Attorney Denise Lowell-Britt: "Independent Investigator" for Gilbert Public Schools Gives Legal Advice to Persons Under Investigation!

NEW! Gilbert Public Schools Board Member Apologizes for the District's Retaliation Against Sarah - be sure to read what he says about the advice Attorney Denise Lowell-Britt gave the board before they voted.

Denise Lowell-Britt, Udall, Shumway & Lyons, had been advising Gilbert Public Schools since at least March 9, 2011 about matters related to Sarah and to her family. Sarah did not know this fact until October 5, 2011, when she reviewed Denise Lowell-Britt's investigation file that was made available by Gilbert Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Clyde Dangerfield. The documents in the investigation file were astounding...and unredacted.

Recall that Sarah reported bullying on February 7, 2011; principal Vicki Hester called Associate Superintendent Nikki Blanchard on March 4, 2011 with an unspecified charge of "unprofessional conduct" against Sarah. Nikki Blanchard called Sarah and Vicki Hester to her office on March 7, 2011 and announced she was starting an investigation of Sarah. Nikki Blanchard said she would tell Sarah what the charges against her were when she finished that investigation. As Nikki Blanchard ordered, Sarah had a box of about 1,000 pages of documents delivered to the GPS Human Resources office on March 8, 2011.

Denise Lowell-Britt's hand-written note in the investigation file: "3/10/11 TCW Diane Petit - Don't do anything until after spring break." Spring Break was the following week; Nikki Blanchard had travel plans.

Denise Lowell-Britt was officially appointed on March 24, 2011, by Associate Superintendent Nikki Blanchard and Assistant Superintendent Shane McCord, to investigate concerns Sarah's parents brought to Shane McCord during a meeting on March 23, 2011. The investigation report was dated June 9, 2011 -- that's 92 days that Denise Lowell-Britt spent determining that bullying at Meridian Elementary School was not as big a problem as Sarah had reported.

In their initial interview on March 30, 2011, Thomas and Denise specifically asked Denise Lowell-Britt if she represented Gilbert Public Schools in this investigation. Denise Lowell-Britt stated she was an "independent investigator" and was not acting as an attorney for the district. Thomas and Denise believed her, at the time. Events would later reveal otherwise.

Sarah was forthright and provided written notes and documentary evidence to prove her words. It was very apparent that Sarah believed Denise Lowell-Britt when she told Sarah that she was an "independent investigator." Sarah believed Denise Lowell-Britt could help correct the problems Sarah reported. We all know the saying about good intentions.

Sarah's notes given to Denise Lowell-Britt on April 19, 2011, during Sarah's first interview with the "independent investigator" included:

I ask that you acknowledge my response constitutes written notice to designees of the Gilbert Public Schools Board, although I would like to continue working at the most informal level possible to correct the situations I describe. My annual professional evaluation conference is scheduled for April 27, 2011, and I request protection from reprisals under Arizona whistleblower laws (ARS 38-531 to -534).

Denise Lowell-Britt discussed Sarah's situation with Arizona Education Association attorney Samantha Blevins, even though Sarah told Denise Lowell-Britt quite clearly that Samantha Blevins did not represent Sarah in these matters. Sarah's email that Denise Lowell-Britt shared with Samantha Blevins includes:

...I much prefer priority be given to giving my students and their parents the attention and assistance they need to overcome the effects of bullying in our classroom. Indicators of their distress can be shown by absences, especially in the third quarter:
Student *** who was not absent at all in the first two quarters of the year, missed 6 days of school n the third quarter because of **** bullying. Student *** missed 4 days of school in the third quarter and 2 days so far in the fourth quarter. *** is the student whose mother said *** was afraid to come to school because of ****'s bullying. Student *** missed 4 days in the third quarter. My students still express fear when they see ***** in the halls, the lunchroom, and on the playground.

We have been waiting for 75 days and there are only 30 days left in the school year. My students will return to Meridian next year, whether I do or not. They deserve more than deliberate indifference to bullying from the district.

Sarah did not know that Denise Lowell-Britt was coaching the person she was supposed to be investigating; Denise Lowell-Britt actually wrote text for Sarah's evaluation and emailed that text to Vicki Hester, who included some of it in Sarah's evaluation (text appears near the end of page 4 in the .pdf document). Sarah disagreed with her evaluation, and noted a comment was inaccurate and not based on Vicki Hester's own knowledge. Sarah learned later that was the text written by Denise Lowell-Britt.

