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Fairmont school lawsuit headed for settlement conference

Case heated up with charges of evidence at risk

Published: Thursday, June 26, 2014 10:58 p.m. CST

LOCKPORT – Fairmont School District 89 officials will try to resolve a lawsuit in a settlement conference slated for August.

The lawsuit comes from a fired administrator, whose lawyers recently alleged that the district superintendent was planning to destroy evidence related to the case.

Attorneys representing former district Curriculum Coordinator Debra Acanfora filed an emergency motion June 12 to protect evidence. Her lawyers contended that district Superintendent Sonya Whitaker may have been trying to destroy evidence related to the lawsuit.

Attorneys representing Whitaker and school board members named in the lawsuit disputed the motion. On June 13, the emergency motion was denied by a federal judge, who then referred the case to magistrate judge for a settlement conference Aug. 5.

“If there’s no chance of resolving it then the settlement conference will be terminated, and the magistrate judge will refer it to the district judge, and it will go on from there,” said Matthew Pfeiffer, an attorney representing Acanfora. 

Until then, Pfeiffer said he plans to put on hold any actions related to the lawsuit as a showing of good faith.

Babak Bakhtiari, one of the attorneys representing Whitaker and board members, said his office is interested in pursuing the conference.

On May 7, Acanfora filed a federal lawsuit when school board members voted unanimously at a special meeting to fire her. Pfeiffer has said school officials alleged she stole mail from the school district, which Acanfora denied.

The lawsuit claims Whitaker was abusive and on different occasions threw stacks of paper and a stapler at Acanfora. The lawsuit also claims Acanfora was denied due process during the course of her dismissal.

In a June 19 response to the lawsuit, Whitaker and board members denied allegations of Whitaker’s abusive treatment toward Acanfora or that they violated Acanfora’s due process rights.

Attorneys decided to file the emergency motion to preserve evidence when Acanfora said she heard from someone at the Fairmont school that Whitaker requested large trash bins to her office and fired John Williamsen, technology coordinator, who was involved in district’s video surveillance, Pfeiffer said. 

“We basically took that as some type of implication that Whitaker was going to try and do something in terms of destroying evidence, because it is unusual in my mind to summon three garbage cans and to call in the person who maintains the video of the premises and who is sort of the information technology person,” Pfeiffer said. 

At a June 18 meeting, board members approved the termination of John Williamsen’s employment. Attempts to reach Whitaker and Board President Joseph Ryan for comment on Williamsen’s dismissal were unsuccessful. 

The motion from Acanfora's attorneys alleged that Whitaker contacted witnesses and potential witnesses to gather physical evidence for the purpose of destroying or concealing it. The motion also alleged that Whitaker and school Principal Tamela Daniels contacted internal and external surveillance video companies in an effort to obtain video footage of events identified in the lawsuit.

The response from Whitaker’s and school board members’ attorneys was to oppose the motion because Acanfora’s attorneys failed to contact them before filing the motion, failed to demonstrate good cause and because it was redundant.

“This Motion consists of a litany of conclusory and speculative allegations made solely on ‘information and belief,’” the attorney’s response stated. “Plaintiff’s conclusory and unsubstantiated allegations do not constitute good cause … the Plaintiff’s Motion is devoid of factual support and should be denied.” 

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