News

Racism alleged by Lakehaven Utility District worker

By ERICA JAHN

Staff writer

A Lakehaven Utility District employee suspended last year for allegedly misusing district e-mail has filed a tort claim against the district, saying she was wrongfully suspended and that she was treated in a “rude, demeaning and dismissing manner by management” when she returned to work.

Timolin Abrom was “singled out and discriminated against … due to the content of the personal e-mail,” and she “was also singled out and discriminated against … due to her race,” according to her claim filed in January.

Abrom is seeking $300,000 in damages for discrimination and retaliation, for violation of constitutional rights including free speech, for wages withheld plus interest during her suspension, and for medical and legal expenses.

Abrom also is seeking the removal of disciplinary actions from her employment file and asking for no further retaliation against her, race-relations training, education of district staff and an apology.

Lakehaven administrators and members of the district’s board deny the allegations, saying Abrom was suspended for another reason described in a written warning that they are unable to disclose because of employee confidentiality laws.

Abrom’s attorney, Victoria Vreeland, declined to provide a copy of the warning to the Mirror.

Abrom, who still works at the district as a purchasing manager, maintains she wasn’t doing anything inappropriate with district e-mail prior to her suspension. Her tort claim alleges the conduct for which she was suspended has been permitted for other Lakehaven employees, including managers, without negative consequences.

According to her claim, managers at Lakehaven intimidated and humiliated her when she returned from her suspension, including instances in which one “slammed items in (Abrom’s) in-box, causing her to have to move the in-box because he was getting so bad. (The manager) began speaking to (Abrom) in a very slow, exaggerated tone as if she was very ignorant whenever she asked for clarification or had a question on any work-related issue,” according to the claim.

The manager allegedly watched over her shoulder, questioned her frequently and accused her of ordering unnecessary supplies, even though she was doing the same work she had done without reproach in the past, according to the claim.

In addition to her grievance regarding her suspension, Abrom said there were several incidents dating back to 1998 in which “derogatory racist comments, language, names and innuendo” were directed at her or made in her presence.

During one instance in 1998, an employee “stated to (Abrom) during work hours at the front desk, ‘Here comes Aunt Jemima,’” and, in another instance during a power outage, a district employee “walked into the office and commented about how dark it was and told (Abrom) that ‘All I saw was your teeth,’” according to her claim.

Steve Pritchett, Lakehaven’s attorney, refuted the allegations of racism.

“I don’t see that going on in the workplace here at all,” he said.

Abrom said her plight began last September, when she engaged in a dialogue with the president of the Federal Way School Board about a discipline disparity she perceived between black male students and other student.

She said she browsed Federal Way Public Schools’ Web site searching for information during her break at work. Not finding the information she was looking for, she clicked on a box to contact the School Board and sent a message requesting more data.

She got a response from then-board president Earl Van Dorien Jr., and a dialogue of increasingly controversial e-mail messages ensued. In the end, Abrom felt Van Dorien had characterized black male students as more violent culturally and compared discipline problems in schools to the prison population.

When she replied to Van Dorien that she was aware of the disparity in the prison population because of her work with the American Civil Liberties Union and told him she would be posting his unedited comments on a parent-created Web site, she said Van Dorien retaliated by contacting her boss, with whom she said he had a friendship and shared a political affiliation, and accusing her of misusing taxpayer-funded district e-mail for personal use.

For that, she said, she was suspended without pay for 10 days.

Lakehaven officials continue to deny Abroms’ claim, saying she was issued a written warning Oct. 3 that explains the reasons for which she was suspended. The warning is expected to become a matter of public record if the claim becomes a lawsuit.

Staff writer Erica Jahn: 925-5565, ejahn@fedwaymirror.com

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