Watson Chapel teacher loses case against school district

Watson Chapel School District teacher Mark Leon Essex Smith lost the discrimination case he brought against his employer in the U.S. District Court after a three-day jury trial that concluded Thursday evening.

Filed Oct. 17, 2011, Smith’s legal complaint alleged religious discrimination, the creation of a hostile work environment and retaliation by the school district.

Smith filed a grievance with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in November 2010 and an amended grievance in December 2010. He claimed he was discriminated against for his Muslim faith and that after filing the initial grievance, was retaliated against by being reassigned to other duties that did not pertain to the teaching skills for which he was hired.

School district legal counsel Michael Dennis said that the jury deliberated for an hour and 10 minutes Thursday evening.

“The jury found for the district on all three theories of liability,” Dennis said Friday afternoon. “They found in the district’s favor on the theories of religious discrimination, hostile work environment and retaliation. They found that Mr. Essex Smith did not prove any of those.”

Dennis said that U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker gave the jurors the option of either completing their deliberations Thursday evening or returning Friday and they chose the first option.

District Superintendent Danny Hazelwood said he was pleased with the outcome.

“The Watson Chapel School District really did nothing wrong,” Hazelwood said Friday. “The jury found for Watson Chapel on all counts. He [Smith] received no damages; he received no compensation.”

Friday, Smith expressed a desire to continue fighting.

“Honestly, I’m disappointed in the verdict,” Smith said. “I do plan to appeal. I am still working pro se [representing himself]. This fight is not over.”

Smith said that he represented himself after trying unsuccessfully to seek legal counsel.

One attorney said that they were on the board of a local bank and because the school district had accounts with the bank he could not represent Smith, he said.

“Others said that I did not have enough of a case. So I used the skills that I have as an algebra instructor to teach myself the law so that I could effectively represent myself in court,” Smith said.

“I attempted to show that I was recruited to improve standardized algebra test scores and I did so,” Smith said. “When I received my first students, 80 percent of them had not passed the 8th grade benchmark examination in mathematics and after I taught them, over 70 percent passed their end-of-course exams.”

Smith said that he will continue to do what he can to educate his students.

“I have volunteered my services and time during my lunch break and I have tutored home-bound students,” Smith said. “I have tried to demonstrate that I am committed to working with the students. I just really want to educate and as an algebra teacher that’s what I do.”

Smith said that he does enjoy his job.

“There are some great people there,” Smith said. “It’s a great community and I enjoy working there.”