Verdict expected today in NASD discrimation trial

Published 12:06 am Friday, September 18, 2015

NATCHEZ — A federal jury is expected to reach a verdict today in the case of a white former principal who alleges black Natchez-Adams School District officials racially discriminated against her.

Cindy Idom, the former principal of West and Frazier elementary schools, has sued the district alleging her July 2013 retirement should be considered a “constructive discharge” because the district, through Superintendent Frederick Hill and Assistant Superintendent Tanisha Smith, targeted and harassed her based on race to the point she felt forced to retire.

Idom is seeking damages based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — which prohibits discrimination based on race, among other things — and the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. She is also seeking damages for breach of contract and intentional inflection of emotional distress.

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In previous days’ testimony, witnesses — both black and white — have said white principals were constantly singled out, reprimanded and berated for minor offenses, while black principals were not always held to the same standard.

Other witnesses — Hill and Smith among them — have disputed those claims, saying race was not a factor in how interactions with staff and any formal discipline were handled.

During the more than hour-long session in which Judge David Bramlette issued instructions and technical clarifications to the eight-person jury, he said the verdict would have to be unanimous.

Closing arguments are set to start this morning, and attorneys Ken Adcock, who represents Idom, and Tucker Mitchell, who represents Hill and Smith, both said they could take up to an hour for their arguments.

After that, the jury — composed of three black women, two black men and three white men — will begin deliberations.

Bramlette told the jury Thursday to decide the Title VII claim, Idom would “have to prove race was a factor, but not necessarily the only factor” in any unfair or disparate treatment she may have received.

Bramlette said the constructive discharge claim would hinge on the plaintiff proving, “her work conditions were so uncomfortable or hostile that a reasonable person would have resigned,” and that jurors should consider “aggravating factors” such as demotion, reduction in pay or badgering from officials, among other things.

Hill and Idom were the only two witnesses to take the stand Thursday, pitting the word of one against the other as they disputed how Idom came to resign her briefly held post as principal at Frazier Elementary.

Hill testified that in an early July 2013 meeting with Idom, he called her in to discuss how preliminary results indicated West Elementary had failed its school accountability tests the previous year and that she could be subject to termination if the final results were failing.

Hill said Idom asked him if she could be considered for an assistant principalship, but he told her the only positions available in the district were teaching.

“I never told Mrs. Idom she was terminated or I was terminating her at that time,” he said. “I did not offer her a job. I told her as of that day she was still principal of Frazier.”

Hill said he never gave Idom a reason for termination because, “I did not terminate her that day.”

At one point in the discussion, Hill and Adcock tangled over the difference between two words — “could” and “would.”

In a previously sworn written statement, Hill said Idom “would” be subject to termination based on test scores, but in the courtroom he insisted he meant she “could” have been.

Hill said he had pointed out several times before the trial that the printed statement needed to be corrected.

“This is definitely a typo that was not caught, and I showed this to you, in the deposition as well,” Hill said. “I sent that correction to be made, and when it came back, I assumed it would be made.”

Idom, meanwhile, testified that she was told she had to choose an option the day of the meeting and principalship was off the table.

“I will never forget what he said,” Idom said. “He told me, ‘Mrs. Idom, I can no longer offer you a principalship. I cam only offer you a teaching position.’”

Idom said Hill never told her she was still the principal at Frazier until results were finalized.

Much of Hill’s testimony focused on when principal evaluations were completed and when contracts for principals were issued.

At one point, he was asked to address a December 2012 text-message conversation between himself and an acquaintance during which he said the school board had given him the OK to make drastic changes and, “We can get your wife in administration.” Hill said neither the person with whom he was corresponding or his wife was hired.

When Adcock asked if the drastic changes referenced in the message meant firing people, Hill said he had meant, “realignment of staff,” and not necessarily firing.

Idom has contended that she was the only principal to face an adverse action because of preliminary test scores.

Mitchell at one point began to suggest former Natchez High School Principal Cleveland Moore was moved to a different position in the district earlier that year because benchmark tests — which the district uses to estimate how schools will perform — indicated Natchez High School could not possibly pass.

Adcock objected to the suggestion, saying benchmark tests had not previously been discussed in the trial. Bramlette sustained the objection, and Mitchell did not pursue it further.

Idom is seeking unspecified damages for lost past and future wages; mental anguish and emotional distress; damages to reputation, pain and suffering, humiliation and embarrassment; actual and compensatory damages; incidental and consequential damages; punitive damages; attorney’s fees and “other damages to be established.”