This spring, students at the Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and the Blind gathered rubber ducks and a coffin and staged elaborate protests with a goal of forcing a face-to-face conversation with Superintendent Robert Hill.
Hill has become a lightning rod of controversy. He faces accusations of sexual harassment, disability discrimination, wrongful termination and retaliation. The conflicts have thrown the school system into chaos that has drawn in the governing board, several state agencies and Gov. Jan Brewer.
At the protest, the students, many of them deaf, took to the sidewalks with signs urging passing cars to “honk loud.” They made masks of Hill’s face and held a pseudo-funeral, “burying” the administrator who they said had buried them with his disregard. They placed rubber ducks throughout the campus, a gesture suggesting Hill was a lame-duck superintendent.
They didn’t get what they wanted. Hill is still there.
However, a group of students, parents, and current and former teachers have come together to unseat Hill, and his actions are now under investigation by an outside law firm retained by the school board and the Arizona Ombudsman’s Office.
Hill declined to be interviewed while the law firm’s investigation is pending, saying in an e-mail, “I am confident in the investigative process and firmly believe the findings of that investigation will reveal that I, as superintendent, have acted appropriate, with sound judgment, and in the best interests of ASDB.”
The Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and the Blind includes the Arizona School for the Deaf and the Arizona School for the Blind, both in Tucson; the Phoenix Day School for the Deaf; and several other educational programs throughout the state. The system served more than 2,200 students during the 2012-13 school year, according to documents provided by former school-board member Clifford Rowley.
Hill was hired at ASDB in 2005 as assistant superintendent, then promoted in April 2010 to superintendent. At least six ASDB employees recently filed grievances against him, but the school so far has not complied with public-records requests seeking copies of those complaints.
Two employees lost their jobs soon after filing grievances.
One of them, Nancy Hlibok Amann, a former executive director who oversaw Tucson’s Arizona School for the Deaf and the Phoenix Day School for the Deaf, filed her grievance in March after being placed on administrative leave Feb. 15. Amann was told that an investigation was under way, but she received no further information, said Edmundo Robaina, an employment attorney representing Amann.
“We rarely see so-called investigations in which they don’t tell the person what they are under investigation for and don’t give any indication what happened at all,” Robaina said.
At an April 9 ASDB board meeting, less than a month after Amann filed her grievance, she received a 16-page list of allegations from Hill supporting his recommendation that the board not renew her contract. Hill’s document outlined nine problems, including inappropriate delegation of duties, rude conduct, improper oversight of ASDB’s agriculture program and actions that endangered students.
“Dr. Amann has placed and continues to place the students, staff, the Board, and the State of Arizona at risk,” Hill concluded.
This was the first explanation offered to Amann. After being given 20 minutes to review the allegations, Amann defended herself to the board. By a 4-3 majority, the board voted not to renew her contract, which ended June 30.
Amann later sent the board written responses to the allegations, identifying some as exaggerated and others as untrue. She stated Hill had given her oral approval for several of the actions he condemned. She pointed out inconsistencies in Hill’s charges, such as his statement that a parent “appeared very surprised” during a meeting and “was becoming visibly agitated” — a meeting Amann said the parent participated in by phone.
Amann wrote that she believed the allegations were in retaliation for the grievance she had filed against Hill. She warned the board that she was filing a new grievance claiming retaliation. She filed the second grievance April 24.
Hill continued to focus on the agriculture program after Amann’s contract was canceled. A week later, on April 17, he fired Richard Layton, a career and technical education teacher who oversaw the agriculture program.
Layton said he was not given a reason for his termination. Two months earlier, he had received a positive performance evaluation from Maureen Mazza, the supervising teacher at Arizona School for the Deaf’s high school. The program he had developed was praised in a December 2012 newsletter from the Arizona Agriculture Teachers Association.
Eleven days before he was fired, however, Layton also filed a grievance against Hill, saying the superintendent had threatened his job during a meeting in which he criticized the ASDB agriculture curriculum and efforts by Layton to expand the program. Layton described the meeting as an “interrogation.”
“Honestly, I feel that my termination was in retaliation from filing this grievance and speaking out,” Layton said.
Amann and Layton are both deaf, leading some employees, parents and students to suggest that Hill’s criticism of the program and their dismissals were a pretext for discriminating against them.
Hill’s allegations against Amann mentioned having hogs on campus as part of the program’s expansion. It had grown to include hogs, goats and chickens, with the switch to an animal-based agriculture program securing ASDB a $55,000 grant from the Arizona Department of Education.
