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Three workers at a former Hillsboro preschool program say a supervisor sexually harassed them, among other concerns.

COURTESY PHOTO - Three employees of an activities program for preschool-age students previously run by Hillsboro Parks & Recreation filed a lawsuit Dec. 27, alleging a hostile work environment and whistleblower retaliation against the city government.Three employees of a preschool program previously run by Hillsboro Parks & Recreation have filed a lawsuit accusing a supervisor of sexual harassment and other inappropriate behaviors in front of staff, students and their parents.

The plaintiffs say the supervisor created a hostile work environment and fraudulently used her position to allow her child to access city services at no cost, according to the lawsuit.

When they reported their concerns to Hillsboro officials, the supervisor allegedly retaliated against them.

The plaintiffs also accused Hillsboro human resources officials of inadequately responding to the supervisor's alleged behavior, maintaining her employment and allowing her to continue working around children.

Hillsboro is the sole defendant in the complaint, which was filed in Washington County Circuit Court on Monday, Dec. 27.

The plaintiffs are seeking nearly $470,000 in damages for whistleblower retaliation and a hostile work environment.

Asked for comment Thursday, Dec. 30, Patrick Preston, spokesperson for Hillsboro, said the city government had not yet officially received the lawsuit, but added that ensuring a respectful workplace is a citywide priority.

"When one of our employees complains, we take it seriously and conduct a thorough investigation," Preston said in an emailed statement. "All City employees are required to adhere to City policies that prohibit discrimination and harassment. ?The City of Hillsboro is working hard to be an employer of choice in the region, creating an employee-driven culture that helps employees feel valued and supported."

The plaintiffs, Renee Cohen, Marcy Parker and Amber Kennedy, all worked at Hillsboro's Busy Bees Activity Program, a part-time program for preschool-aged students at Hillsboro's Tyson Recreation Center, according to the lawsuit.

Cohen and Parker worked as teachers in the program since 2011 and 2009, respectively, and Kennedy worked at the front desk and would fill in at the program as needed since 2013, the lawsuit said.

They allege that their supervisor, who was not named in the lawsuit, repeatedly sexually harassed them and other staff in front of parents and children.

The supervisor would "air hump" Cohen and Parker and "rub her breasts" on Cohen, according to the lawsuit.

At one point, the supervisor allegedly took food out of an employee's hand, "rubbed it on her crotch and handed it back to the employee," the lawsuit says.

On another occasion, the supervisor allegedly tried to force each plaintiff and another employee to watch a sexually explicit video while they were teaching students, according to the lawsuit.

When Cohen reported the supervisor's behavior to a higher-level official, the lawsuit says, the official suggested issues be resolved through a mediation process.

Within a week of a mediation agreement being reached between Cohen and the supervisor about how they should behave toward each other, the supervisor violated the agreement, according to the lawsuit.

The higher-level official "did nothing when the violation occurred," the lawsuit says.

The supervisor also allegedly enrolled her child in Parks & Recreation programs, paid fees associated with them and then used her access to the enrollment system to inappropriately refund the fees, according to the lawsuit. Kennedy allegedly discovered the conduct after noticing an accounting issue and then further reviewing the enrollment system, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit also describes other alleged problematic behaviors by the supervisor, including tormenting an employee with intellectual disabilities, sharing employees' private information, yelling and hurling profanities at employees with students and parents present and making fun of and harassing families of lower socioeconomic status.

In January 2020, the supervisor allegedly berated Parker for not previously disclosing a disability, which she cited as a reason not to attend a non-mandatory training, according to the lawsuit.

The supervisor also insinuated that limitations due to Parker's disability "were putting her job at risk," the lawsuit says, and later allegedly told Parker to send her an email describing her disability with private medical information.

Later in January and February 2020, the plaintiffs made a formal complaint about their supervisor's alleged behaviors to human resources officials, according to the lawsuit.

Another complainant, who isn't a plaintiff in the lawsuit, separately reported similar issues about the supervisor's behavior to human resources officials in January 2020, the lawsuit says.

An official above the supervisor allegedly reprimanded Cohen for reporting concerns to human resources, "telling her that instead she should have followed the chain of command and gone to him to report," the lawsuit says.

In February 2020, the supervisor "locked Plaintiffs Cohen and Parker and 24 children out of the Tyson Recreation building with no warning because she 'didn't want them to use the back door' anymore. This group included a child with disabilities."

Parker and Cohen understood the incident to be retaliation for reporting their concerns and reported it to human resources, according to the lawsuit.

The supervisor was allegedly instructed not to have any contact with the plaintiffs due to the retaliation, the lawsuit says.

But the supervisor allegedly violated the no-contact order multiple times, according to the lawsuit.

"HR took no action regarding the continued violations" despite the plaintiffs reporting each one, the lawsuit says.

In May 2020, the plaintiffs received a memo from Lisa Colling, Hillsboro's human resources director, outlining the results of the independent investigation into their complaints, according to the lawsuit.

The investigation substantiated allegations against the supervisor related to sexual harassment, inappropriate touching of Cohen and other similar actions, the lawsuit says.

It also substantiated allegations of the supervisor degrading parents, using derogatory language and other inappropriate behaviors, according to the lawsuit.

The investigation did not conclude that the supervisor retaliated against the plaintiffs, adding that she had not taken enough actions in a short enough period of time to justify declaring a hostile work environment, the lawsuit says.

"The action taken by Hillsboro in response to a finding of policy violations by (the supervisor) was to keep her employed, working around children, and send her and the Plaintiffs to a training on communication strategies," the lawsuit says.

The supervisor allegedly continued her hostility toward the plaintiffs during a training in July 2020, the lawsuit says, adding that she refused to look at the plaintiffs or use their names.

Hillsboro allegedly didn't pay the plaintiffs for the training, according to the lawsuit.

In August 2020, Cohen filed a complaint with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries. The complaint was related to Hillsboro's failure to respond to appropriately to her concerns, the lawsuit says.

At the same time, the Busy Bees program had been shut down due to the pandemic, according to the lawsuit.

Although Parks & Recreation officials had previously communicated with the plaintiffs about how to reopen the program safely, the head of the program told the plaintiffs in May 2021 that the program would be shut down permanently, according to the lawsuit.

Shortly after, Hillsboro officials allegedly took steps to cause the plaintiffs to end their employment with the city, the lawsuit says.

Officials said the plaintiffs would be offered the same hours they previously had but conditioned the hours on the plaintiffs' ability to develop new classes with a certain level of enrollment, according to the lawsuit.

After Cohen's hours were cut to nothing, she was allegedly forced to take employment elsewhere while her husband was battling terminal cancer, the lawsuit says.

Kennedy was offered minimal employment, and "Parker has not been given any hours that work within the parameters of her disability," the lawsuit says.

About a year after filing her complaint with the Bureau of Labor and Industries, the agency sent Cohen a notice indicating she had a right to sue Hillsboro, the lawsuit says.


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