Alleging a long-term pattern of sexual harassment by former Front Royal Councilman and Vice-Mayor William Sealock and subsequent efforts by other Town officials, including then councilman and current mayor Chris Holloway, to have her withdraw internal complaints about the behavior, former Clerk of Council Jennifer Berry has filed a federal wrongful/retaliatory termination lawsuit against the Town of Front Royal.
The suit was filed on January 4, 2021, in the U.S. Western District of Virginia Court in Harrisonburg. It describes a lengthy and multi-faceted series of events, first alleged against Sealock commencing shortly after his January 2017 swearing on to council, for sexually explicit comments or actions (paragraphs 14 to 36 of linked lawsuit); and later indicating a lack of internal checks and balances to address Berry’s complaints, and even alleged observations about potential impacts on her family and employment initially expressed by then-Councilman Holloway if she did not drop the matter – Paragraphs 37 to 73 of the lawsuit. Attempts to reach Sealock and Holloway by phone prior to publication were unsuccessful.
The Town of Front Royal is accused of “discriminatory and retaliatory employment practices” in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq., as amended (“Title VII”) and/or the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) of 1993, 29 U.S.C. § 2601, et seq. Counts cited include Count 1: Discrimination on the Basis of Sex; Count 2: Unlawful Retaliation; Count 3: Retaliatory Hostile Work Environment; and Count 4: Violations of FMLA, the latter related to planned time off for foot surgery in December 2019-January 2020 timeframe just prior to her termination.
The suit seeks: “all legal and equitable remedies available under 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq., including, but not limited to, declaratory and injunctive relief, back pay, front pay, compensatory damages, placement into a position she would be holding but for Defendant’s discriminatory conduct, and any other legal or equitable relief as the Court deems appropriate.” A jury trial is sought.
After working for 15 years as Front Royal’s Council Clerk, following an initial five-year term (1998-2003) as an administrative assistant in the Town Department of Public Works, with a break in 2003-05 during which she gave birth to her child, Berry was terminated on February 4, 2020. By April 1, 2020, she had filed a charge of “discrimination against Defendant Town” the background portion of her lawsuit notes.
Her termination came despite a history of positive job performance reviews as late as July 2019, her attorney Timothy Cupp of Harrisonburg wrote, quoting from that 2019 evaluation approximately six months prior to her termination: “Defendant Town described Plaintiff in the Overall Performance Review comments as: ‘Exceptional employee, valuable team member, goes above & beyond, Glue in organization, pleasant & kind, on time with duties, excellent job. Pleasant employee to Work with her knowledge, experience and willingness to assist’.”
What changed during the subsequent six months?
According to her attorney’s description of his client’s experience, it was Berry’s unwillingness to drop her effort to have her employer, Sealock’s fellow elected officials on council, as well as the Town Human Resources apparatus, put a stop to Councilman Sealock’s alleged sexually tinged and demeaning behavior.
Rather than help in a municipal environment with a supposed “zero tolerance” policy toward sexual harassment, her bringing the issue to other members of council as well as filing a complaint with the Town Department of Human Resources, had a counter affect, Berry claims. That counter-affect was multiple instances of institutional retaliatory behavior culminating with her termination as part of the interim town manager’s “right-sizing” slashing of Town personnel and departments in early 2020.
The federal Title VII filing describes the final chapter of Berry’s three-plus-year experience of dealing with the alleged sexual harassment unfold:
(Paragraph) 69. On January 30, 2020, Plaintiff was contacted by email and text and told that her job was subject to “right-sizing,” that her Clerk position was to be abolished and that the Clerk position was to be a part-time position. She further was told that her employment with the Defendant Town would be terminated effective February 4, 2020. The result was that a 20-year employee of the Town had gone from being the employee slated to receive a promotion and raise in the summer of 2019 to an employee being terminated despite the fact that her Clerk position was required by the Town’s charter to be filled by the Town.
70. Moreover, Plaintiff previously had been employed as Clerk to the Council on a part-time basis. She became Certified as a Clerk and her position had been moved to full time. Plaintiff could have continued her employment in a part-time capacity without additional cost to Defendant Town and without losing her benefits. Defendant Town did not allow Plaintiff to remain employed with the Town in the position in which she had performed well.
