Long-time teacher files civil rights lawsuit against Evergreen School District

Eric Dodge claims Wy’east Middle School Principal Caroline Garrett called him a ‘racist,’ ‘bigot,’ ‘homophobe,’ ‘liar,’ and ‘hateful person’ because of his support for President Donald Trump 

VANCOUVER — A long-time Washougal resident has filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Evergreen School District and two individuals, claiming violations of his constitutional right to freedom of speech.

Eric Dodge, who was entering his 17th year as a teacher in the Evergreen School District, was scheduled to begin an assignment at Wy‘east Middle School last fall before a conflict occurred with his then Principal Caroline Garrett over his support for President Donald Trump. Specifically, Garrett clashed with Dodge over his possession of a “Make America Great Again’’ (MAGA) hat, which has become a well-known symbol for Trump supporters.

Washougal resident Eric Dodge, who was entering his 17th year as a teacher in the Evergreen School District, was scheduled to begin an assignment at Wy‘east Middle School last fall before a conflict occurred with his then Principal Caroline Garrett over his support for President Donald Trump. Dodge, shown here wearing his “Make America Great Again’’ hat, has filed a civil rights lawsuit against the district, Garrett and Human Resources Officer Jenae Gomes. Photo courtesy of Eric Dodge
Washougal resident Eric Dodge, who was entering his 17th year as a teacher in the Evergreen School District, was scheduled to begin an assignment at Wy‘east Middle School last fall before a conflict occurred with his then Principal Caroline Garrett over his support for President Donald Trump. Dodge, shown here wearing his “Make America Great Again’’ hat, has filed a civil rights lawsuit against the district, Garrett and Human Resources Officer Jenae Gomes. Photo courtesy of Eric Dodge

“As a public employer, the school district must respect its employees’ constitutional rights, and it must create a safe and non-partisan environment that is open to everyone,’’ read a statement released Wednesday by Michael Estok, an attorney representing Dodge. “Relatedly, as the Supreme Court of the United States has recognized, public employees ‘do not renounce their citizenship when they accept employment’ with a public entity; rather, they continue to enjoy the same rights — including under the First Amendment — that form the bedrock of civil society.

“Here, even though Mr. Dodge was a respected and long-standing teacher in Evergreen’s schools, upon just beginning his new assignment at Wy’east Middle School, he was ridiculed and attacked — and was even threatened with disciplinary action — by his new principal simply because he had previously expressed support for President Trump,’’ Estok’s release stated.

“She attacked me and wanted to ruin my reputation at this new school,” said Dodge, referring to Garrett, “even though she had just met me and didn’t know the first thing about me.” 

Estok stated in his release that “this attack was particularly devastating because Mr. Dodge had just returned to working after an absence to rehabilitate from a stroke. The hostile environment created by the principal caused his previously-resolved stroke symptoms to immediately return. These symptoms — including a verbal stutter and a loss in coordination — have now made Mr. Dodge unable to teach or continue his livelihood. Even worse, when Mr. Dodge filed an internal complaint, the principal — who had a well-established practice of pushing her own political ideology at the school and creating a double standard with her staff based on their political beliefs — worked in concert with the district’s HR director to minimize and distort what had happened, in an effort to protect the principal’s position and to further harm Mr. Dodge.’’

“Ultimately, this is not a case about politics,” according to Estok, a member of Lindsay Hart, LLP, one of the two firms representing Dodge in the lawsuit. “Regardless of which candidate or party you might support, the key point is that you have a right to support them. You should not be shut out of public service simply because your boss supports someone else.

“This case is also about civility,” Estok said. “People need to ‘agree to disagree’ in a civil way, especially in the workplace. Nobody should be attacked, defamed, and humiliated by their boss based solely on their political beliefs, whether conservative or progressive. That’s not what America is all about.” 

What happened?

According to Dodge’s complaint, during the summer holidays in 2019, he would at times wear his MAGA hat while at gatherings or out in the public.  “He liked to wear the hat as a conversation-starter, with the idea of explaining that ordinary and normal people support Trump, despite some of Trump’s flaws (as symbolized by the “Made in China” tag in the hat),’’ the complaint stated. “Dodge would also wear the MAGA hat when he was going to be outside on a sunny day to protect the sun spots on his head from developing skin cancer, as he had been cautioned to do by his physician in the summer of 2019 after the sunspots on his head had been bleeding.  At that time, the MAGA hat was the only hat owned by Dodge.’’

