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Former employee files lawsuit against Junction City High School for wrongful termination
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The former head of security at Junction City High School is suing the Geary County school district for unfairly firing her as a “scapegoat” in the case of a student who was forced to justify wearing a head covering that she said was part of her religious beliefs.

Nikki Wolf of Junction City worked at the school for more than 30 years. She filed the lawsuit against Geary County School District USD 475 as well as Reginald Eggleston, superintendent of the Geary County School District, and Rina Neal, president of the school board at the time of the incident.

Wolf served as secondary security specialist for JCHS until the district fired her last year on the grounds that she violated policy on racial and disability harassment and the Title VI Civil Rights Amendment.

This followed an incident on Oct. 20, 2020, when Wolf questioned a student about the head scarf she was wearing that violated the “no-headwear” policy of the school.

Wolf maintains that she did not violate either of the policies cited and all her actions during the incident were in accordance with her job duties and without knowledge of any related exemption to the headwear policy of the school.

“These citations are incorrect and reflect the improper and grossly negligent manner in which Ms. Wolf and her 30-year career were thrust aside, slandered and trashed — all because Ms. Wolf did her job as she was trained by the district to do,” the lawsuit reads.

Patience Okemba, a sophomore student at JCHS last year, requested an exemption to the school’s no-headwear policy on Sept. 11, 2020, so that she could wear a hijab at school.

The lawsuit cites an investigation the school performed into the events, led by Scott Clark, USD 475 emergency management director, that confirmed that Becky Hickert, JCHS Principal of Business and Information Technology Academy at the time, asked Okemba to provide a written statement about the hijab and provide photos of herself wearing the hijab instead of granting her in-person request for a religious exemption on Sept. 11, 2020, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit claims Wolf was not aware of the request nor was the request granted until after she approached the student about the head covering on Oct. 20, 2020.

According to the document, on that day, Wolf saw Okemba wearing a garment on her head and identified it as a winter scarf. She reminded Okemba that no headgear was allowed, and the student told her she had to wear it.

The document said Wolf asked Okemba if she was wearing it for medical or religious reasons, and the student said she was wearing it for modesty. Without telling the girl to take the scarf off, Wolf escorted the student over to Melissa Sharp, who was then the principal of JCHS.

The document relays that the student nodded yes when Sharp asked her if it was for her religion, and Sharp asked what academy the student was in. Sharp then, according to the lawsuit, told Wolf to escort Okemba to Hickert’s office since she was the principal of the academy the student was in.

After escorting Okemba to Hickert’s office, Wolf left the two individuals at the office. The document states that those actions listed were the extent of Wolf’s involvement in the incident. A few days later, on Oct. 23, 2020, Eggleston suspended Wolf.

The investigation by the school and the actions of USD 475 related to these events, including suspensions and terminations, were directed by Eggleston and Neal.

The document states that nothing in the report completed by the school and dated Oct. 28, 2020, indicated that Wolf discriminated against Okemba because of her race or religion or that she harassed her in any way.

“The report clearly indicated that Ms. Wolf was following her specific duties and was fulfilling one of the essential functions of her job as defined by the district and the school,” the lawsuit reads.

About a week after the date of the report, Wolf was terminated effective Nov. 3, 2020. Her termination letter, according to the lawsuit, included that the termination was a result of violations of JGCEA — Racial and Disability Harassment and Title VI — Civil Rights Amendment of 1964.

“Defendants terminated Ms. Wolf to hold her out as a sacrificial lamb and to support the false narrative that Ms. Wolf was the one who acted with discriminatory intentions, and not the school,” the lawsuit reads. “Defendants covered up their own gross negligence and discrimination by terminating Plaintiff and using her as a scapegoat, to force Plaintiff to take the blame for Defendants’ own wrongdoing.”

After the incident, USD 475 also suspended Sharp, and the school district hired Merrier Jackson as her replacement. The district still paid Sharp a full salary until the end of the school year on June 30 while it also paid Jackson. Sharp then resigned after the school year.

Wolf is represented by Matthew P. Clune, an attorney with the James Sobba law firm in Kansas City.

David R. Cooper and Brian C. Mauldin of Fisher, Patterson, Sayler & Smith, LLP, will represent Geary County School District USD 475, Eggleston and Neal.

The lawsuit, filed Oct. 27, asks the Geary County District Court to grant judgement against the defendants for an amount in excess of $75,000 for the plaintiff’s costs and for “further relief the court or jury deems just and equitable.”

The defendants have until Dec. 6 to answer or plead to the petition, according to court documents.