71. Defendant Town’s termination of Plaintiff’s employment, however, was not about saving money. It was pretext for Defendant’s discrimination against Plaintiff based on her sex and/or for its retaliation for Plaintiff’s opposition to Defendant Town’s conduct that violated Title VII.
Go to the linked suit, published in its entirety by Royal Examiner, to see the federal Title VII complaint’s personal and institutional allegations leading up to the “right-sizing” conclusion of Ms. Berry’s 20 years of service to the Town of Front Royal.
School Board approves pending $1.9M in bonuses for WCPS employees
The Warren County School Board, during its Wednesday, May 18 meeting, unanimously approved more than $1.9 million to be used to pay a one-time bonus to all full-time and part-time employees of Warren County Public School (WCPS). The Warren County Board of Supervisors also must weigh in on the request.
School Board Chair Kristen Pence, Board Vice-Chair Ralph Rinaldi, and board members Antoinette Funk, Andrea Lo, and Melanie Salins voted yea to the recommendation from WCPS Superintendent Christopher Ballenger to approve giving full-time employees a net payment of $1,500 and part-time employees a net payment of $750. Employees hired on or after January 1, will receive a net payment of one-half of the approved amount, Ballenger said.
The superintendent pointed out that the School Board’s approval is contingent upon the Board of Supervisors approving the necessary transfer of funds between categories for the School Board to execute the payments.
The estimated cost of the bonus ($1,908,452) would be paid with approved fiscal year 2022 budget savings primarily generated from the inability of the school division to fill several positions during the school year, lag pay savings from when an employee leaves and their replacement is hired, and staff turnover savings said Ballenger.
The School Board also, on Wednesday evening, unanimously approved other purchases contingent on the appropriation of funding from the Warren County Board of Supervisors.
For instance, board members voted to approve a $343,600 contract award to Black Stone Roofing LLC, which will replace the membrane roof at the Blue Ridge Technical Center.
WCPS Director of Maintenance Greg Livesay told the board that the existing membrane roof has developed multiple leaks over the years, with previous repair attempts being unsuccessful. He said WCPS staff posted bid invitations online at the end of March, and a pre-bid meeting was conducted on April 13 that brought in eight contractors.
Livesay said five bids were received on April 29, with Black Stone Roofing “being the lowest, most-responsive bidder at $343,600.” The project could to ready to start in early to mid-June and completed within a four-to-six-weeks timeframe, depending on the weather, he said, adding that the contractor has the needed materials in hand, “so there are no lead time issues getting this project started.”
The board also approved the $96,117 purchase of additional Leveled Literacy Intervention (LLI) kits for all elementary schools and Brighter Futures. WCPS Director of Elementary Instruction Lisa Rudacille, who is also the principal at E. Wilson Morrison Elementary School, said LLI was implemented this school year at all elementary schools to help address the reading gaps that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on learning.
The Fountas & Pinnell LLI System is an intensive, small-group, supplementary literacy intervention for students who find reading a challenge, Rudacille said, adding that the goal of LLI is to lift the literacy achievement of students who are not achieving grade-level expectations in reading.
“Schools have requested the purchase of additional LLI kits to support more students in the coming school year and, in the case of Hilda J. Barbour, which has used the program for many years, to also update and replace worn materials,” said Rudacille.
Additionally, the School Board approved a contract to New Virginia Tractor of Winchester, Va., in the amount of $27,903.26 to purchase two John Deere Zero Turn Mowers.
“In order to assume responsibility for the grounds maintenance for both high schools effective July 1, the Facilities Maintenance Department will need to purchase two zero-turn mowers,” said Livesay. “The existing equipment that was provided to Warren County when they assumed responsibility will remain in use by the County as they are responsible for the grounds maintenance at the middle and elementary school until April 2023.”
The board also approved a WCPS recommendation that the superintendent is authorized to request that the Warren County Board of Supervisors approve several fiscal year 2022 Operating Fund category transfers.
“It’s an evening up of the money. A bookkeeping move to move money into the right categories so that we don’t overspend,” said Ballentine.
