A new twist in the Looney/HR leadership scandal: criminalizing workplace conflict — in one direction

Laquita Johnson-Looney told Lakeland police very clearly what she wanted at the end of her 20-minute interview on May 31, 2017, at Southwest Elementary School.

She and teacher Juanita McCoy had been in a conflict for months, a conflict in which their principal told police they were equally hostile to each other. Johnson-Looney, a guidance counselor, wanted Juanita McCoy gone.

“I do want to file charges [against McCoy],” said Johnson-Looney. “I do not want to return to this school knowing that this person is on campus.”

Looney-Johnson got what she wanted. Without any School District HR investigation, the School District removed McCoy from the school that day, later transferred her to another school, and suspended her for five days based solely on the police report that emerged.

A couple months after the event, based on the police report, the State Attorney’s Office prosecuted McCoy after Johnson-Looney reiterated that she wanted her prosecuted, the SAO told me. What was the crime Johnson-Looney accused McCoy of committing?

An alleged push in the back as McCoy walked past her during a tense moment in the school’s front office on the morning of May 31.

“I felt a firm hand on my back and I got pushed and I had to brace myself on the counter,” Looney-Johnson told police. “I could not believe she put her hands on me and pushed me.”

McCoy denies she touched Johnson-Looney as she passed her. She says she was carrying materials for a meeting and could not have put her hands on Johnson-Looney.

And on May 4th, 2018, almost a year after the incident, the State Attorney’s Office dropped all charges against McCoy as a trial loomed, citing “the facts and circumstances of this case.”

There was no push

A subsequent review of the audio statements taken by police show the only eyewitness to this event, other than Johnson-Looney and McCoy, told police she saw no push or force. This key eyewitness, who I’m not going to name for the sake of her privacy, was asked by the LPD officer, “was there any force?”

“I don’t think so. I can’t really say. I just know that she definitely put her hands on her and scooted past her and said ‘excuse me’.”

A subsequent line of questioning went like this:

“Did you hear Mrs. Looney say ‘Ow’?

“No ma’am.”

“Did you see her get jarred forward or to the side or the back at all.”

“I did not.”

The eyewitness was clear that she saw the entire episode. “I saw the whole thing,” she told police.

Her firsthand account is inconsistent with what Johnson-Looney told principal Julie Sloan about the incident, according to Sloan’s statement. Johnson-Looney first called police and then informed Sloan she had done so. According to Sloan’s statement, Johnson-Looney then told Sloan: “I want you to know Ms. McCoy just pushed me into the cabinets.”

There is no indication from any testimony that a push into the cabinets happened.

Moreover, the vast majority of Laquita Johnson-Looney’s police statement focuses on grievances built up over time, not the alleged crime. It feels like an HR gripe session. In my opinion as a board member, we should not outsource hard HR administrative work to the police.

Indeed, McCoy declined to speak to police the day of the event without a lawyer, she told me, because she did not trust she would be treated fairly.

I am in possession of all these taped statements. Anyone — including our HR department — who wants to listen to them and judge for yourself can contact me. I am willing to bet that I am the only person, other than lawyers and direct parties to the case, who has listened to them.

Indeed, the police report does conclude like this: “Based on the totality of this investigation it is believed that Ms. McCoy purposefully pushed up against Mrs. Looney to continue her intimidation and harassment.”

But I challenge anyone to listen to the tapes and find evidence of ongoing, one-sided “intimidation and harassment” of Johnson-Looney. The only evidence comes from Johnson-Looney’s own complaints. And other statements she made about the force and nature of the encounter are flatly contradicted by the only eyewitness. There was no push into the cabinets.

And it’s pretty clear what the State Attorney’s Office ultimately came to think of the report’s conclusion.

A two-sided conflict with a one-sided outcome

This event comes with substantial context.

As stated earlier, Johnson-Looney and McCoy had been in an ongoing, months-long dispute since at least February. The core of the dispute related to testing and documentation responsibilities for a student going through the IEP process. Both women had accused the other of creating a hostile work environment. McCoy had accused Johnson-Looney of making false statements to parents. As near as I can tell, none of McCoy’s complaints have been investigated.

Principal Julie Sloan did not tell police who she thought was factually in the right. But she was very clear about the behavior of each woman: “They’re the same to each other,” she told police.

In addition, Laquita Johnson-Looney is the wife of Jason Looney, principal of Tenoroc High School.

If you’ve read me at all, you know the story of Jason Looney and Brandi Garcia Blanchard, the assistant principal that Jason Looney dismissed from Tenoroc under troubling circumstances, based on a defective development plan.

You can read about the Looney/Tenoroc case in excruciating and graphic detail in these posts:

“A battle for the leadership soul and culture of the Polk School District, part 1”

A battle for the future of the Polk District, part 2: Leadership demands some personal risk

“The Tenoroc situation: Jason Looney and Tim Harris in their own words”

Blanchard has filed a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment against Looney. A Tenoroc teacher has also filed a lawsuit alleging retaliation. Both are awaiting EEOC clearance.

In a striking bit of timing, Looney dismissed Blanchard within a couple days of the incident involving Johnson-Looney and McCoy at Southwest at the end of the last school year. Indeed, Johnson-Looney told police she had discussed her “hostile work environment” with Jason Looney in the days just before she called the police on McCoy.