The end of year evaluation was good, but Denise Lowell-Britt advised Vicki Hester, with a copy to Associate Superintendent Nikki Blanchard: "If need be later, the District can create documentation that reflects that the matters raised in the April 4 letter of direction were not included in the evaluation because they were contested and the investigation did not conclude prior to the time of her evaluation." [emphasis added]

It was truly atrocious that Denise Lowell-Britt's attempt to interview the parents of the bully was the spark that directly led to the parents filing a complaint against Sarah on May 16, 2011:

But now, after having been recently informed by an attorney from Gilbert Public Schools [Denise Lowell-Britt] that there is a current complaint from both Sarah  and her mother Denise against Ms. Hester, we felt compelled to set the record straight.

The report that Denise Lowell-Britt wrote following her lengthy "independent investigation" is filled with factual errors, internal inconsistencies and logical loopholes exonerating Meridian Elementary School Principal Vicki Hester of wrongdoing:

Therefore, because the premise upon which this allegation is based is not true, the supposition that Ms. Hester and Ms. Blanchard were trying to "cover up" Ms. Hester's omissions does not logically follow.

...I have not sought to identify or include my findings regarding each and every allegation because of their large number.

...I did not find evidence to support the conclusion that Ms. Hester had engaged in any violations of Governing Board Policy or Administrative Regulations or law relative to [teacher].

At the outbriefing of the report of investigation on August 5, 2011, Denise Lowell-Britt gave Assistant Superintendent Clyde Dangerfield legal advice that it was in Gilbert Public Schools' best interests not to delve into facts about discrimination against a Meridian teacher or discuss the Administrative Law Judge's findings against Gilbert Public Schools.

Denise Lowell-Britt's efforts were in vain, because Gilbert Public Schools Superintendent Dave Allison made the connection crystal clear when he specifically included dropping Sarah's charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission a condition of allowing Sarah to resign from Gilbert Public Schools rather than be fired by the Governing Board.

In the First Response to the Report of Denise Lowell-Britt's "independent investigation," factual errors were called out, without benefit of having a copy of the report for reference:

This response is based on limited recollections of a thirty minute review of a 45 page investigation report riddled with factual errors...We were told, without warning and only at the conclusion of the investigation outbriefing, that we would not be allowed to keep a copy...It is obvious that the District's intent is to deny us access to essential information as the clock ticks on the deadline for our response to the investigation report.

...Even the preordained conclusions of the investigation report cannot deny that a total of 179 days elapsed between the date that Sarah first reported bullying and the investigation outbriefing. The District did nothing to help any of the victims of bullying during those 179 days. The District did nothing about the retaliation and harassment Sarah reported during those 179 days. [bold text in original in all of these excerpts]

...During the outbriefing, a District official stated plainly that the District will do nothing to Vicki Hester or Nikki Blanchard. It is clear that these investigations were never anything more than pretext and window dressing for District policies that seem to exist merely because the law requires them.

...Intentional delays: Five months and 29 days elapsed between the date that Sarah first reported bullying and the investigation outbriefing.

...Intentional ignorance: It appears that the investigator turned, twirled and swirled to avoid areas that might reveal unfavorable information about the District and key employees.

...The investigation was not impartial: There were many indicators that the investigation would reach foregone conclusions. The investigator jumped through hoops to resolve inconsistencies in a way that was favorable to the District.

...The investigation was not remedial

...The District turned a blind eye to harassment and retaliation

...The District retaliated by involuntarily transferring Sarah to a different school.

...Culpable administrators and the District will be humiliated when this knowledge becomes public. Damages, even for the victims of bullying, can be mitigated ... if it's not already too late for the innocent young victims.

It took a public records request to get a copy of the investigation report. Factual errors and mischaracterizations were stunning, as recounted in a second response to Denise Lowell-Britt's investigation report after the Greens had a chance to review the report at length:

...Now that we have had an opportunity to read thoroughly a copy of the investigation report, we can state unequivocally that the investigation was reckless and inadequate.

The investigation summary we read in Denise Lowell-Britt's office on August 5, 2011 differs from the document we received from the District.

...Mischaracterizing Sarah's reports of retaliation and harassment reveals studied, purposeful inadequacies of the investigation and the District's deliberate indifference to Sarah's reports. [bold text in original in all of these excerpts]

...In an article Denise Lowell-Britt wrote for the National School Boards Association, Dealing with Office for Civil Rights Complaints, February 2008, she offers a suggestion: "Retaliation may include not only firing a district employee, but it may also include creating a hostile environment in the workplace." We also note that Denise Lowell-Britt was scheduled to present at the Arizona School Boards Association Law Conference on September 9, 2011: How a District Can Avoid the Long, Costly Reach of the Office for Civil Rights: Proactive Steps Every District Should Take.  Her expertise in civil rights issues and advising school boards should have paved the path of this investigation.  It did, but the path led the wrong way...

