Excessive Farce

By the time Nina Chamberlain tried to restrain the student at Boca Raton Middle School, he'd already punched a teacher so hard that he caused permanent hearing loss. The brawl started after two teachers -- one male, the other female -- invited the emotionally disturbed fifteen-year-old and his mother to a conference to discuss his future.

"This young man had some incidents at the school, where he had been extremely disruptive," explains Chamberlain, one of 70-odd police officers in the Palm Beach County School District Police Department, which maintains security in the county's public schools. "And this meeting was to see if we needed to move him to another school. The mother didn't want to hear of it."

Told that his mom had refused to attend the conference, the student approached the female teacher with clenched fists. The other teacher tried to intervene, so the 175-pound boy clobbered the six-foot-tall man instead. "He collapsed," recalls Chamberlain, who'd been invited to the meeting because of the boy's propensity for violence.

Chamberlain, age 27 at the time and considerably smaller than the assailant, grabbed one of the boy's arms as he threatened to kick the fallen teacher in the head. While she tried to get a good grip, the boy became more and more enraged, finally letting loose on Chamberlain with repeated blows to the stomach. She fell to the floor, and the boy ran out of the classroom.

What the fifteen-year-old didn't know was that Chamberlain was five months pregnant at the time. "Pregnant or not," she says more than five years later, "I had to act."

Two weeks after the incident, in January 1993, she miscarried.
Her doctor couldn't determine for sure whether the blows to her abdomen had caused the miscarriage. But Chamberlain insists that if her employer had given her a low-risk assignment, as she'd requested after becoming pregnant, the miscarriage might have been avoided. Instead James P. Kelly, the district's chief of police, had given her two options: Use up your sick days until the kid is born, or go on leave without pay.

Chamberlain couldn't afford either option, and besides, she enjoyed her work. Like many of her colleagues, she feels school district police work offers an invaluable benefit. While the officers perform the same duties as their counterparts in municipal and sheriff's departments, they also consider themselves mentors. They work closely with the students to prevent crime and solve problems. With that in mind, Chamberlain decided to stay on with the department. Being pregnant, she rationalized, was simply a risk to be added to the already long list of potential dangers she faced as a fully certified, armed police officer.

But by December 1997, after suffering one miscarriage and giving birth to two healthy children, she'd changed her mind. Pregnancy, she decided, should not be a career liability. So she filed suit in the U.S. District Court against the Palm Beach County School District and its police force, alleging that she had been discriminated against during each of her three pregnancies. What prompted the suit was Chamberlain's realization that other departments in the county -- including the Lake Worth police, her employer for five years -- accommodate pregnant officers by providing them with "light-duty" assignments, such as fingerprinting, dispatch, and communications, at full pay. The school district's police department, however, only gives light duty to those officers, male and female, who have been injured and need temporary relief. Pregnant women get no relief, Chamberlain claims. They're just given a choice: job or family.

Chamberlain isn't the only one feeling slighted these days. She's one of five female officers who have either filed suit or made formal complaints with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) within the past two years. As a group they claim that the police department has failed to provide women with the same opportunities as men for promotion, training, and temporary low-risk assignments. Four of the cases, including Chamberlain's, have yet to be tried and/or investigated, but one was decided, last October, in favor of the plaintiff. A U.S. District Court jury awarded Margaret Duttenhoeffer $112,000 after determining that the department had repeatedly passed her over for promotions in favor of less-qualified men.

Even though the district was named in the suit, several district officials and at least two school board members claim they were unaware that the case even existed. Keeping tabs on Chief Kelly and his department has never been a priority, they say, because he does such a good job.

Whatever the reason for the school officials' ignorance, morale among women in the police department is extremely low, according to the five women. They claim that, while school board policy demands adherence to federal equal-opportunity law, the police department doesn't enforce the law. And although the school district's main responsibility is to look after the welfare of children, it discourages the officers from doing the same for their own kids.  

Another irony: Chamberlain, who still works for the police department, is on low-risk assignment because of a recent injury to her arm. But she remembers vividly how she felt when she was pregnant and doing regular duty.

"Every call I got on the radio, I prayed," she recalls. "Because if I did act, I might lose my baby. If I didn't act, I was derelict in my duties. I was scared to death to go to my job every day."

The women have shared their stories of discrimination before -- with each other, with husbands, with attorneys, and, in one case, with a federal court jury. But on this Friday night, outside the privacy of their homes and without a single attorney present, three of them are sharing their stories with a reporter for the first time. The meeting place is Red's Backwoods BBQ, a family restaurant in West Palm Beach just a short drive from school district headquarters on Forest Hill Boulevard. The place is packed, and the women -- Chamberlain, Duttenhoeffer, and Carol Verdigi -- banter back and forth, chuckling occasionally, mostly at the absurdity of some of Chief Kelly's decisions. They seem relieved to be getting certain issues out in the open.

