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Prince George’s County schools face $500K sexual harassment lawsuit

A Prince George’s County middle school social worker is suing the board of education for $500,000, alleging she experienced retaliation after reporting a colleague had sexually harassed and assaulted her.

Crystal Ballinger was on a staff retreat with her former Oxon Hill Middle School colleagues when math teacher Jeffrey Pearson grabbed her waist from behind while trying to dance with her, slammed her to the floor and began making sexually suggestive motions while pinning her to the ground, according to Ballinger’s complaint, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.

Although the incident was witnessed by at least 15 school employees, the lawsuit alleges, the school system promoted Pearson rather than disciplining him and concluded that Ballinger and Pearson had both “engaged in inappropriate conduct” at the retreat.

Pearson later pleaded guilty to second-degree assault.

“Not only do you have what that teacher did to her, and the administration at this particular school that didn’t do anything, but then the office that handles complaints was accusing her of being responsible for what happened,” said Bryan A. Chapman, a Washington, D.C. solo attorney representing Ballinger. “The reaction of the school system was to basically say, ‘It’s your fault and you should be written up.’”

Ballinger had to undergo therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder following the incident, as well as physical therapy for injuries to her lower back, the complaint states.

A spokesman for Prince George’s County Public Schools did not respond to telephone and email messages seeking comment on the lawsuit on Friday.

Pattern of misconduct

Immediately after the September 2014 assault, Ballinger asked the school’s principal, Wendall Coleman, to have Pearson leave the retreat, but the principal did not do so, the complaint alleges.

The next day, a female colleague told Ballinger that she did not believe Pearson would be disciplined due to his close friendship with Coleman, who also previously made “repeated” advances toward Ballinger and a female friend by inviting them to go on a trip to Florida, the lawsuit states.

Ballinger also discovered after the retreat that Pearson had been promoted.

The incident at the retreat was not the first time Pearson had failed to behave properly around colleagues, according to the lawsuit. At least six of Ballinger’s coworkers later told her they also had either experienced unwanted advances from him or had seen him acting inappropriately toward others.

Ballinger filed a report of harassment with the Prince George’s County Public School Equity Assurance office three days after her encounter with Pearson. The school system, however, found Pearson had not violated its harassment and discrimination policy, instead calling the incident “consensual” and determining Ballinger and Pearson were equally at fault.

“Such conduct, albeit inappropriate for a work environment, has not unreasonably interfered with [Ballinger’s] ability to perform her work duties and responsibilities,” the school system’s letter of determination reads. “It is determined … that [Ballinger] and Mr. Pearson both engaged in inappropriate conduct. Both parties consumed alcohol and exercised poor judgment respecting the organization and attendance of a party not sanctioned by school administration during the course of a staff retreat.”

Denied leave

Ballinger filed a complaint against Pearson with the police on Sept. 27, 2014, according to the lawsuit. He was later charged with second-degree assault and a fourth-degree sex offense; in January, he pleaded guilty to the assault charge and was sentenced to one year of probation and two years’ of suspended jail time.

Ballinger sustained a spinal injury from the assault that required her to wear a brace and attend physical therapy and caused her to miss a week of work.

The county school system, however, twice denied her requests for leave to recover from the assault, the complaint states. Ballinger is still employed with the county but has transferred schools, Chapman said.

The lawsuit demands compensatory and punitive damages.

The case is Crystal Ballinger v. Board of Education of Prince George’s County, 8:15-cv-03769-GJH.


About Lauren Kirkwood

Lauren Kirkwood covers the business of law beat at The Daily Record.