It’s also worth noting that the losers in these struggles with the Looneys — Blanchard and McCoy — are, respectively, a bilingual Hispanic administrator (of which the heavily Hispanic School District has almost none) and an African-American teacher who worked her way from being a para.

Extraordinary institutional deference to the Looneys 

The Tenoroc allegations against Jason Looney are very similar to allegations made against him in a 2010 investigation of his behavior while an assistant principal at George Jenkins High school.

Together, the allegations at GJ and Tenoroc include first-hand accounts of unwanted advances, giving and receiving lewd texts, inappropriate workplace language, sexualized personnel drama/favoritism and punishment with Looney at the center, and fear of retaliation toward alleged victims.

The 2010 GJ investigation also included the behavior of Laquita Johnson-Looney, who worked there with Looney at one time. She was accused of reacting to the drama involving her husband by involving co-workers or lashing out at them.

The Looneys deny all wrongdoing. And all investigations have concluded that the sexual harassment or behavior-related allegations could not be proved or disproved — “unsubstantiated” or “unsustained” are the precise terms. 

Jason Looney has never received any discipline, ever, from the Polk School District.

By all appearances, he was just reappointed principal of Tenoroc High School. (Much more on that to come, including the fact that two of his assistant principals were transferred. These include the assistant principal one teacher said she saw, on campus, in a sexually compromising position with Looney, and who was seen by multiple people leaving the 2017 Tenoroc prom with Looney amid rumors of affairs. Looney and this AP have denied any sexual contact or affair.)

This apparent reappointment occurred despite the fact that in the summer of 2017 Looney held a mandatory Tenoroc faculty meeting, while under active sexual harassment investigation, in which the faculty were forced to listen to School Board Member Tim Harris express his support for Looney. Members of the faculty were actual or potential witnesses to the investigation. None of those facts about the meeting is in dispute. Yet none has been investigated or addressed by the Polk School District.

By contrast, Juanita McCoy’s reported touch on the back is very much in dispute. Yet, it led to immediate removal from campus; a forced transfer; a five-day suspension, and a year-long, finally abandoned prosecution. It led to thousands of dollars in economic hardship for Juanita McCoy. It led to Laquita Johnson-Looney getting exactly what she wanted.

A vital election issue

To me, these circumstances beggar belief. I cannot explain any of it. I cannot explain the district’s decade-long deference to the Looneys and institutional viciousness toward anyone who comes into conflict with them. But I am not done trying. Indeed, I am just getting started.

This has ceased to be a Looney issue. It is a Polk County schools institutional leadership issue. At a time when we are making some good progress on other fronts, our workplace environment and institutional leadership culture is a terribly limiting pathology.

It must become a School Board election issue, or it won’t change. This district and current Board seems indifferent to or incapable of reforming our HR and workplace norms. It is our number one local problem — by far. By far.

Consider this quote from Kay Fields when I brought the 2010 GJ investigation to the School Board’s attention.

“And I guess my response to that would be that was seven years ago. And I would imagine that if there was anything we should be aware of that the staff would have told us by now. I would hope and pray they would.”

Hoping and praying is not leadership.

That kind of blind faith in unelected staff leadership makes elected School Boards utterly pointless. I do not believe my community elected me to be pointless. So I’m calling on my community to help me change this by voting in new board members in 2018 who will take their role in setting behavioral and workplace standards seriously.

5 comments

  1. Johnnie Roache

    Thank you so much for bringing this to light and for fighting for us.

    Stand up for what’s right.

  2. Needless to say, this scenario happens in the private sector also, with devastating effects on morale and productivity and I realize there are no pat or facile answers to a situation like this. Perhaps the following solution is not possible in the public sector, but it sure worked in the following case in the private sector:

    I once worked with two individuals who were both outwardly and passive-aggressively hostile toward one another. Finally, my manager took them both into the conference room and simply told them to work it out or they would both be terminated, that part of their job description is to get along with their fellow-employees and if they couldn’t do that, they needed to find another job. She then told them not to come out until they had a solution. With that, she walked out and closed the door. Ultimately, the two employees came to a “meeting of the minds.” Yes, there were threats of EEOC filings, threats to get a lawyer, threats to get the ombudsman involved, etc., but the manager was steadfast and basically said, “then bring it.”

    . . .just a thought that might help.

  3. Sue Jones

    I definitely plan on voting in new board members….. the “old guard” has shown me nothing…. I am a retired teacher and I know all about the favoritism and how if you aren’t “a chosen one”, your life can be miserable…. I loved the “children” (although it was middle and high school that I taught) but could not get past the obvious favoritism shown at 2 of the schools where I worked…. I must say, I worked at AHS in the time of Mr. Joe and found him to be fair and just…. but at WHHS (Tucker) and Denison (Williams), I did not find the same environment…. which is one of the reasons that I retired early.

    • Bessie Mae

      Many of us who worked for the Polk County Schools know how dangerous it is to speak up against favoritism. Billy is on point with the district culture- it is pathological and is the way they function. If one has a sense of normalcy or rational thinking they will sabatoge and even destroy that person. Unfortunatdly, changing Board members in my opinion is placing the importance on the wrong arm of the institution. The priority look is in veteran senior staff that should have been dismissed years ago. Here the key is veteran! Start there.

  4. Reading this is painful to me. Juanita McCoy is one of the sweetest, most kind people I’ve ever worked with. She is a hard working, loving teacher who puts her students first. To hear how she’s been treated makes me ill. I certainly hope that the school board steps up!