Lancaster schools’ bus workers say supervisor is harassing them - The Buffalo News

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Lancaster schools’ bus workers say supervisor is harassing them

The complaints paint Robert W. Mowry as a bully, sexual harasser and a boss who intimidates, torments and humiliates female employees.

The women behind the complaints claim Mowry, transportation supervisor at the Lancaster Central School District, engaged in a pattern of age, sex and disability discrimination that began years ago and continues today.

They tell stories of Mowry showing up unannounced at one of their homes, abusing them verbally in front of co-workers and creating a workplace hostile to the sick and disabled.

They also wonder why Lancaster hired him when court records indicate he was forced out of his previous job at the Niagara Wheatfield Central School District because of similar allegations of harassment.

“He likes to prey on the weak and thrives on people getting upset,” said Mary D. Juliano, 53, a bus driver and one of the women who filed charges. “You don’t dare cry in front of him because then he knows he’s got you. He’ll harass you forever.”

Juliano is one of at least six women who filed discrimination complaints with state and federal agencies the past several years.

Each of them accused Mowry of harassing her.

Four of the six women who filed complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or state Division of Human Rights agreed to speak with The Buffalo News about Mowry’s alleged conduct and the school district’s response to their concerns.

The others said they could not talk because their settlements prohibit them from speaking publicly about their complaints.

“He kept calling me into the office to harass and scare me,” said Gina Scaglione, 47, a bus driver and one of the women with charges still pending. “It’s a horrible nightmare. No one should have to work like this.”

Mowry declined to comment on the allegations.

Lancaster Superintendent Michael J. Vallely said he could not comment on the specific allegations against Mowry, but he made it clear the district adheres to all laws regarding harassment and discrimination and has internal policies for handling employee complaints. He said Lancaster also has a long-standing practice of disciplining employees who discriminate and of firing repeat offenders. He noted there have been no determinations by outside agencies that his administration ever did anything wrong.

“To date, there have been no findings of discrimination, harassment or retaliation by the district by any administrative agencies or the courts,” Vallely said.

He added: “We would handle any complaint that comes to us and do a prompt and thorough investigation.”

Most of the women who filed charges are more senior employees, such as Deborah Bak, 63, a Lancaster bus driver for nearly four decades.

In her five-page complaint, Bak details a wide range of incidents in which she claims Mowry discriminated against her because of her age and gender.

“Deb Bak is a courageous plaintiff and has incredible credibility for 39-plus years,” said Lindy Korn, Bak’s lawyer. “The fact that she is treated less well than someone younger or male makes it more egregious.”

One educator who did talk about the allegations is retired Lancaster Superintendent Edward J. Myszka, who acknowledges a familiarity with the complaints but dismisses them as the work of a few difficult and disgruntled employees.

He describes Mowry as a “fantastic transportation director” and says none of the allegations against him was ever substantiated.

“He’s got very difficult people to supervise,” said Myszka, a 46-year veteran of the district. “If employees don’t get their way, they lash out differently.”

Taken to court

The complaints against Mowry are the latest in a series of allegations that date back to at least 2001, when he was transportation supervisor at the Niagara Wheatfield district.

One of his bus drivers sued the district in federal court that year, claiming Mowry sexually harassed her and other female employees.

The woman would not talk about the case but, in her suit, accused him of offering better working conditions in return for sex.

She claimed Mowry asked her out for a drink, mentioned his cabin to her and a female co-worker and went so far as to give them directions to the cabin.

“Those allegations were unsubstantiated,” Myszka said. “To me, they were unfounded.”

Myszka said Lancaster officials spoke with the personnel director at Niagara Wheatfield and came away convinced the allegations were off-base.

Court records tell a different story.

While Niagara Wheatfield denied the woman’s claims, court documents indicate the district offered to release Mowry from his job as part of an eventual settlement.

“The district is willing, as you requested, to release Mr. Mowry from his employment,” the district said in July 2002 letter to the woman’s lawyer. “Mr. Mowry will resign, and the district will accept his resignation.”

Court records indicate Mowry resigned a month later.

Later that same year, the woman asked for assurances that Mowry would never be rehired, and court documents indicate the district agreed to that condition as well.

When the woman still wouldn’t agree to a settlement, Niagara Wheatfield asked the court to intervene.

U.S. District Judge John V. Elfvin, who died five years ago, refused to enforce the “purported settlement,” and court documents indicate district officials upped the ante by offering $5,000 in cash.

It’s not clear from the record if the woman accepted it, but the case was closed a few months later.

Like Myszka, retired Lancaster bus driver Carol Latchford said she and her fellow drivers were well aware of the lawsuit when Mowry first arrived in Lancaster.