Layton said Hill did not respond to an e-mail asking permission to get the hogs. However, he added, Amann approved the project, and former board President Bernhardt Jones, who was replaced in late May, expressed support for it at a board meeting.
On the day of Layton’s firing, students sat outside his classroom in protest. The same day, faculty and staff wrote a letter to the board asking members to investigate Hill’s actions.
“Our students no longer feel secure at ASDB, nor do they feel valued at the school,” the letter stated. “When the students suddenly felt compelled to act today, we knew then that Robert Hill surely has to go.”
During the protests, students demanded that Amann and Layton be allowed to return and that Hill leave.
“Honestly, I’ve never liked (Hill),” said Juliana Apfel, who helped organize the protests and graduated this spring after attending ASDB since second grade. The 18-year-old will attend Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., and plans to study sports medicine.
“He signs a little, but not fluently,” she said. “He’s not involved with the deaf community, doesn’t know our culture.
“I 100 percent don’t think he’s qualified,” Apfel added. “It would be a joke if he showed his face on campus again.”
Hill was criticized in several other grievances. Though records have not yet been released by the school, their existence has been disclosed in public meeting minutes, discussed by some ASDB employees or obtained from complainants themselves.
ASDB employee Vivienne Schroeder’s grievance noted she felt she was unfairly forced by ASDB human resources executive director Maria Murphy to turn over text messages to human resources, according to a transcript of an April 30 board meeting. She said Hill humiliated her by reprimanding her in e-mails copied to many other people and told her that deaf people spread rumors.
Mazza, the high-school supervising teacher, filed a grievance complaining that Hill should have told her about an investigation of several high school students at the school before the probe was launched, according to a transcript of a board meeting at which the matter was discussed.
Brandon Decker, an ASDB employee who previously was an acting principal, had a similar complaint. His grievance said Hill approved an investigation on campus, which extended to bringing police officers to the Arizona School for the Deaf, without informing Decker, according to the transcript.
Lisa Svenningsen, principal of Phoenix Day School for the Deaf, filed a complaint March 14 alleging Hill peeked in her office when she had the doors and blinds closed and was pumping breast milk. She also asserted that he did not move away from the window when she asked him to.
Jessica Sizemore, Amann’s administrative assistant for five years, has not filed a grievance but alleged she experienced sexual harassment by Hill. She alleged in an interview with The Arizona Republic that Hill has referred to one employee as his “work wife” and others as his “harem” and has told employees that he needs to go home to “service” his wife.
“(He’ll tell) dirty jokes he thinks are funny, that are hurtful to women,” Sizemore alleged. “He doesn’t have that filter. He doesn’t have the class that’s necessary.”
Sizemore said many employees go to work at ASDB every day fearful for their jobs. Sizemore said she has been a vocal supporter of Amann since she was placed on administrative leave and has spoken out against Hill to the board. In June, she was demoted and told her salary would drop by about $10 an hour.
“It’s 100 percent retaliation; there’s no question,” she said. “Robert Hill himself has commented publicly (before) about how wonderful I am in my job duties.”
On June 26, Sizemore filed a whistleblower suit against Hill, Murphy and Assistant Superintendent William Koehler with the Arizona State Personnel Board. The suit accuses Hill of discrimination toward hearing-impaired ASDB employees, abuse of authority and being an absent leader.
Elisa Valles, hired in January as a high-school English teacher at Tucson’s Arizona School for the Deaf, said the atmosphere at ASDB is one of fear.
“The school’s not healthy at all,” she said. “There’s a lot of fear. People are afraid of losing their jobs. I’mafraid of losing my job — but it’s not about me or my job. It’s about the school.”
The ASDB school board has hired a law firm to investigate the grievances against Hill.
Six against one superintendent is unusual, said Sami Hamed, a former board member who served as its president before Jones.
Recent events at the school have drawn the attention of the governor, who in May renewed the expired terms of some board members and replaced others.
“Our ASDB system has lately been under scrutiny,” Brewer said at the board’s June 11 meeting. “I believe in addressing issues head-on rather than letting them fester. I stand ready to fix whatever might need fixing. And I ask the governing board to do the same.”
Michael Williams, the board’s new president, said acting on the law firm’s final report will be his priority in the coming months.
“My Number 1 goal is to restore trust with the parents and the people who work (with ASDB),” he said.