Additionally, the School Board approved, with gratitude, two new scholarships.
The Limeton United Methodist Church Scholarship will offer $2,500 to one graduating senior at both Warren County High School (WCHS) and Skyline High School (SHS) to attend Lord Fairfax Community College, which soon takes on its new name, Laurel Ridge Community College. According to Ballenger, additional criteria is that one scholarship will be awarded at each school; students must maintain a 3.0 GPA in high school, and awards will go to students in need due to financial hardship.
Reaching Out Now (RON) will provide $500 scholarship awards through the creation of its new Harlee Anne Hire Scholarship Program to support and encourage student-athletes at WCPS. Two awards of $500 each will be made during the 2021-2022 academic school year through the RON Endowment Program to a student-athlete at WCHS and at SHS, said Ballenger. The program’s main goal is to offer financial support to a current senior athlete at WCHS and SHS and “to encourage serious and deserving students to continue their studies after graduation,” he said.
The new scholarship program is named for Hire, 16, who died earlier this month. She would have been a 2024 SHS graduate. Ballenger said she played right field and was a catcher for the SHS Varsity Softball team. “Harlee loved sports” and “also had a servant’s heart,” said Ballenger, noting that Hire had earned the most service hours volunteering for the RON Girls of Destiny Program.
For next time
The School Board tabled action on the Virginia School Boards Association (VSBA) revised policy GCL Professional Staff Development.
Every employee holding a license issued by the Board of Education is required to complete cultural competency training, in accordance with guidance issued by the Board of Education, at least every two years, according to WCPS Assistant Superintendent for Administration George “Buck” Smith.
Each employee required to complete cultural competency training also must complete at least one such training no later than the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year, Smith told School Board members, noting that this was a July 2021 policy revision of the approved May 2021 GCL policy.
WCPS staff have communicated with representatives from the Virginia Department of Education for an update on the module that has been approved and revised by Gov. Youngkin’s administration, which Smith said is set to release the new module “within the next week or so.”
Board member Salins suggested tabling action on the item because the new module has not been released yet. “We would be voting on something that we can’t even read yet,” she said.
But board member Lo said that because teacher licensure is attached to the policy action, “it’s not up to us; we have to pass this.”
Board Chair Pence said that action on the item can be taken by the School Board during its work session in June when members should have a copy of the module.
Warren County Department of Fire and Rescue Services: 10-A-Day Smoke Alarm Challenge
The Warren County Department of Fire and Rescue Services has renewed our partnership with the American Red Cross – Virginia Region and will participate in their “Sound the Alarm, Save a Life” campaign. The Department will be conducting a “10-A-Day Campaign” to assist their endeavor.
Our “10-A-Day Campaign” will challenge our staffed stations to complete these activities each day during the week of May 23 thru May 30, 2022, with the focus on:
- Visit at least ten homes each day
- Provide lifesaving education on smoke alarms to a minimum of 10 people each day
- lnspect a minimum of 10 existing smoke alarms for appropriate working condition, appropriate placement, and adequate date
- Replace a minimum of 10 out of date alarms or install new alarms where needed
The Department plans to assist the “Sound the Alarm, Save a Life” goal of 50,000 smoke alarm installs during May by challenging our staff to install 60 smoke alarms a day during the week campaign for 420 smoke alarms installed.
According to the Red Cross, “Home fires claim seven lives every day, but working smoke alarms can cut the risk of death by half.” Warren County Department of Fire and Rescue is committed to reducing the number even further by partnering with the Red Cross, educating the community, and providing free smoke alarm installs.
For a free fire and life safety home evaluation and to receive your free smoke alarms, please get in touch with 540-636-3830 or visit www.warrencountyfire.com
Post Elections for the Giles B. Cook – American Legion Post 53
Election of Post Officers for the Giles B. Cook – Post 53 of the American Legion 2022-23 term will be on Thursday, June 9, 2022. Polls are open from 8:00 am to 8:00 pm at the Post, located at 22 West 8th Street, Front Royal, VA.
Absentee ballots are available; arrangements must be made with the Post Adjutant to receive an absentee ballot. All Members must have a valid 2022 membership card to vote.