10 Days of Christmas starts this week

This year, 10 days of local activities, celebration and charitable giving will serve as the junction between Christmas and community in Junction City.

The events, organized by Junction City Main Street in conjunction with local organizations, are intended to epitomize the Christmas spirit, one of hope born of modest means. Still, there is nothing meager about the “10 Days of Christmas” of Downtown Junction City. Many businesses, organizations and local individuals were involved in planning the events and activities people can participate in between Nov. 26 and Dec. 5.

Terry Butler, a member of JCMS, referred to the organization’s overall vision statement, “Junction City Main Street, gateway to a thriving downtown and community,” in describing the group’s intention in the endeavor.

“We want to accomplish this by partnering with our community and working in harmony for the betterment of Junction City and Geary County,” she said.

Some events on the schedule for the Ten Days of Christmas may look familiar. “Hometown Christmas” for instance, has occurred annually on the first Friday in December since its onset in 2017.

Phyllis Fitzgerald, former Junction City Mayor and currently the executive director of the Society of the First Infantry Division, planned the first Hometown Christmas to provide more for the community.

“We have such a wonderful community,” she said. “It’s just a way to give back and to bring some of that hometown holiday spirit.”

In recent years, the carriage rides have stood out as a crowd favorite. The rides start from the Bartell Place Senior Residence at 614 N. Washington St. and will give riders a chance to see the new Christmas lights put up downtown. This year, the first Friday of the month falls on Dec. 3 and will include carriage rides, photo opportunities with the Grinch and Buddy the Elf, a show by the ASTRA Program at the C.L Hoover Opera House, an art exhibit, hot cocoa and more.

Ice sculptures are a new edition this year. Fitzgerald said there will be one already completed and the other will be finished live on Seventh Street throughout the evening of Dec. 3.

On Nov. 28, day three of 10, people can see the moves, “White Christmas” and “A Christmas Story” at the opera house. Before that, Junction City CrossFit will host a Holiday Fun Run directly before the 26th annual Christmas Parade on Nov. 26.

Christina Spencer, co-owner of the gym, encourages all speeds to participate. She hopes that the run will be joyful and open its doors to those who may not have thought themselves the CrossFit type.

“Just seeing tons of people running or walking down the street in their Santa hats just sounds fun,” she said. “My parents do CrossFit and they’re 63 years old. We have a few others that are in their late 50s, early 60s that train. And then we also offer CrossFit kids where we have those as young as 7 or 8 doing CrossFit. So maybe this fun run being open to a greater demographic will bring a kind of a different image.”

The sentiment is mutual among downtown businesses looking to reach potential customers during this season. On the Thursday before Hometown Christmas, many shops will remain open late and offer special deals.

On Nov. 27, people can participate in “Small Business Saturday Bingo.” Shoppers can pick up Bingo cards at the participating businesses, Exchange Bank or online and fill them out as they peruse the local establishments. Once they have Bingo, they can return the cards to the bank night depository to be considered for a variety of prizes. Winners will be drawn at random, but there are other opportunities to be a winner during the 10 days as well.

There is an ongoing silent auction at the Geary County Historical Museum to bid on and win Christmas Trees decorated by local organizations. Heather Hagedorn, director and curator of the museum, is excited for the outcome of the Festival of Trees.

“It was awesome how many organizations and businesses and people were excited to decorate and donate the trees that we’re now auctioning,” she said. “That’s a huge amount of time and resources they’re putting into it just to benefit us.”

Those interested in bidding will also have the opportunity to learn local history, as the trees are displayed throughout the museum.

Many other organizations will also participate in the event. Local Churches are collaborating on a theatrical recounting of Christ’s birth, called “Take a Walk to Bethlehem,” in Heritage Park on Dec. 1. The First Presbyterian Church will have a live nativity. The I.C.A.R.E organization will have donation boxes out in local businesses to collect children’s book donations. There will also be voting boxes set up at businesses to vote on gingerbread houses locally designed and displayed at the Bartell House on the corner of Sixth and Washington Streets.

Information on all events can be found in pamphlets locally, the Junction City Main Street Facebook page and the Junction City Chamber of Commerce website at junctioncitychamber.org.

The original article included an incorrect date for "Hometown Christmas." The correct date for the event is Dec. 3.

Staff note discipline problems at Junction City High School

Junction City High School has had some unique challenges this year, dealing with discipline problems within the school.

Dr. Debra Gustafson, associate superintendent, said schools across the nation are reporting an increase in student misbehaviors. She said Junction City experienced “a perfect storm” for discipline problems, influenced by several factors; the new high school building, a new principal, students coming out of social isolation because of the pandemic, several new assistant principals and an increase of 300 students.

Gustafson said the increase in students comes from interest in the new high school and students returning from remote learning. There are currently 1,600 students enrolled in Junction City High School. Gustafson said students with misbehaviors are a small percentage of that population.

Dr. Jason Butler, newly elected school board member, echoed Gustafson’s observations that a large school and staffing shortages contribute to discipline problems and said the school needs adequate staff and hall monitors to maintain control of the students.

“It is frustrating when students think it is better to tear up this beautiful school rather than to enjoy it,” he said.

Gustafson said inappropriate behavior, like aggression, disrespect and violence has increased because of students coming out of a year of unique circumstances caused by the pandemic.

“Students have not had a normal school year for three years,” she said. “We are seeing the residual effect that this has had in our school.”

Gustafson also pointed out that students mirror the adults that surround them.

“Some of the high school students are raising themselves with no one to guide them other than the teachers,” she said. “Many of our educators are the only positive role models in the student’s life.”

Understanding the demographics and societal impact on area students gives insight into why Junction City High School may experience a higher incident of discipline problems than some other regional high schools.

Kristi TenClay, former JCHS teacher, said education in Junction City can be complicated because it is a unique community with the long-standing presence of the military.

“(It’s a) unique environment that enjoys the increased cultural and experiential diversity often lacking in small communities but also struggles to navigate the challenges that come with increased economic diversity, transience and absent parents (whether as a result of single-parent families or parents absent for training or deployments) that are more often associated with urban environments,” TenClay said.

A common reason for discipline issues cited by parents and educators in the community is the lack of consistent discipline with clear boundaries and real consequences.

“Consistency is a concern in the community, and we want to respond to those voices,” Dr. Beth Hudson, newly elected school board member, stated. “In the past, there may have been inconsistencies with discipline, or the discipline doesn’t seem to be working. At the same time, it is important that kids feel heard and that they have a voice.”

Butler said he believes the district staff needs to provide clear, accurate, detailed and transparent information so that they can better support their staff.

“We need to empower our staff to implement policies and be backed up by administration,” Butler said. “If they are not backed up, they are no longer in control of the students.”

In addition to empowering staff, Alex Tyson, fatherhood coordinator at Delivering Change, said parents need to have an active role in their children’s upbringing.

“Discipline and respect start in the home, and children need to learn that behavior problems have real consequences that are supported in the family as well as in the schools,” Tyson, who is also a parent and county commissioner, said.

Geary County Schools USD 475 has a six-year strategic plan, which includes implementation of a district-wide code of conduct and real-time discipline data.

Gustafson said before Dr. Reginald Eggleston became superintendent, USD 475 did not have a district-wide code of conduct. Three years ago, a task force of teachers, parents, community members and support staff developed The Levels of Misbehaviors and the Code of Conduct.

Gustafson said the pandemic hit while they were still working on it, and last year was the first year they had consistent implementation of the Code of Conduct. In August and September of 2020, USD 475 provided training to all high school staff on the Code of Conduct and Levels of Misbehaviors.

“I want the community to know we are very aware of the challenges of our high school and are actively pursuing all potential measures to assist our students,” Gustafson said. “We have a behavior, social and emotional learning committee that analyzed the discipline data and made recommendations for intervention.”

She said the school uploads data on serious misbehaviors, such as fights, alcohol, drugs and assault, to the Kansas Department of Education at the end of each year. Recently, staff created a data discipline system that pulls reports at any time.

Nov. 2 was the first time the school board received a detailed discipline report with all subgroups.

Gustafson said USD 475 recently contracted with Safe and Civil Schools, an organization that creates tools and solutions to improve school culture and climate, for a consultant to do a comprehensive review. She said additional hall monitors were also hired.

Another nationwide problem seen in local high schools is bullying. About 20% of students ages 12-18 experience bullying, according to stopbullying.gov. Verbal and physical bullying on school grounds, school transportation and during school events violates the Code of Conduct.

Hudson said social media, which can be used to bully or exploit other students, is a big contributor to discipline problems, and the school staff needs to know how to respond. Butler said social media trends can also lead to students vandalizing the property.

Gustafson said it is important that people understand that only the parents or guardians of a child have a legal right to know the consequences a student receives for misbehavior.

If a student is arrested for misconduct, they are also suspended or expelled from school. Once they are released by authorities and fulfill their suspension, they are allowed back into a public school system.

