Utah teacher says she was pushed out after she reported a student had inappropriately touched girls

Kathy Moore is now suing Park City School District for alleged retaliation and violations of Title IX.

The girls rushed in from recess to tell their teacher what had happened.

One of their classmates at Parley’s Park Elementary, a boy, had cornered the five girls by the playground and touched them inappropriately, Kathy Moore said they told her. He had also laid flat on top of one girl and wouldn’t get off when she asked, according to the girls; it made them uncomfortable.

And this wasn’t the first time, the girls said. “They were very shaken up,” Moore recounted. “These girls were visibly shaken.”

Moore, who taught at the school in Park City in northern Utah, said she talked to the girls and made sure they were OK before she went to the principal to report the alleged conduct. She says that’s where her trouble with the district started.

About a month after she brought up the concerns about harassment, Moore said, she was demoted and transferred to another school — despite having received only top marks on her employee evaluations up until then. And at the end of the year, the district declined to renew her contract, putting a letter in her file warning other districts in the state not to hire her, she said.

Now, Moore is suing Park City School District for how it treated her and how she claims it failed to take any action to protect the girls, she said.

“Any time a child comes to you with a sexual harassment situation, you are legally mandated to report that incident — which I did without hesitation,” she told The Salt Lake Tribune. “And I would do that again and again and again.”

In the lawsuit filed earlier this month in 3rd District Court, Moore claims the district retaliated against her for speaking up about the incident with the student and the girls. She also suggests administrators violated Title IX, the federal law that protects students from sexual discrimination. She’s asking to be paid back for lost wages, as well as to be reinstated in her job.

Moore’s attorney, Katie Panzer, said she worries about the precedent the district’s action set. Panzer said Park City seems to be saying: “If you report sexual harassment, you are not going to be supported. You are going to be silenced.”

But, Panzer added, “I don’t think that’s the message that school districts should be sending.”

Park City Superintendent Jill Gildea said the district hasn’t yet been served with the lawsuit and declined to comment on the pending case.

Separating the students

Moore, who is 50, was first hired to teach at Parley’s Park Elementary in fall 2020, settling into a new classroom after 13 years as a teacher, most recently before in Salt Lake City School District. This was the first time, though, Moore had dealt with an allegation of harassment among students, she said.

By October, one month in, she got her first evaluation. Principal Daren Houck had given her “highly effective” marks across the board — the highest that a teacher there can receive.

But shortly after, in early December 2020, she said she butted heads with Houck about how to handle the reported harassment of the female students. Moore remembers the girls coming to tell her their concerns around Dec. 4.

She said they told her that they were being touched inappropriately at recess and that the boy had also been staring at them in a way that made them uncomfortable. Moore was glad they came forward and trusted her.

“It was a heavy trust,” she said. “When I start off every school year, my goal is that every one of my kids will feel safe and they will feel protected and they can come to me as a trusted adult.”

When Moore relayed their concerns to Houck, he first told her to inform the girls’ parents and the parents of the accused boy, she said. She did.

After that, though, she began to disagree with Houck’s approach. The principal instructed Moore on Dec. 18, she said, to segregate her class by gender — having the boys sit on one half of the room and girls on the other.

She didn’t support doing that, Moore says in her lawsuit, thinking it didn’t actually address the problem. But she followed the direction from her boss anyway.

“To bring a whole class situation into this, was that the best way to do it?” Moore said. “That’s not the way I would have handled it.”

When students returned from winter break in January 2021, she said, she also remembers the principal coming in to talk to the students. He told them, she said, that the separation wasn’t just in the classroom — that they also were not allowed to eat lunch or play at recess with students of the opposite gender.

The segregation of the classroom upset parents, according to the lawsuit. And as far as Moore is aware, no further action was taken to investigate the girls’ complaint or correct the boy’s alleged behavior, and nothing was done to prevent future harassment.

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) “When I start off every school year, my goal is that every one of my kids will feel safe and they will feel protected and they can come to me as a trusted adult,” Kathy Moore said.

Pushed out

Shortly after several parents wrote in with their concerns, Moore said, she was out of the classroom for a day on Jan. 11, and the district came in and interviewed each child individually while she was gone. She was not told ahead of time and was never told why.

But she said the district informed her afterward that the investigation revealed a “harmonious classroom” and that she no longer had to separate the boys and girls.

So Moore was caught off guard, she said, when she came into her classroom on Jan. 26 and found a substitute there, along with the district’s business administrator. She recalls the substitute telling her she had been assigned to take Moore’s place because Moore had requested a transfer to another school.

Moore was confused. She hadn’t been told about a transfer and never requested one, she said. When the principal came to her classroom, he said it was just a misunderstanding, she said.

But the next day, Houck called Moore into his office. There waiting was the human resources and business administrators for the school. The HR official told Moore she was “being given the opportunity” to transfer to another school; she remembers him saying it would be “a good idea” for her to accept it.

Houck mentioned the parents’ concerns about her classroom being segregated — even though Moore says that was his idea — and said after that it was a good time for Moore to take a break and “learn from another principal.”

On Jan. 28, 2021, she was transferred to Trailside Elementary School.

Moore now sees it as a demotion. She wasn’t given a teaching job. Instead, she was called a permanent substitute. And, she said, she was rarely assigned to a classroom.

Following a semester there, she said, the district sent her a non-renewal letter in April, saying her contract would not be extended for the following year. Her one-year contract that she had signed the previous fall didn’t automatically renew, so, Moore said, there was no need for the letter.

She believes the letter was a vindictive move. Public school districts in Utah typically won’t hire an applicant who has one of those letters in their file, she said, and it made it difficult for her to get another teaching position.

Over the summer she applied for 16 education jobs — including some at Park City School District. She didn’t get any of them. One district, she said, mentioned that her interview went well. She believes they didn’t hire her because of the letter. And she said Park City let some positions go unfilled rather than select her.

Moore finally applied to a private school and got a job there; she declined to say where she teaches now. But, she notes, the salary is lower than what she was making before. And she is ineligible to continue participating in the Utah Retirement System, which she had already paid into.

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kathy Moore says she was demoted and transferred to another school after she brought up concerns about harassment.

‘Life-lasting effects’

Moore stresses, though, that “this is not a situation about a disgruntled teacher” or “wanting to bring a school district down.”

“As this whole situation progressed,” Moore said, she and her attorneys “gave the school district many, many, many opportunities to rectify the situation” and tried to “not get to this point.”

For Moore, the lawsuit is about the children and doing what’s best for them, including teaching about consent. She added that reports like this need “to be handled very delicately.”

“The reality is that any time you have sexual harassment, it leaves a scar on the people involved,” she said. “That scar can have long-lasting, even life-lasting effects.”

And, Moore said, “teachers should be able to report sexual harassment without worrying about retaliation.”

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.