Collier Schools investigation: Supervisor reprimanded after derogatory remarks to employees

Tom Petry

Tom Petry

Video from NBC-2

— The Collier County School District’s director of technology has been reprimanded and removed from his supervisory duties after an investigation revealed that he regularly belittled his employees and made racist comments on the job.

The 285-page investigation released Wednesday also revealed a possible conflict of interest between Tom Petry and one of the district’s vendors, as well as allegations that Petry made male employees uncomfortable through unwanted physical contact.

The district temporarily removed Petry from his regular supervisory and leadership duties and placed him on a three-month correction action plan that includes sensitivity and harassment training. Several complaints made by technology department employees in late December launched the investigation.

“There were actions of inappropriateness,” Superintendent Kamela Patton said Wednesday. “Just because you’re smart ... it doesn’t matter. ... In essence, you have to prove to us that you’re the right person for the job.”

Petry is the second Collier School District director to face similar allegations in the last six months. An October investigation into the district’s then director of transportation, Jeff Stauring, revealed that he, too, was verbally abusive and degrading to his employees.

Stauring retired as a result of the investigation.

“Two departments have had these things going on,” Patton said. “If there are problems, I want to get them cleaned up and cleaned up promptly.”

The findings of the investigation revealed that Petry:

■ Made derogatory jokes and comments about Mexicans and Cubans in front of employees

■ Made an anti-Semitic comment to a Jewish employee

■ Made vulgar and derogatory comments about the spouse of one employee and the girlfriend of another

■ Mimicked the sound that a hard-of-hearing employee makes when he can’t hear what someone says

■ Mimicked the accent of a district employee in front of other employees

Employees reported Petry made jokes to Cuban employees, like “There is a broken sprinkler head; don’t your people know how to fix this?” and “You came over here on a boat.” Petry said he did not recall a specific occasion when he made a comment about an employee’s Cuban ethnicity, according to the report.

The report also said that Petry made anti-Semitic remarks, like “The rest of your people should have burned in an oven,” when speaking to a Jewish employee.

Petry said he didn’t recall making specific comments but did acknowledge the possibility that he did, according to the investigation.

Male employees also reported unwanted physical contact from Petry, according to the investigation. They said Petry touched their shoulders, chest, back and arms even after requests to stop and the use of the phrase “bad touch” by employees.

“You have seriously failed in your duty to promote and cultivate a work environment where all employees are respected, valued and protected from offensive remarks,” Ian Dean, the district’s labor director, said to Petry in the investigation summary report.

The investigation discussed Petry’s relationship with a vendor and how it created an appearance of impropriety and a possible conflict of interest.

Dean said Petry’s actions with the vendor created “the sense that she may well have gained a competitive advantage in the bidding process … created the appearance of impropriety and raised a reasonable question of conflict with your job duties and responsibilities.”

The investigation also raised concerns as to whether some employees who are entitled to overtime pay under Petry’s authority may not have been appropriately screened for compensation for the work they completed.

As a result of the investigation, technology department employees said they are hoping to see a change in leadership, according to the report. Employees said if Petry returned to work, they would be concerned about retaliation from him.

“I have seen situations where Tom will stop interacting with people if those people don’t agree with him,” one employee said, according to reports.

Another employee summarized his discomfort and frustration with the situation.

“I feel badly that a lot of these things have been taking place for a long time, and that other people have known and done nothing,” he said. “I feel that something is wrong with the system that I feel badly about coming forward with concerns to protect myself and co-workers.”

Patton said she will address employee concerns. She hopes her transparent nature will encourage people to speak up.

“We will go back and build morale and confidence ... Of course we don’t want to have more departments having more issues,” she said. “But we take the hard line.”

Petry has been a district technology administrator since 2002. He was appointed director of technology in 2006. The investigation report said Petry, who remains employed by the school district, did not have any prior disciplinary record.

Patton cited his clean record as a reason for keeping him on staff rather than firing him. Tom Conrecode, executive director of support services with the district, is now acting as director of technology.

Petry, who earns $106,000 annually, will not automatically resume his role as director of technology after the three-month period, Patton said.

“You have to earn the right to go back into that position,” she said.

Patton said it is up to Petry to prove that he is ready to take on this leadership role again.

“The heavy end of this is on Tom,” she said. “The onus is on the employee to improve himself.”

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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