MONTE VISTA– Sargent School District Trustee Gina Mitchell was censured by the school board after an investigation found that she allegedly abused her power as a board member.
The 3-0 vote came during the school board's regular meeting on Monday, April 25. The meeting was held in the auditorium of the gym. There were at least 150 people in attendance at the meeting. Trustee Matthew Smartt voted “not present” and said it was because he was not on the board when the complaints were filed.
Sargent School Board Trustee Michelle Peterson read the findings of an investigation conducted by Theresa Martinez aloud during the meeting and agreed they were true and correct.
Mitchell, who is the secretary of the board, did not agree with the findings.
“I know that by no means am I a perfect person,” Mitchell said. “However, I do want you to know that I respectfully disagree with the reports that have been released into a complaint. They do include a variety of misinformation. I do wish to continue working with the board. I know that the board is under a lot of stress and pressure related to my situation, and I will respect whatever decision they make. However, you should expect a challenge from me regarding those reports, as they are not accurate.”
Some parents and teachers publicly called for her immediate resignation and said they were willing to take legal action.
Sargent teacher and coach Terry VanBibber spoke at the meeting after submitting a copy of a letter dated April of 2021, and a copy of a new letter that had been written, to each board member dated April 2022. VanBibber said he was at the meeting to submit the letter and to share the feelings and opinions of most of the staff at the school.
Sargent teachers and staff sat together during the meeting wearing shirts printed with "Sargent Strong."
VanBibber spoke plainly and called out Trustee Mitchell by name.
“We proudly stand together as a work family, and we are tired of seeing each other mistreated, bullied, and abused by one board member Ms. Gina Mitchell,” he said.
VanBibber reminded everyone that this had been going on for more than a year and they were not going to be quiet any longer.
“Another year has passed, and these concerns have not been resolved, but rather have grown significantly,” he said.
VanBibber added that it was time to take a stand against the constant bullying, harassment and blackmailing done by Mitchell and her husband, Clay Mitchell.
VanBibber said staff had tried to resolve this in numerous ways in the past, including mediation, meetings, emails and phone calls. VanBibber said the constant mistreatment by the Mitchells had been kept secret and allowed.
“We will no longer keep this a secret,” VanBibber said. “We will no longer be directed to keep quiet. We will take a stand and protect our school, for the sake of all our students and our families, or we will be left with no school to protect.”
VanBibber cited several instances in which Mitchell had abused her power as a board member — from entering the school and not checking in, to entering teacher’s classrooms without notice, to refusing to return a master key that was school property.
Prior to the meeting, an attachment was given out along with the meeting's regular agenda to teachers, students and parents. The attachment included the findings of investigations initiated by Mitchell and by Sargent Elementary School Principal Joni Hemmerling. There were two total investigations initiated.
Each investigation involved a third party, Martinez, conducting interviews with witnesses and filing a report with the school district that included a summary conclusion for each investigation.
Hemmerling’s investigation alleged that Mitchell abused her power as a board member, and in doing so created a hostile work environment, and that Mitchell over time had engaged in harassing behaviors which led Hemmerling to resign from her position as principal. The investigator found the allegations to be true.
"I find after interviewing all the witnesses involved that witness #1 does single out the complainant multiple times, oversteps the boundaries of a board member acting individually directing her supervisor to take action against her, focuses upon the religious views and or associations of complainant and other staff, and inappropriately seeks for personal purposes, confidential employment information in regard to performance and medical issues,” Martinez wrote in the report under findings of fact.
Mitchell's grievance investigation stemmed from a student requesting a prayer at a graduation ceremony. The witness in the investigation stated that since the student requested this, the witness believed that by denying the prayer, the student would be denied their right to freedom of speech. Two total grievances were filed by Mitchell, and as a result, the witness did seek legal advice to determine how to proceed in the future, when a student requests prayer.
"I do believe that it is not the intention for the staff to violate any freedom of religion, rather it has been tradition in the local community since the foundation of the school,” Martinez concluded. “If there was a violation in past grievances filed, I believe the behavior has been corrected to the best of their knowledge. I reviewed evidence regarding the training for staff that was done Jan. 22 as well as touring the school. The behavior has been corrected and there is an ongoing effort to educate the administration and staff in this area. All Bible references have been removed. I did not see any evidence of religion in the school.”
Mitchell stated there were several instances of religion creating a hostile working environment, but the conclusion of the investigation pointed out that Mitchell was not an employee of the district, and, that there were no records of complaints by actual employees of the district.
The attachment included other allegations made by Mitchell toward the school, regarding racism and nepotism. These allegations were also found to be nonfactual by the investigator.
“I have concluded that I cannot find any evidence to prove racism other than the complainant's description of conversations,” Martinez wrote in the report. “I found no official complaints, documentation from individuals, nor any other witnesses that can corroborate the allegations.”
The Sargent School District Board said that it may be taking more action against Mitchell and if it did this would be made public at a future meeting.
The full report is available on the Sargent School District website at www.sargent.k12.co.us/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/Agenda-policies-investigation.pdf.