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A federal judge has finalized a $128,573 judgment in a lawsuit filed by a Black principal in the Mobile County Public School System (MCPSS) who sued the district after he was overlooked for an administrative position at Theodore High School in favor of a White candidate in 2016.
According to the lawsuit, William Henderson was one of 30 candidates who applied for the principal’s position at Theodore High School in 2016 and the only Black candidate among the three finalists recommended to former Superintendent Martha Peek after going through a panel interview.
Henderson — an assistant principal at Theodore at the time — scored the highest among all of the candidates initially, but somehow a second score sheet was provided to the Board of School Commissioners showing two other candidates with higher scores.
One of them was current Theodore Principal Charles Menton, who is White.
Henderson alleged he was passed up for the position because he was Black and it was a common practice for MCPSS to select Black candidates for predominantly Black schools and White candidates for predominantly White schools. At the time, Theodore’s student population was more than 80 percent White.
He eventually filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which authorized him to move forward with a federal lawsuit in 2018. After filing his initial complaint, Henderson was appointed principal of LeFlore High School, which has a student body that is roughly 95 percent Black.
Attorneys for the school district argued that, while she was superintendent, Peek routinely conducted her own interviews with the top candidates after committee interviews for administrative positions.
However, the school system was unable to prove it did not deviate from its normal hiring practices because no one was ever able to account for how Menton wound up with a higher score than Henderson on a second score sheet after the top candidates were recommended to Peek for consideration.
U.S. District Judge Terry Moorer had previously held the same when denying the school system’s motion for summary judgment, arguing, “but for the unexplained score, Menton may not have been a ‘top candidate’” and thus wouldn’t have even gotten a follow-up interview with Peek.
Henderson ultimately proved his case during a federal jury trial in March, and was awarded $28,573 in lost wages, an additional $100,000 for “emotional pain and mental anguish” and legal fees from the school system. Moorer finalized his judgment in June before formally closing the case.
“When you go through the interview process, each interviewer gives you a score and they’ll take those and put them on a chart,” Henderson’s attorney, Jon Goldfarb, told Lagniappe. “There was a fake chart that ended up being changed in a way to get the White guy in the job, even though our client had scored higher on everything. The jury saw it and said this is clearly discrimination.”
Throughout the lawsuit, Peek denied that her final recommendation to the school board had anything to do with race, but was instead about “the best person to come in and match with that school.”
In emails obtained by Henderson’s attorney, Peek initially claimed “Menton had a stronger follow-up interview” and “a more robust focus on developing a balanced academic program.” Later, while testifying during a deposition, she said her intent was to bring in a person from outside to lead Theodore High School and Henderson was not selected because he was an assistant principal there.
“The school needed someone that had, you know, no connections to the school, that would come in — the thing that comes to my mind is, you know, a new broom sweeps clean,” Peek said. “… There just needed to be that positive feeling [or] tone of someone who was, you know, brand new coming into that school.”
These types of employment discrimination cases seldom go all the way to trial and can be difficult to win when they do. Yet, this is not the first time MCPSS has been accused of a similar practice of assigning principles of certain races to lead schools where a majority of the students are the same race. In 2013, MCPSS reached a settlement with seven former principals in a lawsuit that made similar allegations.
Menton and Henderson are still employed as the principals of their respective schools, and Peek retired as superintendent in 2018 after nearly 40 years in public education. She was replaced the same year by LeFlore alumnus Chresal Threadgill — the 184-year-old system’s first Black superintendent.
In a statement, MCPSS spokesperson Rena Philips emphasized the incident at the center of Henderson’s EEOC complaint and lawsuit happened four years ago under the previous administration.
“We respect the judge’s decision and have moved forward as a district,” Philips added.
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