Former West Desert High School bus driver Debra Youren has had a lot of time to think about her lawsuit against the Tintic School District — driving more than an hour every day to and from her current job at a local dairy.
Youren sued the Juab County district and two administrators in 1998, claiming she lost her job with the school because she reported "inappropriate relationships" between students and teachers, implicating members of a local polygamous community.
Thursday a federal jury put Youren's worries to rest. They found the district and superintendent Patricia Rowse had wrongfully terminated her and violated her rights to due process, privacy and free speech. They awarded her $218,000 in damages.
"Now it's done," Youren told the Deseret News after hearing the verdict. "We can go on."
Morris Haggerty, the attorney representing the school district, Rowse and principal Ed Alder, had sought a directed verdict from the judge on the whistle-blower claim. While he and the district had no official comment, Haggerty hinted that an appeal of that part of the verdict was likely.
Youren's attorney, Loren Lambert, reminded the jury in closing arguments of his client's testimony that female students received back rubs from teachers and engaged in "courting and dating" behavior with them.
"Something happened at that school that never should have happened, and it wasn't Debra Youren's fault," Lambert said. "We don't like whiners in our society, we don't like people who complain. But sometimes you have to take a stand."
Haggerty told the jury, "This whole thing has nothing to do with speech and everything to do with conduct."
Youren, he said, was an excellent employee until she got into a disagreement with a male teacher who also drove a school bus. After that, he said, she began barging into classrooms, interrupting lessons and encouraging students to take her side in arguments.
"She involved students in her agenda," Haggerty told jurors before they began their deliberation. "She involved children in a dispute about adults."
Haggerty claimed Superintendent Patricia Hunter-Rowse listened to Youren's concerns and tried to "work things out." But before dismissing her, the district required Youren to be evaluated by a psychologist. The report found she was "full of anger," but not a threat.
The evaluation, Lambert said, was malicious, a violation of Youren's privacy and an attempt to paint her as a crazy woman. The polygamist community as a whole retaliated against Youren, he said, ostracizing her and allegedly vandalizing her home.
Jurors reached their unanimous verdict after an eight-day trial and 14 hours of deliberation. But they did so without hearing allegations that both Alder and a teacher at West Desert High have married former students. The judge ruled the information would be prejudicial.
The jury did not find Alder responsible for Youren's wrongful termination, or the violation of her due process, privacy and free speech rights.
West Desert High, in Trout Creek, enrolls just 29 students, grades seven through 12.
Youren teaches her own children at home, because, she said, the problems at West Desert High that she complained about more than two years ago have not been addressed.
She said she believes the State Office of Education is "only willing to stick their heads in the sand," about her concerns.
Carol Lear, school law and legislation director at the State Office of Education, said her office investigates written complaints about licensed teachers and administrators only.
"I don't remember any complaints from (Youren)," Lear said. "If she were to make complaints, we would ask her to put them in writing. And if we have them in writing, we follow up with them as we do any other complaint. If they are complaints of rumor and innuendo, we wait for more evidence."