Duttenhoeffer and Verdigi, who once worked together, recall how they used to play a game in the late '80s and early '90s: Whenever there was a promotion up for grabs, one they'd both applied for, they would get together just before the announcement was made and predict who would get the job. With all of the female candidates out of the running, they just assumed the promotion would go to the man closest to the chief. They always predicted correctly.

After a couple of years, Duttenhoeffer decided to let someone else in on their game. A few days before the next promotion was announced, she wrote down her prediction and sent it, certified mail, to the Palm Beach County School District's personnel director. When Kelly announced his decision, it came as no surprise that the recipient's name was the same one inside the envelope. But the personnel director never responded, according to Verdigi, whose patience eventually ran out.

"When we were right about the seventh time," she says, "I said, 'No more.'" So in 1996, eighteen years after she'd joined the force as one of its original officers, she quit.

But Verdigi, who is now a deputy sheriff with the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Department, didn't just quit. That same year, she joined two black policemen and one black policewoman, Ellen Sledge, in filing a federal court lawsuit that alleges hostility and an ongoing pattern of discrimination against blacks and women in the school district police department.

Sledge, a twelve-year veteran of the department, also quit in 1996. Testifying during Duttenhoeffer's case, she said that after getting married in 1992, she asked the chief about her options should she become pregnant. He told her that "he did not hold it against people their reasons for leaving the department," Sledge said. Taking the chief's comment as a hint, she left the force after she became pregnant. Sledge now works in the Palm Beach County School District's department of risk management.

Chamberlain, of course, decided to stay on the force through three pregnancies, and, as the waitress at Red's refills glasses of iced tea, she recalls her miscarriage with tears in her eyes. She says that when she first told Kelly in 1992 that she was pregnant, he acted as if he were happy for her. Based on that reaction, she assumed the department would find a way to accommodate her. She was wrong. "They said, 'Great. Congratulations. Now get to work,'" she recalls.

Chamberlain did so reluctantly. "It didn't sit well with me, but I was in the middle school, and I thought I could make the most of it," she recalls. "I was not independently wealthy -- that's why I work -- and my husband didn't make enough to support us all."

After her miscarriage in January 1993, Chamberlain became pregnant the following October. She requested light duty, but the chief insisted that he was not obligated to assign it. He wasn't entirely correct. The federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 states that pregnant women "must be treated in the same manner as other applicants or employees with similar abilities or limitations." As vague as the law is, Chamberlain wasn't even aware of it, nor was she made aware by her employer. "They said, 'Congrats again,'" Chamberlain recalls. "'Just keep on workin'.'"  

Kelly was seemingly so oblivious to the specific health concerns of pregnant women that he would not allow his department to spend money on a larger pair of pants for Chamberlain. Already worried that she was in danger of losing her job, Chamberlain paid for them herself, and she also decided not to raise the issue of her gun belt, which, weighing in at twelve pounds, became an increasingly uncomfortable accessory as her pregnancy progressed.

Equipment concerns, however, were the least of Chamberlain's problems. At Palm Beach Lakes High School one morning as the students were arriving, the principal noticed a suspicious-looking man driving a light-blue Cadillac through the faculty parking lot. The principal approached the man and demanded that he leave. Instead the man drove to another parking lot, where Chamberlain, who was three months pregnant, happened to be stationed. The principal radioed Chamberlain, and she approached the car, which was stopped near a dumpster. Suddenly the driver stepped on the gas and raced toward Chamberlain. "If I had not jumped out of the way, I would have been hit," Chamberlain recalls, her voice pitched with excitement.

Later that day she suffered from cramps, but her doctor told her the baby was fine. Even so, she'd already decided that she couldn't continue working in a high-risk position. So she took an unpaid leave of absence until the end of the year. She later applied for and received unemployment compensation. When she was ready to go back to work, Chamberlain was rehired, this time for a low-risk position with the department's canine unit.

By May 1995 Chamberlain was pregnant again, but this time she wasn't worried. She was still working in the canine unit, which entailed demonstrating the skills of police dogs to kids and working with the drug-sniffing canine unit. "I thought, 'I'm going to have a pregnancy, and it's not going to be complicated,'" she recalls with mock triumph.

But on her way to work one day, her supervisor called with a new assignment. The regular-duty officer at Suncoast High School in Riviera Beach had injured his wrist and needed light duty. Chamberlain was told to switch jobs with him, which meant that she was back on a high-risk beat.

