1995, Clarke, a 28-year administrator, had been a principal for eight years, most recently at Brownsville Middle School. When he took the job at Northwestern, Jacqueline Hazel was working as a counselor and also earned $3000 per year planning extracurricular activities. Sonja Miller was Clarke's secretary.

According to Hazel's lawsuit, Clarke's harassment of her began almost immediately upon his arrival at Northwestern, which located at 7007 NW Twelfth Avenue in Miami. She claims he "repeatedly propositioned [her] to have sexual intercourse." After she refused him several times, she asserts, he "admonished her that she would 'regret waiting so long.'"

In a sworn deposition, Hazel describes other salacious comments: "He'd say, 'Oh, you look so good today,' or 'You have pretty legs,' or 'When are you going to give me a chance?'"

She also recounts an incident from the fall of 1995: "Clarke had offered me hundreds of dollars -- he had a wad of hundred-dollar bills. He said to me, 'Is this enough money for you?' I told him he didn't have enough money to buy me. And then another staff member, [assistant principal Sam Johnson], said, 'He don't want to buy you. He wants to borrow you.'" Clarke laughed, she alleges.

In October 1995, Sonja Miller claims, she too became an unwilling target of Clarke's affections. Her lawsuit describes how Clarke "voiced his sexual fantasies about [her], telling her he wanted to go to bed with her," and told her "once she had sex with him, [she] would never go back to her husband." Saenz, Miller's attorney, says her client punched Clarke in the stomach on more than one occasion to make him stop.

Hazel, who was also spurning Clarke, remembers one early exchange: "Mr. Clarke actually said to me, 'So, what are you going to do, press sexual harassment charges against me?' I said, 'Mr. Clarke, don't play.' He said, 'Oh, it would be my word against yours.'"

Hazel's lawsuit contends that at least one female Northwestern staffer had succumbed to Clarke's advances, and had benefited financially. For the 1995-96 school year, Clarke gave Richelle Thomas Lee, a 29-year-old member of Northwestern's School-to-Work staff, two supplemental positions worth more than $2000 per year, and her own office -- after the two of them became romantically involved, Hazel's suit alleges. (Clarke is married to Poinciana Park Elementary School principal Cynthia Clarke, who is 48 years old.) Though Lee's ex-husband Vincent testified that she admitted having the relationship, neither Clarke nor Richelle Lee, who now works at Turner Technical High School, acknowledges it. (Lee did not return phone calls requesting comment.)

Vincent Lee said in a deposition that he confronted Clarke about the alleged affair, coming to Clarke's school office in late 1995 and using "almost every derogatory word that Webster has in his dictionary" to berate the principal. His sense of betrayal was deepened, he testified, because he and Clarke were both members of Alpha Phi Alpha and had known each other socially through the nationally prominent black fraternity.

After Hazel complained to her union about Clarke -- to no avail -- she spoke with George Koonce, then executive director of the district's division of athletics and activities, in November 1995. Hazel hoped that Koonce, as a friend and fellow member of Alpha Phi Alpha, would be able to influence Clarke to stop harassing her, says Hazel's attorney Thomasina Williams.

But Clarke's boorishness continued, Hazel alleges, so she wrote a brief letter to Koonce on February 14, 1996, noting that their conversation had concerned Clarke's harassment of her. This letter was copied to then-Superintendent Octavio Visiedo.

In his written reply to her, dated February 21, Koonce suggested that she talk with Clarke to "clear the air." He also noted that he had spoken to Clarke the day after their conversation. His response was copied to Clarke, to Visiedo, and to Solomon Stinson, then deputy superintendent for school operations.

But Stinson already knew about Hazel's letter because Koonce, Stinson's colleague and Alpha Phi Alpha brother, had called him about it. In a later deposition, Stinson stated that he didn't feel the need to refer the matter to the district's office that investigates such complaints, the Equal Educational and Employment Opportunity (EEEO) division. But, he added, "Had I known there had been a conversation between Mr. Clarke and Dr. Koonce regarding Ms. Hazel, I would probably have said, 'Report it to [EEEO]. Let them investigate it.'"

On March 11, Jeffrey Swain, coordinator of Northwestern's School-to-Work program, wrote a letter to Visiedo. Swain related that he had been "repeatedly approached" by Hazel with complaints about Clarke's alleged harassment. Swain also complained about the suspected affair between Clarke and Richelle Lee, who worked under Swain, reporting that he had seen Clarke "conducting himself in an unprofessional manner" with Lee. He wrote that school staffers had seen Clarke and Lee "leaving campus together under dubious circumstances during work hours."