After working with him for 10 years – she retired in 2012 – she came away convinced he’s a strong but fair supervisor. And she said a lot of drivers see him that way.

“There are women in that bus garage who have no problem with the guy,” Latchford said.

When Mowry took over, he inherited a workplace that was lax and undisciplined, said Linda Crossetta, a bus driver for the past 20 years.

She says Mowry came in and changed that culture, and one of the consequences of his efforts is a group of “disgruntled” employees eager to force him out.

“He runs a tight ship,” Crossetta said. “A lot of people think they’re being harassed when he’s just doing his job.”

Claims of bullying

When Mowry left Niagara Wheatfield, he landed in Lancaster.

“Everybody knew about Bob,” said Karen Shafer, a retired Lancaster dispatcher and union vice president. “He arrived with a bushel of garbage from other districts.”

Shafer, who never filed formal charges against the district, says she was the first to be targeted by Mowry when he joined Lancaster.

He would talk with her on the two-way radio while she was working and constantly challenge and reverse her directions to drivers.

“It’s a power thing,” Shafer said. “Bob did a lot of yelling at me. In fact, one of the first things he told me was that he was hired to get rid of me.”

The women’s stories differ, but they share a common thread: the allegation that Mowry targeted them for abuse and harassment.

Most of them, especially those in their 50s and 60s, say the harassment took the form of bullying.

They say Mowry favors younger employees and often goes out of his way to humiliate the women in front of co-workers.

“I literally go home sick,” said Mary F. Refermat, 62, a clerk-typist in the transportation department and one of the women with pending charges. “But I don’t feel I should be the one to leave. And I’m tired of seeing women targeted by him.”

Refermat and Scaglione are being represented by Harvey P. Sanders, a Buffalo lawyer.

Bak, the district’s most senior driver, said the stress and anxiety created by Mowry’s conduct caused her to lose some of her hair.

Her complaint details nine separate incidents that she and Korn think support their allegations of discrimination.

In January 2005, Bak said, she reported to work and was told by Mowry that she wasn’t needed that day as a driver, but he wanted her to pull up a bus and wash it.

She said it was 6 a.m., pitch black outside and bitterly cold. She also says Mowry never asked other drivers to wash buses.

Five years later, she again found herself at odds with Mowry, according to the complaint.

It was November, and Mowry elected to take away a new bus Bak was driving and give it to a younger worker, she said.

A month later, when the weather turned colder, she said he again changed her bus, this time giving her one without heat.

“The way he treated me – I just couldn’t take it anymore,” she said when asked why she filed charges against the district. “The things he has done to people are just awful.”

Scaglione, who has lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease, said Mowry often challenges her use of sick time and frequently asks her if she has mental health problems.

When she reported Mowry’s behavior to his supervisors, he reprimanded her for going over his head, she said.

‘No probable cause’

Mowry’s harassment usually centered on her lupus and her use of sick time, Scaglione said, but on one occasion it turned sexual.

Mowry, she said, showed up at her home unannounced and uninvited one summer day about seven years ago.

“I never let him out of the truck,” she said. “I never let him in my house.”

Like many of the other women, Scaglione said she aired her complaints with several school district officials but never once found satisfaction in their response.

One other woman who filed discrimination charges against the district said she was sexually harassed by Mowry as well.

Like Scaglione, she said Mowry showed up unexpectedly at her home one day even though he lived 10 miles away.

“I asked him what he was doing in the neighborhood. Was he hanging out at the corner bar or something?” she said in an email to The News. “He said, ‘No, but do you want me to?’ ”

The woman, who has since left the district, contacted The News on the condition she not be identified.

“It was finally when he came right out and asked me out, and asked to accompany me, knowing my boyfriend was out of town that I finally got the courage to make the complaint,” she said of her charges with the EEOC.

It’s not just women who view Mowry as a hot-tempered, unpredictable manager.

Paul Bannochie, a longtime foreman and mechanic at the bus garage, described Mowry as a “control freak,” a supervisor who thrives on confrontation, especially with women.

“A lot of the older drivers left,” he said. “He was always on them. They couldn’t take it any more.”

Bannochie said Mowry was one of the reasons he retired in 2011.

“It’s definitely not a happy work environment,” he said. “He likes to have everything in turmoil.”

It’s not clear how the current complaints against Mowry and the district will proceed.

In at least one of the cases, the one filed by Bak, the EEOC found “no probable cause” for the complaint. The others are believed to be pending before the agency.

Bak’s attorney said they plan to sue the district in federal court later this year.

“We want there to be some form of justice, but we also want to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Korn said. “When there is a pattern of multiple complaints, it shows a pattern. A pattern leads to a credibility issue.”

“These women, at the end of the day, I believe, will make a difference.”

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