Despite numerous phone calls made to his office and home, Chief Kelly refused to comment on the allegations made against his department. At Red's BBQ the women are asked whether they think he's simply ignorant when it comes to women's issues or just plain cruel.

All three agree that the first assumption is the wrong one to make. "Never think that Kelly doesn't know what he's doing," Verdigi says. "He knows exactly what he's doing."

As for the second assumption, Chamberlain claims that the chief has, at the very least, made some insensitive remarks. For instance, when she returned to the department in August 1994 after the birth of her second child, she went to see him at the shooting range to find out when she'd get her gun and badge back.

"He kind of laughed and kind of smiled," she recalled in testimony at Duttenhoeffer's trial, "and said, 'Has your husband been to the doctor yet and been snipped?'"

More disturbing to the five women than any of Kelly's comments is the Palm Beach County School Board's and district administration's response to their complaints: utter silence. Several district officials were completely unaware of the allegations and chalked them up to the fact that with so many employees in a district -- an estimated 16,000 -- there are bound to be lots of grievances. It's impossible, they said, to keep up with individual gripes or even lawsuits. Even a partial list of complaints that have resulted in litigation against the district amounts to 30 pages of alleged personal injuries, labor grievances, and discriminatory actions. Since July 1997 the district has spent more than $1 million on legal fees alone.

Because the school board focuses primarily on educational issues, it doesn't have the time or resources to notice everything, said board member Diane Heinz. "I have heard rumblings about the EEOC stuff, and I've kind of put them on the back burner for a long time," she conceded. District departments that appear to be running smoothly, such as the police force, get the rubber stamp, she added.

Across the district Chief Kelly is considered a powerful, by-the-book administrator with a wealth of expertise. Now age 43, Kelly was one of the original officers on the force when it was established in 1978. After four years he left to attend the Western New England College School of Law in Springfield, Massachusetts. He graduated in May 1985, then returned to Palm Beach County, where he worked for two West Palm Beach law firms between 1985 and 1988. In late 1988 he was rehired by the police department as its top administrator. He is credited with establishing innovative programs, such as the highly acclaimed youth court program, in which offenders willing to plead guilty are tried by their peers and a volunteer judge and must perform community service.  

School board member Bob Hayes said he has "supreme confidence" in the chief. Like Heinz he hadn't been aware of the lawsuits. "Is that right?" he said when told about the Duttenhoeffer judgment. He then dismissed personnel, police department, and litigation issues as "micromanagement" and deferred them back to the chief. "Hopefully we're looking into other areas that have more to do directly with the education of children than the police department," Hayes asserted. "It's one of those areas where you hope they're taking care of things in the appropriate way."

Ironically, one of the main reasons that school district police departments were first established in urban centers about twenty years ago was that parents wanted school boards and administrators to be held more accountable for children's safety and security. "The benefit it often brings is that school district officials can more often control officers," said Ron Stephens, executive director of the federally funded National School Safety Program near Los Angeles. "The officer reports to the principal rather than [to] the police chief."

The Palm Beach County School District may be an exception. School board members such as Heinz, after all, rarely concern themselves with police department issues. Expressing concern over the recent allegations, she did say this: "Sounds like Jimmy boy and I need to sit down and have a chat."

Exactly what they will chat about is left to speculation. When it comes to the issue of discrimination, school district policy states only that departments must comply with federal law. Federal law essentially states that all employees shall be treated equally, whatever their race or gender. But when the school district considers gender, does it take into account pregnancy?

"Our job is to see that we support families," Heinz said. "We need to practice that in the school district, and if not, there needs to be an attitude adjustment."

While Chief Kelly declined to comment for this article, Nat Harrington, the school district's public information officer, offered a carefully worded statement in response to questions about district policy.

"The convergence of several complaints at once, given the size of the district employment base, is purely coincidental," he writes. "There has never been any evidence by internal or external reviewers [attorneys and risk-management officials] indicating that the school police department illegally discriminates."

Evidently a U.S. District Court jury's award of $112,000 -- the sum that went to Duttenhoeffer -- doesn't count as evidence.

Despite having applied for more than a dozen promotions for supervisory positions over the last eighteen years, Duttenhoeffer is still a regular-duty police officer. She says she's been promoted numerous times by the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Naval Reserves, and her school district evaluations are always favorable. In fact Chief Kelly, in a sworn deposition for Duttenhoeffer's trial, states: "She has done some extraordinary things in her time as a police officer."

