Jury faults Somerset schools Ex-superintendent's firing laid to racism

June 28, 1996|By Dana Hedgpeth and Scott Higham | Dana Hedgpeth and Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

A federal jury yesterday slammed the Somerset County school board with a half-million-dollar verdict for discriminating against a black former superintendent, and followed it up with a request that the county rename a public school after the ousted administrator.

The unusual request took everyone by surprise in the courtroom in Baltimore.

"It is the unanimous opinion of this jury that monetary compensation alone is not a sufficient punishment for an act of racism," the jurors wrote at the bottom of their verdict form.

The jurors said two school board members -- Anna M. Taylor and John L. Ent. Jr., a former board chairman -- should attend a college course "concerning minority sensitivity." The jury then requested that Somerset County honor the name of the former superintendent, H. DeWayne Whittington, who claimed the board let him go because of his race.

"It is further recommended that a school in Somerset County be officially renamed the H. DeWayne Whittington School as a living memorial to his lifetime achievements in education," the jury wrote.

The jurors' requests are not binding. But their verdict is, unless it's overturned by an appeals court. The jurors ordered the board to pay Whittington $343,785 in lost salary, plus $100,000 for emotional distress, said his attorney, Andrew Freeman.

The nine-member panel -- eight whites and one black -- also decided that Ent and Taylor should pay Whittington punitive damages totaling $40,000 apiece. A third board member named in the suit, Ted W. Abbott, was not found liable for damages.

After the verdict, jury members had another unusual request. They asked Judge Jillyn K. Schulze if they could speak to Whittington, who had worked his way up from janitor to run one of the poorest school districts in the state between 1988 and 1992.

Schulze granted the request. The educator turned to the jurors.

"For four years, I have been waiting to hear a reason why I was let go," he said in the silence of the seventh-floor courtroom.

"Dr. Whittington, it was nothing you did," said Margaret Mayo, the jury forewoman. "It was just racism, pure and simple."

An attorney for the school board said he was troubled by the emotional outpouring and said the county would appeal the verdict because it appeared the jury did not base its decision on the facts of the case.

"They were motivated solely by emotion, and not by the evidence," said Leslie R. Stellman. "There is no evidence to support any findings of discrimination by this board, or any of its members. The jury was moved by pure emotion and sympathy, and it is unfortunate for both justice and public education."

Whittington, the first African-American to head a school district on the Eastern Shore, filed suit in U.S. District Court in Baltimore in 1994, two years after the board voted 3-2 against renewing his four-year contract.

Board members said they disagreed with his management style and vision. Whittington said the decision was based on race. During the trial, a Crisfield Times reporter testified about a conversation she said she had with Ent, the former board chairman.

Reporter Michelle Pruitt told jurors that Ent said he was opposed to Whittington's candidacy because he didn't want a "nigger" running the school board.

Ent chuckled when asked in court whether he ever made that statement to Pruitt. "I'm not going to say that to a reporter I barely know," Ent testified.

The jury sided with Whittington, reaching its verdict after 10 hours of deliberations.

Stellman, the defense attorney, insisted the case had nothing to do with race.

"It has everything to do with a school board's right to select educational leaders," he said, "and to change those leaders when they are not moving fast enough to make educational reforms."

Pub Date: 6/28/96

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