Geary County Schools USD 475 will be implementing an anonymous reporting system for misbehaviors in January called “Stop It,” Gustafson said. Students experiencing or witnessing disruptions, misbehaviors or other harmful activities in the schools can report it on their phone or computer.

Gustafson asks students, parents and teachers to report any inappropriate behavior to the building principal, so the school can complete an investigation.

“Society and schools need to develop a culture in which people are willing to do the right thing and stand up against wrongs,” Gustafson said. “The high school is simply a reflection of their community.”

People can find the handbook with the Code of Conduct, discipline policy and the levels of misbehaviors on the school website.

Geary County Schools Board of Education Vice President Jim Schmidt said safety and consistency should be at the forefront of education to ensure students leave school with the traits to become responsible and productive citizens.

“They must feel safe and have a nurturing environment in which to learn. They need consistency both in expectations and structure,” he said. “They need to have the opportunities to learn from failures and celebrate successes.”

JCPD reports 171% increase in thefts from vehicles

Junction City has seen a 171% rise in thefts from motor vehicles between 2019 and this year, Junction City Police Department reported.

So far this year, Police Chief John Lamb said the department logged 144 occurrences of theft from motor vehicles in the city. In 2019, there were 55 thefts from motor vehicles at the same point in the year.

Lamb said the crime is categorized as a part one property crime, along with burglary, shoplifting and theft from a building. While the specific crime of theft from a motor vehicle increased, Lamb said the total number of crimes in the part one property crime category has gone down 3% since 2019.

Many of those who commit the crimes are from outside the city, Lamb said, as the major interstate attracts transient guests to the area.

“Since Junction City is directly along I-70, we have individuals who will come from larger cities such as Topeka, Kansas City and Wichita and victimize our community,” he said. “However, some live here that have committed these crimes more frequently this year, and the department has made several arrests recently.”

Lamb said the department suspects the people arrested committed a large number of the thefts from vehicles reported this year. He said November is on track to have less than half the number of thefts from vehicles compared to last month.

Of the vehicles that fell victim to thefts, 95% were left unlocked, police reported. Lamb said the department advises the community to lock their doors when they are not in them, even if they are running shorts errands outside their vehicles, such as buying an item from a gas station.

“It takes little to no time for an individual to check if your car is locked or not,” he said. “If your car is locked it takes physical effort to gain access to a vehicle to steal valuables and increases the amount of time needed to carry out this type of crime. However, if your car is left unlocked an individual merely has to open your door, grab whatever they find and walk away.”

The department also recommends that people take valuable items out of their cars and ensure they hide anything of value, as items like phones, wallets and purses are appealing to thieves who would try to sell the items.

Lamb said JCPD officers are working with the crime analyst to identify crime patterns, series and trends and develop plans to increase patrol and awareness. He said their analysis shows that these thefts are occurring all over the community, but they are focusing on increasing patrol in areas with recent reports.

JCPD recently posted on their social media, reminding people to lock their vehicles and take out or hide their valuables from sight.

Geary County Health Department attains grant to hire LPN

The Geary County Health Department started the hiring process for a Licensed Practical Nurse to do tasks related to COVID immunization, after receiving a grant though the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to cover the cost of the position.

The Geary County Commissioners voted unanimously earlier this month to approve the new position funded by the grant.

Crystal Malchose, Human Resources director at the health department said the LPN would be responsible for all tasks related to COVID, including vaccinations, testing, coordinating vaccination clinics, setting appointments for COVID vaccination in the clinics and helping to train community partners on the subject.

The position is full-time, and the length of the position is contingent on the length of the grant. The grant lasts for two years before it is subject to renewal, Malchose said.

“Since the state is no longer hosting the testing clinics and things like that, more of that is done at the local level, so our county health department will have to do more of the COVID testing,” she said. “There will be more paperwork, more hands-on stuff that will have to be done by our health department, so this grant allows us to have somebody that is dedicated to purely COVID stuff.”

Charles Martinez, deputy director at the Geary County Health Department, said starting next year, only the health departments can administer polymerase chain reaction COVID testing, which he explained is the most accurate and complicated method.

Although they are equipped to do the testing, Martinez said without the new position, the amount of work would overwhelm the staff. Additionally, with the new vaccine recommendations from the CDC, many people are starting to bring their children in for COVID immunizations, adding to the amount of people the health department will serve.

“All the (COVID) testing for PCR is going to go through the health department, which increases our workload for our COVID response quite a bit,” he said. “Right now, our nurses are maxed out with what they’re doing, so once we get an influx of patients for the PCR testing, we’re not going to be able to handle it all (without that position).”