Apparently they haven't been enough.
During her trial she shared a story with the jury that sums up her frustration with the district. She said that she was guarding the gate after an event at Spanish River High School a few years ago when a couple of former students recognized her. "I've graduated college and come back," one said. "And you're still here."

After a day of deliberation, the federal court jury agreed that the Palm Beach County School District Police Department had repeatedly discriminated against Duttenhoeffer because of her gender. In one case the department retaliated against her for filing an EEOC complaint after she was denied a supervisory position in April 1993. The "area coordinator" position is roughly equivalent to that of a sergeant in a municipal police department and requires both administrative and law-enforcement skills. Duttenhoeffer met all of the requirements, the jury decided, including "successful experience in school security" and "extensive knowledge of the geography, policies, and procedures of the Palm Beach County School System."

But the promotion went to a male police officer, a veteran in the homicide division of the New York City Police Department who had limited Palm Beach County or school experience.

During the trial the school district's attorney, Glen Torcivia, argued that the promotion process was more than fair. The interview panel, he pointed out, consisted of a black man, a white man, and a woman. Moreover, Duttenhoeffer's interview scores placed her in the middle of the pack, he added. But Duttenhoeffer's lawyer, Jacob Rose, pointed out that Chief Kelly assigned both the questions and the panel members.  

"It almost kind of felt like the chief had his own agenda on his mind when he took someone on board," notes juror Carol Nalywajko, a former paralegal and a mother of six. "And here's a woman who's had a positive evaluation since day one, and here she just keeps getting passed over."

In one particular instance of promotion in December 1993, Duttenhoeffer once again seemed to possess all of the qualifications, including a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, for a supervisory post. She was passed over, however, for a male officer who had only an associate's degree.

Kelly claimed that he changed the requirement midway into the application process for good reason. "At one time we were advertising the area coordinator as requiring a bachelor's degree," he explained at the trial. "When I discovered there was another [version of the] job description, I changed [the requirement]."

Curiously, an updated version of the job description, dated later than the second, revealed that the bachelor's degree was indeed a requirement. For reasons that aren't clear, Kelly determined this final updated description to be "bogus."

Encouraged by her four colleagues, a pregnant Judy Feliciano took her discrimination complaint to the EEOC without hesitation in mid-1997. "I had heard what [the chief] had tried with Nina [Chamberlain]," she says, sitting in the attorney's elegant sixteenth-floor office, overlooking downtown West Palm Beach. "He tries to get away with what he can unless you fight back."

Even before filing the EEOC complaint, Feliciano was prepared for a fight. After telling Kelly in April 1997 that she was pregnant, she set up a meeting with the chief, her supervisor, her PBA attorney, and another representative from the police department. At the meeting Kelly gave Feliciano, who was already ten weeks pregnant, three options: continue working her regular assignment, take leave without pay, or resign as an officer and take a lower-paying job within the department.

"I felt right off that it was discrimination, because I knew they were giving other officers light duty," she recalls. But with three kids at home, she knew she couldn't afford the latter two options, and her attorney suggested she keep working at least until the summer. So against her better judgment, Feliciano returned to her job as a police officer at Santaluces High School in Lantana.

But the gun belt, which her doctor had already told her not to wear, was uncomfortable. By the end of the day, she decided that she wasn't going to work unless she was given a light-duty assignment. The following morning she informed her supervisor of her decision. That afternoon Kelly called her and demanded to know why she hadn't come to work. She requested a light-duty assignment, but Kelly insisted she either return to work or admit that her pregnancy prevented her from working and take a demotion. "You need to tell me you can't work," he demanded over the telephone, "because if you can't wear a gun belt, you can't work."

Feeling pressured, Feliciano actually finished out the week on the job. But by the weekend, she had decided, once and for all, that motherhood had to come first. So she agreed to finish out her pregnancy on unpaid leave. But Feliciano didn't go quietly. She quit the PBA, hired a new attorney, and filed a discrimination complaint with the EEOC. On November 5, Feliciano's fourth child, David, was born.

For three months now, Feliciano has been taking care of David and her three other children at her Boynton Beach home. Sometime later this month, she plans to return to her old job as a police officer at Santaluces. She may not be able to, however. After she left, Kelly assigned someone else to her post at the school.

A final irony. Feliciano's replacement, a male officer, injured his back in the line of duty. He was once responsible for maintaining security, breaking up fights, and making arrests when necessary. But because of his back injury, he's been given a light-duty assignment. He still stands guard over the school and receives the same pay, but he's prohibited from making arrests. Feliciano requested the same assignment when she was pregnant. Unlike her male counterpart, she was turned down flat.

"He didn't have to resign or anything else," Feliciano says. "And he's sitting in my office!

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >