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High school teacher fired in 2014 alleged wrongful termination after safety concerns ignored

St. Helens School District has settled out of court with a former teacher who alleged wrongful termination in 2015.

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - The St. Helens School District, through its insurance company, settled out of court with a former high school teacher. The employee alleged he was wrongfully terminated and retaliated against for raising safety concerns about his shop class. Court documents show the district reached a settlement agreement on Sept. 11 with Rory Lewno, a former St. Helens High School shop teacher who asked the school to adopt a policy preventing students with past violent behaviors from accessing dangerous tools in his shop class.

His requests were ignored before Lewno eventually went on medical leave in 2012 and was fired while on leave.

Lewno filed a tort claim notice against the school district in 2015, seeking $600,000 after the district renewed a three-year teaching contract with him in 2014, then terminated him later that year without immediately notifying him.

After his contract was renewed, Lewno claims he was asked to resign his position promptly afterward while on extended medical leave. When he declined, saying he planned to return to work, he was later fired, despite his contract. Lewno said he was never notified of his termination after the decision until he called months later to find out his class sizes and schedules for the upcoming school year, expecting to return to work.

The district settled with Lewno for $17,500 through its insurance provider, Property and Casualty Coverage for Education (PACE.)

"We settled essentially for financial reasons — the amount was small enough that it was cheaper to settle than it was to try the case, even if we had won," Brett Mersereau, an attorney for the school district, stated via email. "It is always a business decision by PACE to settle cases where the numbers make sense. It also would have been disruptive to the school district to try the case, although that reason was secondary."

Before the St. Helens School Board voted to terminate Lewno's contract in late 2014, Lewno had raised repeated concerns for his safety and that of other students to district officials and fellow staff members.

"This is potentially a very dangerous environment ..." Lewno wrote in June 2011, saying he wanted to implement a new policy restricting access to dangerous tools and machinery if students had posed safety issues in the past.

He notified the high school's vice principal at the time, Bruce Carvalho, and assistant principal, BG Aguirre, along with Kerry Marshall, Deinse Matzen, Anjy Croley, Mike Herdrich and Joe Mauck.

"Instead of supporting Plaintiff, his supervisors and other staff began to humiliate him. He was told that he was a 'man' and should be able to handle 'it,'" Lewno's complaint states.

After voicing his concern over dangerous students — one who physically threatened him, and another who threw a chair at another student in his classroom — Lewno said he was ignored and retaliated against by being left out of important discussions and meetings.

"Plaintiff continued to report to his supervisor that he feared for his own safety and the safety of others in his classroom, his concerns were ignored, the incidents he reported were not investigated," his legal complaint states, noting at one point Lewno said his class had too many students for him to adequately monitor their behavior and safety.

Lewno had other concerns, noting a student who stabbed his brother with an ice pick in a non-school related incident and another who threatened to blow up the school.

"Plaintiff continued to advocate for a policy that would prohibit access to unsafe tools and material for students who had acted in a violent way in the past," the complaint noted. "St. Helens school district refused to enact a policy ..."

Mersereau confirmed that no policies were enacted to prohibit certain students' access to shop tools, because, "there was never any evidence that the district's policies were inadequate."

Lewno alleged wrongful termination, retaliation for being a whistleblower and disability discrimination.

Dori Brattain, an attorney for Lewno, said her client "built a National Champion program while he was at SHSD."

"He taught students to build projects that are used in the community," Brattain stated. "Many of his students left his program and walked right into good paying jobs."

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