Family plans lawsuit against Bassett Unified over teacher’s suicide
LA PUENTE >> The stepfather of a Bassett High School art teacher who committed suicide in July has announced plans to file a wrongful death suit against the district after claiming his stepdaughter’s death resulted from bullying by administrators.
A series of incidents led to Jennifer Lenihan taking a stress leave, which left her in such financial turmoil that she took her own life July 1, the day her mother went to give her money to help with rent, according to Manuel Jaramillo, her stepfather.
“We believe she was driven to suicide,” Jaramillo said. “She had journals, she had emails, she has other friends that are willing to come forth in the trial.”
In the documents she left behind, Lenihan spoke of being harassed in front of students and other staff members, Jaramillo said. He declined to give names because it could hurt his future case.
A fellow employee who spoke anonymously out of fear of retaliation said she recalled two administrators, Robert Reyes and Jimmy Lima, the principal and assistant principal respectively, yelling at Lenihan in a courtyard in front of teachers and students. A friend of Lenihan said she told him of also being talked down to in her classroom while students watched.
Reyes and Lima did not return calls for comment.
A second ordeal involved a yearbook class the high school’s administration took away from another teacher and gave to Lenihan, despite her saying she did not feel comfortable teaching it. The class, typically a senior level class, had too many freshmen and did not receive enough funding. It also did not have lenses for the cameras used in the class, according to the teacher. When asked not to have the class, she was told she had to take it or she would lose another class she taught, Jaramillo said.
“The pressure got too great, and she left the school,” Jaramillo said. She received half her monthly salary while on a stress leave, which lasted from October to July, during which time she was denied disability and workers’ compensation. She took out a personal loan just to get by, Jaramillo said. She did not receive any part of her salary the month she killed herself because of the denial of workers’ compensation, Jaramillo said.
She was instead told she could resign or apply for a waiting list to return to the district, he said.
The type of belittlement Lenihan allegedly experienced has become standard in the district, according to teacher Tom Covington, who spoke separately from his position as the teachers union’s vice president.
“It is part of what they do, they make you so unhappy, they want you to leave,” Covington said.
Bassett Teachers Association President Maryellen Daners has received a number of complaints about Reyes and Lima, and in general, says morale has dropped dramatically across the district in recent years.
“People see what is happening, and they’re afraid it could happen to them,” she said. Changes, such as eliminated positions, seem related to personal issues rather than performance ones, she said.
Lenihan was meeting with the California Teachers Association to get assistance with her problems in the district, but Daners could not speak to specifics.
Bassett Unified’s new Superintendent Jose Reynoso said he is not aware of Lenihan formally bringing up the problem to the district’s top administrators.
“I don’t know that that has been brought to our attention in terms of any written form,” he said. “No one has brought that to our attention, and they have never asked to discuss this as an issue.”
Reynoso said he had no idea of the family’s accusations until the family announced their plans for a lawsuit at a recent board meeting.
Reynoso confirmed a number of small notes were found spread across Bassett High School’s campus after Lenihan’s death that read “Think before you speak to teachers,” “Bullies,” and “Where is the morale of Bassett teachers?”
No one came forward to speak about the notes and the topic dropped, he said.
The district does not have a morale problem, he said. Teachers who have spoke to him seem positive about the new year, he said.
“I see a new spirit in them, and it really brings me joy,” he said.
Reynoso said he feels sad about the passing of Lenihan and the pain her family is feeling but that he feels the district did everything it should have.
Desmond Jervis and Hugo Lopez both had Lenihan their senior year in 2005 and continued to stay in touch with her after graduation. Jervis described Lenihan as someone who, despite barely making enough to live on, would buy paint and supplies for her classes out of her own pocket.
Jervis noticed the change in recent months. Lenihan stopped wanting to be around her friends and even turned down visits to art museums, which she previously loved.
“She couldn’t even sleep, she just keep thinking about what went wrong,” he said. “I saw her cry the last time I saw her. I’d never seen her cry before.”
“They took away her happiness,” he said.
Lopez spoke before the Bassett Unified board at its last meeting and called for a change.
“I urge you to never let the fantasy of a few undermine the well-being of the many. Jennifer and I always agreed on that point. All of her activism and creativity lives on with me, her colleagues and every wayward child she taught to express what was in their heart,” Lopez said. “It’s time to pay her back with our future decisions. We can start here, in the school and in the district that originally gave her the platform and the audience to change individual worlds.”