Berkeley school custodian files lawsuit against district alleging defamation, sexual harassment

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Update 6/11/2019: This article has been updated to include information from the plaintiff’s attorney Rebecca Kagin.

Berkeley Unified School District custodian Janet Helton filed a lawsuit against BUSD on May 7 in the Alameda County Superior Court, alleging defamation and violations of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, or FEHA, including sexual harassment and failure to prevent discrimination, harassment or retaliation.

Helton began working as a substitute custodian assigned to Berkeley Adult School in January 2014, and she secured a regular custodian I position in August 2014. She was then assigned to work at Berkeley High School, according to the lawsuit. At her job, her supervisors were Greg Williams and Raymond Young, and she worked with another custodian, Rafael Ortiz.

According to the lawsuit, during her time at Berkeley High School, Helton began to experience sexual harassment from Ortiz on a weekly, sometimes daily basis, which included forced hugs, commenting on her clothing and asking if she was wearing underwear, making sexual comments about Helton and other women, stating that Helton was sexually promiscuous and sexually diseased, and ogling teenage girls at the school pool.

The lawsuit alleges that Young participated in creating the sexually hostile work environment by engaging in conversations with Ortiz that were demeaning to women and implying that Helton worked as a stripper around Christmas 2014. It also alleges that Young also failed to take steps to end the harassment and referred to instances when Ortiz made sexual comments about female students in Young’s presence.

Around July 2016, Helton transferred to the BUSD administration building, where she soon learned that Ortiz was spreading a rumor that she obtained the transfer by having sex with BUSD personnel, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit states that, on information and belief, Ortiz also spread rumors suggesting that Helton suffered from a sexually transmitted disease and was sexually promiscuous in exchange for favored treatment at BUSD.

On Jan. 29, 2018, Ortiz approached Helton at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, pulled her close to him against her will and whispered that he had $150 for her, implying that he was offering to pay her for sex, the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit states that on information and belief, BUSD’s internal investigation confirmed that Ortiz engaged in sexual harassment of Helton and the district terminated his employment — however, it did not appear that any investigation took place to prevent or end the harassment before her complaint in January 2018.

Helton experienced emotional distress from the harassment, and she had to take medical leave from work in February 2018 and from May though December 2018, according to the lawsuit. She started work again on Dec. 8, 2018.

“As a result of Defendants’ unlawful acts, Plaintiff is entitled to compensatory damages, equitable relief, attorneys’ fees, and costs,” the lawsuit states.

According to the plaintiff’s attorney, Rebecca Kagin, she believes that Helton’s case meets the legal standard for harassment.

Kagin said that Helton is “struggling” and added that sexual harassment has harmful impacts on the individuals effected by it.

“Sexual harassment impacts the livelihoods and mental and financial wellbeing of those impacted,” said Kagin. “As a society we need to address sexual harassment at all levels … from the kitchen– where waitresses and kitchen workers also experience it– to the halls in Sacramento and Washington, to corporate board rooms.”

BUSD spokesperson Charles Burress said BUSD is unable to comment on personnel issues.

Sabrina Dong is the executive news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @Sabrina_Dong_.