TRUDI LYTLE BLEW THE WHISTLE on the Clark County Public School District in Las Vegas. With an enrollment of nearly 300,000 students and 15,000 employees, it was the tenth largest school district in the country. The quality of its public education was a major social problem. Classrooms were overcrowded, and the district’s gifted students suffered from a lack of opportunity to grow and develop. In an attempt to challenge them, the district created a pilot program during the 1991-92 academic year at Marion Earl Elementary School in Las Vegas. Trudi Lytle, a twenty-year classroom veteran, taught fourth grade at Earl.
The blue-chip pilot program called SOAR selected forty gifted students and divided them into two groups of twenty each. It offered them an advanced curriculum, and allotted their teachers extra money for computers and school supplies. By contrast, Lytle taught thirty-three fourth grade students who not only lacked adequate computer time, but were also in dire need of school supplies. Furthermore, Lytle and the other teachers at Earl Elementary had to absorb into their already overcrowded classrooms the more than twenty students displaced by SOAR.
Lytle could live with the inequality. SOAR was just a pilot program and there would be opportunities to iron out the wrinkles later. What upset her was that one third of the SOAR students—not all of whom were gifted—were the kids of the school district staff. Lytle believed that was beyond fair. It was an abuse of the educational system and a fraudulent use of school district funds.
Lytle complained to Earl’s principal. Although three-quarters of the teachers at the school agreed with Lytle, they chose not to speak out. The school district didn’t have a whistleblower protection policy in place in 1991. As a result, school administrators were able to “maintain control through intimidation and line of authority.” The Clark County school board president admitted as much when he said: “The common belief is that when you step forward with a complaint you are doing so at great risk.”
When Lytle’s principal dismissed her complaint as a case of sour grapes, she went over his head, bypassed the school board that had approved and supported SOAR, and blew the whistle in a letter sent to every southern Nevada state legislator. In it, she accused the school district staff of providing a largely private education for their own children at the public’s expense. Retaliation was swift and painful.
Fellow teachers began to shun Lytle, mostly because they feared being found guilty by association. Many willingly signed—or were bullied into signing—a letter accusing Lytle of being “an argumentative staff member who created an emotional uproar and dissension in the school.” Earl’s principal sent that letter to the superintendent of schools. Lytle was transferred from Earl to another school with a warning that she would never be allowed to teach there again. In protest, more than half of Lytle’s fourth grade students staged a two-day sickout with the approval of their parents.
Although three other elementary schools in the district offered Lytle a job, she quit teaching rather than start over at a new school. “I’m a whistleblower,” she said, “not an ax murderer. But they have treated me like a criminal because I refused to keep silent about taxpayer money going to a very few.” And unlike most intimidated whistleblowers, Lytle, 43, fought back. She filed a civil suit against her former principal and the school district administrators, accusing them of intentionally denying her First Amendment right to due process when they assigned her to a new school without a hearing and in retaliation for blowing the whistle.
Lytle had strong supporters on the school board even though she had sued it. “I know her to be a very competent and conscientious teacher who really cares for the kids,” one board member told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, a daily newspaper that closely followed the unfolding story. “I would be very disappointed if it turned out her being transferred was some kind of retaliation.” And the Clark County school board president admitted that “the treatment of Trudi was unfair, uncalled for, unnecessary, and it continues to cost the school an outstanding teacher every day she’s out of the classroom.”
A year and a half after Lytle filed her civil complaint and after only six hours of deliberation, a seven-person jury awarded her $135,000 ($220,000 in 2015 dollars). She sobbed when she heard the verdict. “I’m so glad that the truth finally came out,” she said. “People have the right to write their legislators and speak out.”
Like the jury, the judge did not spare the Clark County Public School District. First, he denied its request for a new trial and awarded Lytle $65,000 ($106,000) in legal fees. Then, over the objections of Earl’s principal, he ruled that Lytle could return to Marion Earl Elementary School if she chose to do so. The principal had argued that her return would create chaos and the “atmosphere of a war zone,” and would destroy both teacher morale and school teamwork. And he questioned why she would even want to return under those disturbing conditions.
Lytle chose to return.
“Teachers shouldn’t be forced out of their classrooms just because they decide to speak out about problems that are embarrassing to administrators,” she explained. “Going to teach anywhere else would have given them power to do that again and again to whoever they want.”
