NL school district settles sexual harassment complaint with former employee

New London — The school district quietly approved a settlement agreement with a former employee earlier this year, paying her $125,000 to end a discrimination and sexual harassment complaint against her former boss, a 22-year employee of the district who has denied any wrongdoing but whose contract was consequently not renewed.

The confidential settlement, paid through the school district’s insurer and signed by all involved parties, stemmed from a complaint filed by Katherine Slufik, 52, a former network manager in the school district’s technology department, against Timothy Wheeler, the former executive director of technology and operations.

In the complaint filed in February with the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, Slufik alleged a “sexually hostile work environment” from 2013 to 2016, the length of her employment in the district. The Board of Education was named in the complaint for allegedly “aiding and abetting” the conduct.

The Day obtained the CHRO complaint, the settlement agreement and other documents related to the case through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Along with allegations of inappropriate texts from Wheeler, Slufik’s CHRO complaint includes allegations that she and Wheeler took a trip to a strip club together and that he had visited her home on two occasions after work hours "seeking sexual contact."

Wheeler, who was earning $124,726, calls the claims “mindboggling” and “shocking,” a fabrication created by someone whose job was in jeopardy. He said that he had spent the eight months prior to the complaint working with the district’s human resources department because of Slufik’s declining job performance, her abrasive attitude and multiple other problems that included her allegedly hacking into district files.

Wheeler denies Slufik's claims and said in a recent phone interview that he has not ruled out legal action because of the defamatory allegations contained in the complaint, including a graphic reference to a sexual act.

“They have taken my whole life and my whole life’s work away from me,” Wheeler said. “I put my life into that place and to basically to be removed ... This is a woman who has played the system. She wanted money. She was going to be fired and instead she is defaming me. I was wronged, so wronged.”

Documents obtained by The Day show Slufik, who filed a similar sexual harassment complaint against her former boss at a different job, was the subject of multiple complaints from technology staff in the school district in December because of what coworkers had deemed to be confrontational, erratic and disruptive behavior, according to several redacted letters obtained by The Day from school staff to Louis Allen, the district’s former human resources director and now executive director of schools.

One letter noted a Nov. 8, 2016, incident in which Slufik walked through the office taking photos and videos of coworkers and when asked the purpose said, “I have my reasons.” Another employee called Slufik’s mood unstable and said it was making coworkers uncomfortable.

“My entire staff was scared of her,” Wheeler said, when asked about the complaints.

Slufik was placed on paid administrative leave on Dec. 22, 2016. She first went to Allen with a harassment complaint on Jan. 11, 2017, and filed a written complaint on Jan. 17. Her CHRO complaint is dated Feb. 15.

Slufik previously had filed a complaint against Wheeler in August 2016 alleging he had misappropriated funds to buy computer batteries at an elevated price from a friend. The claims were investigated by Finance Director Robert Funk and determined to be unsubstantiated. Slufik claimed the alleged harassment ended after she filed the complaint.

Slufik, in the CHRO complaint, claims that the harassment dates back to the summer of 2013, when Wheeler drove her to the Foxy Lady strip club in Providence to reward her for a “job well done.” She said she was compelled to watch him receive lap dances and claims one of the exotic dancers was later referenced in a text message as a candidate for his retiring secretary. She claims Wheeler continually communicated with her verbally and in texts with inappropriate language.

“As a single mother, I felt compelled and obligated in order to secure my job to play along with (redacted) sexually charged communications to keep in his good graces,” she wrote in an affidavit to the CHRO commission.

She said Wheeler was "relentless in trying to get me to have drinks with him," and called it "mentally and physically draining" to have to speak or text with Wheeler at all hours of the night and day.

Slufik’s claims were investigated by the school district through Attorney Peter J. Murphy with the law firm Shipman & Goodwin.

An investigative report dated April 4, 2017, concludes Slufik’s allegations were mostly unsubstantiated and with no evidence of sexual harassment. For instance, Slufik had alleged Wheeler drove her to a strip club and visited her home on two occasions in 2013. Slufik could not remember the dates nor produce text messages relating to the incidents and never reported them to the district, police or anyone else.

The investigation determined that Slufik’s claims of a hostile work environment also were not substantiated, based on interviews with her coworkers in the technology department.

“All of the Complainant’s coworkers, who were all interviewed during the investigation, denied ever witnessing ‘sexually-charged conversations' between the parties,” the investigative report shows.

Slufik produced text messages between 2013 and 2016 that she deemed to be inappropriate and harassing. The content of the messages was not contained in the report provided to The Day, but the investigator called them “inappropriate, and contain several references to porn, a reference to a stripper pole, and a reference to conducting an upcoming interview at a strip club,” the report shows. The messages did not contain any requests for sexual favors or sexual advances.

The exchanges, according to the investigator, “suggest her engagement was more voluntary" and the texts were “overly friendly.”

Based on the content of the texts, the investigator recommended the district consider discipline for Wheeler “up to and including termination” or providing him with additional sexual harassment or discrimination training, “which will provide him with a clearer understanding of appropriate and inappropriate conduct in the workplace.”

Wheeler, 54, was placed on administrative leave in April and his contract was not renewed in June. Former innovation Director Clint Kennedy subsequently was named the interim executive director of technology and supervisor of innovation and magnet programs.

Wheeler said he was an at-will employee who had received assurances from the school district administration, including Superintendent Manuel Rivera, that he would retain a position in the school district and that his medical benefits would be extended. Rivera declined to comment for this report, citing it as a personnel issue.

Wheeler was never offered another job and his request for extension of medical benefits was denied by interim Superintendent Steven Tracy, emails obtained by The Day show.

Wheeler declined to comment on questions regarding the settlement agreement, which contains a nondisclosure agreement barring anyone from discussing or even acknowledging its existence.

The agreement was signed by Wheeler, former Superintendent Rivera and Slufik sometime in August. The school board apparently voted 6-0 to approve the settlement at an Aug. 8 meeting though meeting minutes are somewhat unclear. The motion made at the Aug. 8 meeting was to “settle Lawsuits as Discussed in Executive Session on July 19, 2017,” according to meeting minutes.

There was no public discussion by the school board concerning the complaint or the settlement.

The terms of the suit allow Slufik to remain eligible for health insurance through December 2018. She has agreed not to pursue any further claims or lawsuits against the school board or Wheeler. She also withdrew her CHRO complaint.

The school board and Wheeler acknowledge the settlement as a compromise while denying the allegations. The $125,000 settlement includes $83,375 for Slufik and $41,625 for her attorney, Mickey Busca of the New London-based Busca Law Firm.

Public records show Slufik filed a similar CHRO complaint in 2008 against her supervisor while working at New York-based Bear Stearns Asset Management and later at O’Shaughnessy Asset Management. She alleged in the complaint that she was sexually harassed and subject to daily sexual innuendos, off-color jokes and remarks and unwanted sexual advances from her boss dating back to at least 2006. The outcome of that case is unclear.

Slufik could not be reached for comment. She was earning a $74,815 salary at the time of her departure from the school district, though it appears her position was eliminated during a round of budget cuts in June.

Busca, her attorney, said terms of the settlement preclude Slufik from discussing the settlement or any claims leading up to the settlement.

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