Former Epic Charter Schools teachers sue for wrongful termination
Two former teachers have alleged they were wrongfully fired from Epic Charter Schools because they resisted pressure to manipulate student enrollment.
Noelle Waller and Shauna Atchley filed lawsuits against Epic on Friday in Oklahoma County District Court, claiming they were fired after they refused to withdraw students who had poor academic performance.
Waller taught in Pawnee County while Atchley taught in Pryor. They are requesting a judge award damages of at least $75,000.
Epic's Assistant Superintendent of Communications Shelly Hickman said Epic hasn't been served with any lawsuits yet.
"However, these are disgruntled former employees hoping to profit from what they perceive to be the issue of the day," Hickman said in a statement. "I cannot comment about personnel issues, but I can tell you that these employees are no longer employed with us, and for good reason.”
Both teachers said Epic encouraged them to drop students from their rosters to maximize potential bonuses, as first reported by Oklahoma Watch. Epic awards teacher bonuses for student retention, test scores, attendance and students’ ability to move on to the next grade level.
Atchley alleged she pushed back against orders from her principal, Kristie Surface, to remove students who would have negatively affected the teacher’s bonuses.
“Surface indicated to Atchley that she needed to dump all her students that reduced bonuses and that if she did not, it would lead to her termination,” the lawsuit states.
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Atchley said she was fired in June 2018 because she refused to withdraw a student who was struggling with his test scores and attendance.
“Surface went so far as to tell Atchley that this student was a ‘waste of time’ and a ‘prick,’” according to the lawsuit. “Surface went on to explain to Atchley that this student did not deserve Epic and that Epic was free to pick and choose what students it wanted.”
Waller’s lawsuit alleged Epic grouped students in into three categories based on initial testing. The categories — green, yellow and red — indicated which students tested well, could stand improvement or performed poorly.
As state testing approached, the teachers were increasingly pressured to strictly enforce Epic’s truancy standards only on students in the red category, according to the lawsuit. Epic had lax enforcement of truancy standards on students labeled in the green or yellow groups.
“In one-on-one meetings, Waller’s principal told her that specific students were not compliant with truancy standards and that Waller should eliminate these students from her rolls,” Waller’s lawsuit states. “These students always happened to be in the red.”
Students who are considered absent for 10 consecutive days are disenrolled and marked as non-full academic year students, or NFAY, in accordance with state law. Students marked as NFAY don’t count against their school in state assessments even if they re-enroll.
Students who enroll after the first 20 days of the school year are also considered NFAY.
The Oklahoman previously reported Epic has some of Oklahoma's highest rates of students marked as NFAY because of 10 consecutive absences.
Epic bases its attendance on the number of assignments a student completes. However, its attendance still boils down to whether a student had a full day of school, a half day or was completely absent, noted as 1, .5 and 0. This attendance data is submitted daily to the Oklahoma State Department of Education.
Waller claimed Epic’s actions had nothing to do with enforcing truancy standards. Instead, the virtual school wanted to single out poor testers even if they were doing what their teachers asked and were trying to comply with school standards, according to her lawsuit.
The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation made similar allegations in its inquiry into Epic. OSBI agents spoke with a teacher from Mayes County who had a roster of Epic students.
The teacher said Epic pressured her to have students withdrawn if they were expected to score poorly on state tests so they would be marked as NFAY, according to a search warrant the OSBI filed July 16.
The teacher forced students into truancy by giving them assignments that were impossible to complete, the OSBI reported. They were later re-enrolled without the knowledge or consent of their parents.
Epic has denied any wrongdoing throughout the OSBI investigation.
Waller began to push back against enrollment manipulation particularly in the 2017-18 school year, according to her lawsuit.
She was fired in June 2018. Epic initially cited low test scores as the reason for her termination, the lawsuit states.
Waller claimed her students’ scores appeared to be lower than other teachers’ rosters because she refused to eliminate poor testers. She was fired before she received her bonuses at the end of the fiscal year.
Atchley was told she was being fired for “performance issues.”
After both teachers filed tort claims disputing their firings, the virtual charter school said they were terminated for failure to comply with the Employee Agreement and the Employee Handbook and for inappropriate conduct.
Epic alleged Waller repeatedly brought a weapon inside a state testing site. Waller told Oklahoma Watch the “weapon” was a cane.
In response to her claim, Epic stated Atchley was fired for inappropriate conduct and poor communication. The school also alleged her relationship with her pet monkey, Virgil, resulted in her not fulfilling her work duties, such as meeting with her students regularly. Epic alleged she brought the monkey to a state testing site more than once without permission.
Atchley stated in her lawsuit that these justifications for her termination are false and were never raised with her before she was fired.