Not only didn’t Lytle’s principal welcome her back, he declined to allow her to teach fourth grade. Instead, he assigned her to a kindergarten class, a grade she had never taught before. And the school district’s hostility toward Lytle became so obvious and palpable that, two months after the school year began, Lytle filed a second law suit against county school administrators. She accused them, by name, of continuing to harass, humiliate, and discipline her because she had beat them roundly the first time.
Seven years after Lytle sued a second time, she won again. A jury awarded her $75,000 ($123,000). The school district appealed again. The case dragged on for almost a decade before the school district finally cried “uncle.” The battle to silence and punish a lone teacher cost the Clark County Public School District more than $1.4 million ($2.3 million) in legal fees.
“It boggles my mind,” Lytle said of her struggle, “the extent to which the school district will go to crush a whistleblower.”
Like other whistleblowers, Trudi Lytle paid a heavy price for challenging a powerful organization. Because she blew the whistle, she said, she had suffered shunning, financial insecurity, public humiliation, threats, character assassination, high blood pressure and a raft of stress-related ills. Unlike some famous whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden, Trudi Lytle never made the front pages of national and international newspapers. And, unlike Karen Silkwood, she was never the subject of a movie starring Meryl Streep.
Was it worth it?
Under pressure from parents and state legislators, the SOAR program was scuttled and the school district instituted a more equitable distribution of students and funds. Although gifted students still attended regular classes, they were given additional, accelerated training in separate classrooms. And the school district approved a whistleblowing policy to encourage employees to disclose improper school conduct. “It is the public policy…[and the] intent of the Clark County Public School District,” the school board ruled, “to protect the rights of an employee who makes such a disclosure.”
Given Lytle’s years of harassment and humiliation, it remains to be seen whether potential whistleblowers will feel secure enough to speak out.
Miethe, Terance D. Whistleblowing at Work: Tough Choices in Exposing Fraud, Waste, and Abuse on the Job. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1999, 164-173.
“District Found to Retaliate Against Teacher for Past Suit,” Education Week, September 22, 2004.
The following Las Vegas Review-Journal articles:
Bates, Warren. “School Official Says Changes Were Needed,” LVRJ, June 30, 1994; “No Verdict in Teacher’s Civil Suit,” LVRJ, July 1, 1994; “Teacher Awarded $135,000,” July 2, 1994; “Officials Fight Teacher’s Return,” July 16, 1994; “Trustees to Continue Appeal,” August 11, 1994; “Teacher Again Suing School District,” October 27, 1994; “Three Earl Elementary School Teachers Take Transfers,” October 3, 1994; “School Board Approves Rule Protecting Whistle-Blowers,” October 26, 1994.
Gallant, John. “Students’ ‘Sickout’ Protests Transfer of Teacher Turned Whistle-Blower,” January 30, 1993.
Patton, Natalie. “Teacher Awaiting Day in Court with School District,” June 7, 1994; “Teacher Prepares to Return to School,” August 18, 1994.
Patton, Natalie, and Huang, Carol. “School Bell Tolls for Area Students,” November 23, 1994.
Thevenot, Carl Geer. “Update: School District in Legal Battle with Kindergarten Teacher,” September 13, 2004; “School District Faces Rising Legal Expenses,” November 24, 2001; “School District: Legal Tab Soars Past $1 Million,” January 20, 2003; “Update: School District’s Tab in Legal Fight with Teacher Tops $1.5 Million,” August 1, 2005.
“Editorial: District Settlement,” September 14, 2004.
Major social problem…Miethe, Whistleblowing at Work, 165.
Three-quarters of the teachers… Patton, June 7, 1994.
“Maintain control through…The common belief is….” Ibid. The school board president was Dan Newburn.
A largely private education…Ibid.
“An argumentative staff member…” Bates, June 30, 1994.
“I’m a whistleblower…” Patton, June 7, 1994.
“I would be…” Gallant, January 3, 1993. Should this be “January” as in Sources above?
“Treatment of Trudi…” Patton, June 7, 1994.
“I’m so glad…” Bates, July 2, 1994.
“War zone…” Patton, August 18, 1994.
“The whole point…” Ibid.
$1.4 million in legal fees… Trevenot, September 13, 2004.
“It boggles my mind…” Patton, October 26, 1994.