...It appears that Shane McCord and Denise Lowell-Britt ignored Sarah's reports of retaliation and harassment while the investigation proceeded.

...It is striking that at least one other report of bullying seems to have disappeared and the reporting teacher did not know what happened after she sent her written report to Vicki Hester.

...There are other conflicts in evidence and testimony that should have been reviewed, because they are essential elements in remedying the problems at Meridian.

...Finally, the investigation appears to have ignored the big picture by focusing on the wrong things.

...The District had the benefit (unknown to us) of an experienced investigator with expertise in matters relating to federal laws, state laws and regulatory requirements. Yet this investigation was conveniently selective in that there was plenty of evidence that a retaliatory hostile environment existed and the District unreasonably failed to address it, thereby injuring students and teachers. Denise Lowell-Britt failed to consider all the material evidence that existed in reaching her conclusions, which renders this investigation recklessly inadequate. Further, although the District has policies in place to address the matters in the complaint, there was not a sincere commitment to follow or evenly enforce those policies.

The District should have shown that the complaint was taken seriously, and should have been followed by a timely, appropriate response. That appropriateness and associated good faith are conspicuously missing in this case. Instead, evidence shows that in the past two years, the District has deployed its overwhelming bureaucratic power against teachers disfavored by supervisors who are in positions to ruin careers, reputations and lives, while turning a blind eye to reports of bullying, sexual harassment, and racial discrimination that causes great harm.

On October 5 and October 7, 2011, Assistant Superintendent Clyde Dangerfield "opened his books" following a public records request to review the documents from attorney Denise Lowell-Britt's investigation. Until then, Sarah had been unaware of the collusion between Nikki Blanchard, Vicki Hester, Diane Drazinski and attorney Denise Lowell-Britt.

Documents show attorney Denise Lowell-Britt was well aware of Sarah's repeated pleas for help for her students and Sarah's repeated reports of harassment and retaliation. Emails in the investigation file showed that showed Dave Allison, Nikki Blanchard, Shane McCord and Clyde Dangerfield were "in the loop" contemporaneously, as were principals Vicki Hester and Jason Martin.

Notes in the investigation file showed Gilbert Education Association President Diane Drazinski advocated for giving Sarah the letter of direction. Nikki Blanchard didn't have to drive a wedge between GEA members and their officers; they worked hand-in-hand against a GEA member, as was evident in the GEA President's comment to Board Member Staci Burk that Sarah is a "great teacher, just not suitable for the Gilbert environment."

Other indicators that attorney Denise Lowell-Britt's investigation was never intended to be prompt, impartial or remedial included that witnesses, including Diane Drazinski, were allowed to review Denise Lowell-Britt's notes from interviews of other witnesses. The Greens were not allowed to review interview notes of other witnesses, or even know what other witnesses said, prior to the outbriefing on August 5, 2011. Although Denise Lowell-Britt made comments to the Greens about the "integrity of the investigation," it appears that was merely lip-service.

Handwritten notes document telephone calls with Nikki Blanchard that show collusion. Emails written by Jeff Filloon to Denise Lowell-Britt as he "investigated" a situation with a parent after the school year was over shows that Jeff Filloon attempted to shape testimony to be used against Sarah. (This relates to Charge #9). Fortunately for Sarah, the parent did not let Jeff Filloon put words in her mouth, instead emailing a clarification to Jeff Filloon: "...Mrs. Hester asked about the relationship between our [children] and their respective teachers was when she asked if they had a 'good relationship' with their teachers."

Denise Lowell-Britt advised the Gilbert Public Schools Governing Board on December 6, 2011 to adopt the Statement of Charges as Superintendent Allison recommended, after Clyde Dangerfield recused himself as the board's legal counsel. This was a result of board member Staci Burk suggesting that as an attorney, Clyde Dangerfield might have a conflict of interests regarding the charges against Sarah. Unfortunately, the board did not accept Staci Burk's recommendation to retain legal counsel of their own -- that's how the board ended up with attorney Denise Lowell-Britt's legal advice about the Statement of Charges against Sarah.

If Clyde Dangerfield had a conflict of interests or other ethical dilemma concerning the charges against Sarah, it defies logic to believe Denise Lowell-Britt did not suffer the same professional ethical conflict in advising the Governing Board of Gilbert Public Schools. A process server served attorney Denise Lowell-Britt with two Notices of Claim less than a month before -- in Denise Lowell-Britt's official capacity as an attorney for Gilbert Public Schools and also in her personal capacity as an attorney for Gilbert Public Schools.

Some of the charges in the Statement of Charges Against Sarah come directly from Denise Lowell-Britt's "independent investigation."

* The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs. <go back>

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