On March 18, Hazel filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) office in Miami. In her complaint, she expressed fear that her job as student activities director was in jeopardy. Investigators from the federal EEOC office contacted the school district's EEEO office on March 26, asking for a response to Hazel's allegations.

On March 29, Visiedo responded to Swain's letter, stating that "appropriate review has been initiated." Solomon Stinson, who drafted the letter for Visiedo's signature, later testified that if he or Visiedo had received word from Hazel herself that she was being harassed, he would have forwarded her complaint to the EEEO. "In my own mind, this [Swain's letter] is hearsay," Stinson said in a deposition taken as part of Hazel's lawsuit.

Sonja Miller alleges that Clarke's harassment of her continued. Her lawsuit notes that on May 17, 1996, "Clarke chased her around the conference room table when Miller was two months pregnant, causing her to scream in panic."

The district EEEO replied to the federal EEOC's request for information about Jacqueline Hazel's complaint on July 2. The district's assessment: "It is the position of the Dade County Public Schools that there is no basis to substantiate [Hazel's charges]."

On August 16, 1996, Clarke notified Hazel that he had given the $3000-a-year student activities director post to someone else, and had reassigned her to teach -- even though she had never taught in a classroom.

Miller, meanwhile, continued to rebuff Clarke's advances, she charges. By fall 1996, she asserts, he had begun to retaliate against her, complaining that she was getting "fat" as her pregnancy advanced, and criticizing her job performance.

On October 31, 1996, the EEEO received word from Jose Villa, a media specialist at Charles Drew Elementary School, that his sister, 48-year-old Northwestern teacher Isabel Montes de Oca, had complained to him about sexual harassment by Clarke. The EEEO sent a letter to Montes de Oca that same day, noting that Villa had relayed her complaint. There is no record that the EEEO pursued the complaint further.

On December 3, Sonja Miller left the school on maternity leave. Clarke chastised her in a December 9 memorandum for not returning her keys or school-issued beeper. Miller fired back with her own memo on December 13. After outlining how she had followed the rules regarding the return of the items, she blasted him for harassing her "sexually, verbally, and now mentally." She recounted the incident of him chasing her around a table, and another in which he allegedly flashed $100 bills at her (as Hazel claims he had done to her as well). "I dealt with this stress day in and day out," she wrote. "I refuse to accept continuation of this kind of harassment now."

The day before Miller wrote this memo, Vincent Lee's fury over his ex-wife's suspected affair with Clarke once again boiled over. On December 12, 1996, Lee found Clarke's 1992 Cadillac parked in front of his ex-wife's home. "I exploded," Lee said in a deposition. "I shot [the car] about three times [with a shotgun]."

The Metro-Dade Police report of this incident lists William Clarke as the victim. It states that Clarke told officers he was "visiting" Richelle Lee when they heard a loud noise outside. They stepped out and spotted Vincent Lee, who immediately fled. The Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office did not file charges.

In January 1997, after the birth of her child, Miller filed a complaint with the district's EEEO. Solomon Stinson, by then chairman of the school board, learned of Miller's allegations. (He said he doesn't remember how.) "I happened to have known Sonja Miller for a good, long while," he noted in a deposition. "I was rather surprised that the allegation was being made." Stinson said he "personally spoke" to Miller to ask "if there was any way that I could assist her."

Stinson added that he knows William Clarke well. He described his relationship with Clarke as a "friendly relationship, supportive relationship, one of mentoring."

While investigating of Miller's complaint, EEEO director Rafael Urrutia wrote of a "pattern of allegations" against Clarke. Still, on March 27, 1997, Miller received a letter stating that the EEEO had found "insufficient evidence to substantiate the complaint."

In March 1997, Jacqueline Hazel filed her lawsuit in federal court. She still works as a teacher at Northwestern.

Sonja Renee Miller was ready to return from her maternity leave in February 1997, but didn't go back to Northwestern. Instead she worked part-time at Miami Central High School, then full-time as a secretary in the office of the principal at Lake Stevens Middle School, where she works today. In January of this year, she filed her federal lawsuit.

As the Hazel and Miller suits move ahead, yet another woman has come forward to accuse Clarke. On June 10, 1998, Northwestern language arts teacher Judy A. Jones filed a complaint with the district's EEEO office. Other than claiming sexual harassment against Clarke and assistant principal Raul Orta, the complaint itself is devoid of details and Jones has declined comment.

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