According to the complaint, Dodge’s first day of work at Wy’east was on Aug. 22, 2019, which was the start of a week planned for teacher training and preparation, with no students present. It was a sunny day, and so plaintiff was wearing his MAGA hat while walking from his vehicle to the entrance of Wy’east.  When he arrived at the front door, Dodge claimed in his complaint that “he doffed the MAGA hat, and he did not subsequently wear or purposefully display it while inside Wy’east.’’ After completion of a training session, Dodge said he was approached in his classroom by Garrett.

The complaint states that “Garrett had a prior history at Wy’east of aggressively promoting political ideology and messages within the school, both in her official and personal capacities, and in creating a fearful and hostile environment with certain staff members, including creating a double standard for staff whose political views differed from her own.’’

Dodge and Garrett had a meeting about the presence of the MAGA hat.

“During this first meeting, Garrett voiced her concerns about plaintiff’s MAGA 

hat,’’ Dodge stated in the complaint, which also stated “Garrett concluded by stating she wouldn’t say he couldn’t wear the hat, but that she would advise him to ‘use his better judgment,’ which was a veiled way of stating he should not wear the hat.’’

In his complaint, Dodge claimed that on the next morning (Aug. 23, 2019), when he arrived at Wy’east for more training and preparation, he left his MAGA hat in his car, “not wanting to cause any friction with Garrett and hoping to succeed at Wy’east.’’ Around mid-day, Dodge said he left Wy’east to attend a training session at a different Evergreen School District location. Given that Garrett was not present at that off-site location, Dodge wore the MAGA hat in that off-site parking lot while walking to and from his vehicle to the front door, but he said he did not wear it or purposefully display it while inside the building.  

When Dodge returned back to Wy’east that same afternoon, he alleged in the complaint that “Garrett approached and cornered plaintiff with an aggressive and hostile tone. She began the conversation by exclaiming: ‘OK, what is the (expletive) deal with you and your hat!”

In the complaint, Dodge claimed that “for the next 15 minutes, Garrett — acting under color of state law, and acting as plaintiff’s new boss — repeatedly and aggressively berated plaintiff.  Among other things, she declared that plaintiff was a ‘racist,’ ‘bigot,’ ‘homophobe,’ ‘liar,’ and ‘hateful person.’ Dodge said he “felt threatened, insulted and bullied, simply because he owned a hat of which Garrett disapproved.’’

Evergreen Public Schools’ investigation

On Sept. 3, 2019, Evergreen Public Schools initiated an investigation into the conflict between Garrett and Dodge, contracting with Clear Risk Solutions to complete a third-party report. On Oct. 1, the district sent Dodge a letter outlining the results of the investigation, which Clark County Today obtained a copy of through a Public Records Request.

“After a thorough investigation, initiated on Tuesday, September 3, 2019, the preponderance of evidence gathered during the investigation confirmed that multiple staff members voiced their concerns and feelings of being uncomfortable during a professional development training because you wore a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat.

“Witnesses who were interviewed expressed that you felt intimidated and threatened with discipline so you worried about your future job openings not being available to you,’’ the district wrote to Dodge. “You perceived that you were judged and worried about your reputation given the perceptions of stereotyping.

“The investigation found that Ms. Garrett initiated two separate conversations with you but she did not violate any school board policy or procedure.

“After a thorough investigation, initiated on September 3, 2019, based on the state statute and on the District’s policies, it has thus determined that an act of discrimination, harassment, intimidation and bullying did not occur,’’ the district stated in the Oct. 1, 2019 letter to Dodge.

The letter was signed by Jenea Gomes, chief human resource officer of the Evergreen School District. Gomes is the other individual named in Dodge’s lawsuit, filed in United States District Court, Western District of Washington, in Tacoma.

Current status

Dodge was initially placed on administrative leave by the district, which later transferred him to an unpaid leave of absence. He has used all of his sick leave and vacation during the current school year.

Garrett recently left her position at Wy’east Middle School and is no longer working in the district.

In his lawsuit, Dodge is seeking relief in the form of compensatory damages and punitive damages to be awarded at trial as well as prejudgment interest on any award of lost wages and lost benefits and attorney’s fees and costs. Dodge is also seeking a declaration that defendants have committed the “above violations of plaintiff’s civil rights.’’

Calls to the communications office at the Evergreen School District late Wednesday were not yet returned at the time of this report. Clark County Today will continue to follow this ongoing story.

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About The Author

Ken Vance got his start in the newspaper industry in 1987 as a reporter at The Columbian Newspaper in Vancouver. Vance graduated from Stevenson High School in Stevenson, WA, and attended Clark College in Vancouver. He worked for The Columbian from 1987-2001. He was most recently a staff member of The Reflector Newspaper in Battle Ground, where he served as editor since 2010 and reporter since 2007. Vance’s work in the newspaper industry has won him multiple awards, including a first place award from the Society of Professional Journalists for in-depth reporting.

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