Since the approval by the Geary County Commission, Malchose said the department is now in the hiring process, advertising the position. The start-date goal for the new LPN is Jan. 1.

Assessment reveals Geary Community Hospital’s infrastructure needs

Many components of Geary Community Hospital’s infrastructure are in need of repair or replacement, according to an assessment Henderson Building Solutions completed and presented at last week’s county commission meeting.

The assessment, which cost $70,000, found that the equipment and systems in the hospital are unable to maintain space pressurization, temperature, humidity and air exchange rates, the fire sprinkler system does not cover areas in the hospital, degrading waste and vent piping are in several areas and much of the equipment is beyond its expected life cycle.

Henderson Building Solutions reported that deferred maintenance has contributed to equipment passing its life cycle and that much of the equipment in the older portions of the building haven’t been updated since it was completed in 1967.

The overall infrastructure grades given to each category are poor for mechanical, fair for electrical, poor for plumbing, fair for medical gas, fair for fire protection (where it exists) and poor for elevators.

The company split the tasks into immediate needs and near-term needs in the presentation. Nick Lynch, director of pre-construction, suggested to the commissioners and hospital board of trustees that those tasks categorized as immediate needs be completed within the first year.

Immediate needs include sprinklers on the first, second and third floors, removing all hazardous mechanical and plumbing material, fixing TAB and pressurization, medical gas service valve, sanitary waste and storm draining and updating the elevators.

The company estimated the total cost of the immediate work will be around $12,390,500 when accounting for 10% potential contingency costs.

Leon Osbourn, member of the hospital board of trustees and president of Kaw Valley Engineering, said he believes the immediate needs do not present any current hazard to the public.

Henderson Building Solutions presented a four-year summery for repairs and replacements in the building with the immediate needs within the zero to one year time frame. The company estimated work placed in the one to two year time frame will cost $6,897,700 and the work placed in years three to four will cost $8,567,950.

The estimated grand total of the four-year plan is $27,856,150.

The Geary Community Hospital Board of Trustees hired Henderson Building Solutions to make the assessment because the hospital has been running into maintenance issues lately, Theresa Bramlage, chair of the board, said.

Last year, they had to replace the roof and ran into costs repairing the boilers and generator as well. Bramlage said the board wanted a full assessment to discover what needed done with the whole building.

Trish Giordano, chair of the Geary County Commission, said that because the county owns the building and grounds of the hospital, the county is responsible for the repairs. She said she is unsure why so much of the maintenance was deferred in the past, but said she wants there to be better communication set up between the county and the hospital regarding maintenance in the future, especially if they decide to continue with the recommended plan.

“It’s very important to the community for us to have a quality hospital,” Giordano said. “What I would like to see if this stays a county hospital is to have more oversight over what monies we are giving them and what they are doing with it.”

Giordano said she believes the best way to move forward is for the board of trustees and the commissioners to hold a work session together to discuss the issues and cost of the repairs. She said the board of trustees voted at its Tuesday meeting last week to meet with the county commissioners about the subject.

All three county commissioners said they believe having town hall meetings or other means of communication with the public will allow greater insight about what the best decision is going forward and allow transparency regarding the costs.

“I think the public needs to be involved at every point of this,” Tyson said. “The public should have answers to questions (about the hospital), especially if we are going to ask the public to be on board with trying to fix the hospital.”

The county commissioners’ goal is to do as much work on the hospital as they can without impacting the taxpayers by applying for grants and other methods of funding, Giordano said, but she said she is unsure just how much funding they will be able to find to cover the high costs.

Cecil Aska, vice chair of the hospital board of trustees, said initially he was shocked by the total cost of the repairs and that the next step is to look at all the options, especially grants, and to put together a plan for moving forward.

With the repairs needed and the costs associated with them, Giordano, Aska and Bramlage said they believe there is a slim change that any entity would buy the hospital, but county commissioner Keith Ascher said he believes selling is one of the viable options, with the incentive being that the county would still be responsible for paying the remainder on the bonds.

“How much money can the taxpayers absorb? People say that we can’t lose our hospital, but depending on your definition of what a full-blown hospital is, I’m not so sure we’ve actually had a hospital for a period of time,” Ascher said. “So much more research needs to be done before we make any decision on what direction we want to go in.”

As of now, they have not made any decisions, but Giordano and Bramlage said they would like the work sessions between the county commissioners and hospital board of trustees to happen as soon as possible. They said those discussions will likely occur after the Thanksgiving holiday.