- Commander – Rick Kinsey
- First Vice Commander – Roy Unger
- Second Vice Commander – Jimmy Brinklow
- Adjutant – David Kaplan
- Sergeant at Arms – Lalit “Pip” Piplani
- Chaplain – Charlie Goddard
- Historian – Charles Mills
- Finance Officer – Open – nominations will be accepted at June’s meeting if no nominee is designated beforehand
Executive Committee (4 at-large members needed):
- Jorge Amselle
- Jodi Jones
- Ed Canas
- TBD – the final position is open
Members may vote for the nominees or write in a candidate of their choice.
Hundreds of Elementary students get excited about their community
Last year, Warren County Public Schools created Elementary Gifted Resource Teacher positions to enhance the growth and development of gifted and talented children through education, advocacy, community building, and research. At A.S. Rhodes Elementary School, our publisher Mike McCool met two of these teachers, Faith Falkenstein and Justyne Louk.
WCPS Superintendent Dr. Chris Ballenger asked these teachers to have a year-long project to inspire students to learn about their community. Faith and Justyne got excited about the project and came up with a plan after some brainstorming activities. The overall theme is called Footprints. This project instills an appreciation for the incredible things students can see and do (and protect) in their community.
This project included over 100 third to fifth-grade Enrichment/Gifted students from all five of our elementary schools and included:
- Researching the person each school is named
- Pick a place in the community to research
- Create a Google Slides presentation
- Record the presentation
- Built 3-D representation of what they researched
- Create QR codes that linked the projects to the presentations
- Create a walking tour/scavenger hunt for students and parents that cover Chester and Main Streets in Front Royal
- Create Google Earth Tour which linked top the projects and places researched
On Sunday, May 22, 2022, the students will display their projects and share the information they researched at the Town Commons Pavillion from 2:00 pm to 4:00 pm.
This project was made possible by a grant provided by the Warren County Educational Endowment, which allowed the teachers to purchase a 3-D printer and supplies for each elementary school.
RED Day: Give Where You Live
Every second Thursday of May, Keller Williams agents, leadership members, and associates step away from daily business duties, proudly donning their red KW gear and venturing into the communities they serve with three goals in mind: renew, energize, and donate.
Widely known as RED Day, this annual day of service took shape in May 2009 to celebrate Keller Williams vice-chairman Mo Anderson’s birthday. Thirteen years later, it continues to grow momentum as the Keller Williams family unites under a shared commitment to philanthropy.
This year’s RED Day took place on May 12, and the local Keller Williams staff met at 219 Orchard Street in Front Royal, where the Warren County Habitat for Humanity is working with the Bushrod Family to build their home.
The Bushrods are grandparents raising their school-aged grandchildren and are excited about building a stable and safe place to call home. Building a home that will provide a secure future, knowing that this home will forever change the generations to come, is a dream come true.
You can still help the Warren County Habitat for Humanity and the Bushrod’s with your donation. Click here to download the form.
Blue Ridge Wildlife Center Patient of the Week: Northern Rough Greensnake
A species first for us at the Center, a Northern Rough Greensnake, came in for care this week!
This patient was found by a hiker on the Appalachian trail after a mild jaw injury and blood in the mouth was spotted. It was in care for only a few days on cage rest with staff monitoring the injury, and after making a full recovery was released back at its found location!
This small, docile, harmless species is a primarily arboreal (tree climbing) species, residing in deciduous forests, mixed hardwood-pine forests, field and thicket areas, and the border areas of bodies of water.
They are active during the day and spend nights sleeping coiled on tree branches. If you come across a green tree snake (as they are commonly called), allow it to cross your path and be on your way!
This species only eats invertebrates (including grasshoppers, caterpillars, snails, spiders, and wasps) and have had significant decline in the last decade due to pesticide usage and domestic animal attacks.
This spring season brings good reminders to refrain from chemical plant and insect control on your property and to keep your domestic animals secured/monitored when outside.
The snakes and other native species will thank you by providing you with free, natural pest control!
Looking for an easy way to help native wildlife? Become a monthly BRWC donor! For as little as $5/month, you can provide year-round, sustainable support that helps us fulfill our mission.