Former Jefferson Elementary School principal sues school district, alleges racial discrimination

Catherine Wallin/Staff

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Former Jefferson Elementary School principal Sonya Martin filed a lawsuit against the Berkeley Unified School District on Thursday, alleging that the district condoned racial discrimination against her.

The lawsuit states that Maggie Riddle, the BUSD director of schools, allegedly treated Martin differently than other non-Black faculty, micromanaging her work, deflating her performance evaluations and telling teachers to report to her about Martin’s work. The lawsuit further alleges that Riddle recommended to BUSD that it “unjustifiably” demote Martin from the position of principal to classroom teacher and encouraged BUSD to terminate Martin’s employment about August 2016.

“We have full confidence in our director as a seasoned, effective, and equity-minded educational leader,” read a district statement released by BUSD spokesperson Charles Burress.

In addition to BUSD, Martin is suing BUSD superintendent Donald Evans in an official capacity and Riddle in an individual capacity.

Additionally, Riddle allegedly made derogatory and racially charged comments about Martin in public places, met secretly with Martin’s staff behind her back, implied to others that Martin was not trustworthy or capable and belittled her work to parents and faculty, particularly those who were not Black, according to the lawsuit. When Martin was on medical leave in 2016, the lawsuit alleges that Riddle falsely told BUSD administrators and students that Martin had “abandoned her job.”

When Martin filed a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, the lawsuit states, Riddle allegedly retaliated against her and “began a campaign to destroy (Martin)” by terminating her employment and working to have her teaching credentials revoked.

BUSD filed a complaint with the Commission on Teacher Credentialing about Sept. 20, 2016, according to the lawsuit.

In one instance, the lawsuit alleges that Riddle created an event that caused Martin’s school email to be disconnected and then criticized Martin to others for not responding to emails related to her duties.

“Riddle’s actions were done with fraud, malice and oppression, for which (Martin) is also entitled to punitive damages in addition,” the lawsuit alleged.

As a result of the discrimination, the lawsuit alleges, Martin has lost wages, lost her employment and benefits, suffered emotional distress and had to endure hospital and medical expenses, among other damages. In total, Martin is suing for an amount of at least $25,100, in addition to costs and fees.

“While we do not comment in detail on personnel matters publicly, we can say that in this case we believe our evaluation and employment processes were performed thoroughly and fairly,” read the BUSD statement.

Jessica Lynn is the city news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @jessicailynn.