Hardaway teacher filed lawsuit against Muscogee County School District before suicide

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 2, 2013 

Kathy Honea provided a haven for troubled students but couldn't find comfort for herself.

On Jan. 25, one month after suing the Muscogee County School District for alleged discrimination based on medical disability, retaliation and intentional infliction of emotional distress, the 45-year-old Hardaway High School teacher was found dead in her Rockybrook Court home. The coroner's office hasn't received her toxicology results, but family members say Honea left a note and committed suicide.

A high school dropout who graduated with honors from Columbus State University, Honea was a go-to teacher for students who needed someone to listen.

A review of Honea's lawsuit, school district personnel files and police reports, along with Ledger-Enquirer interviews, shows she struggled within herself as she reached out to others. She dealt with stress at school and marital strife at home. She suffered from depression and lingering issues from a difficult childhood.

Attempts to reach Hardaway staff members to comment for this story were unsuccessful. Don Cooper, the school district's chief human resources officer, wouldn't discuss Honea, other than to say, "The school district, as with any loss of an employee or student, certainly mourns the loss and provides condolences."

While her family tried to absorb the shock of her suicide, no obituary was published and no funeral was held.

Before her death, Honea had separated from her second husband, Brent Davis. She and her first husband, Ray Honea, have two surviving sons: Brandon Honea, 27, and Blake Honea, 15. They honored her wish and spread her ashes around the Webb, Ala., grave of Brandon's twin brother, Christopher, who died at 3 months from sudden infant death syndrome.

Only two cousins and a childhood friend joined them for the ceremony.

But the students she loved and who loved her in return wanted a formal farewell. Two days after Honea's suicide, they conducted a candlelight vigil at Fairview Baptist Church, where dozens of students attended.

'Fought for those children'

Honea wasn't a Fairview congregant, but pastor Jimbo Albrecht saw the impact she made on the students.

"She fought for those children," he said. "When somebody was wrongly accused, she fought for them. They weren't going to let one student graduate, and she fought for them even at risk of her job."

Morgan Lynn, who graduated from Hardaway last year, was one of the vigil's student organizers. She said Honea was a "teacher who went over and beyond."

"All of her students knew they could come in at any point in time and talk to her about anything," Lynn said. "I hated high school, and she struggled in high school, too, but she didn't want her students to struggle."

Lynn called Honea a different kind of teacher.

"She didn't just pull out the textbook and tell us to do vocabulary words," Lynn said. "She did things through entertainment, videos and music. She would teach us so we could understand, down to our level."

She let students paint the ceiling tiles. She kept Christmas lights and cinnamon fragrance in her classroom throughout the year.

Honea also took students to Damascus Way and Open Door Community House to give them a larger perspective and a chance to help others.

But while she was popular with students, at the vigil, Lynn said, "I didn't see one staff member."

Rise to teaching

After obtaining her GED, Honea enrolled in CSU and earned a bachelor's degree in English and professional writing in 2005 and a master's degree in English/secondary education in 2008.

"She put so much into her schooling," said Ray, her first husband and a contractor at Fort Benning. "I think one of her motivations in getting her degree was because she wanted to help other people not go through the stuff she had gone through as a child."

At CSU, while working a string of part-time jobs on and off campus, Honea was a leader in student government, the literary journal, and the campus newspaper, as well as a volunteer reader at the Damascus Way shelter for women and children.

"She was that person who wanted to help everybody," said Ray Honea. "I remember having to keep telling her she couldn't save the world."

Around 2006, she was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and depression, her lawsuit says, and she was in the care of medical professionals before and during her employment with the Muscogee County School District.

After student-teaching stints at Northside High School, Rothschild Middle School and Hardaway to achieve her certification, Honea started substitute teaching for the school district in December 2007.

Tension

Honea was hired full time at Hardaway in August 2008, teaching English and creative writing. She sponsored Talon, the school's literary journal, and coordinated the school's Poetry Out Loud program. Her lawsuit states Honea received positive evaluations throughout her career and was chosen to instruct other teachers in professional learning classes.

But tension between her and the administration started growing in the 2010 spring semester.

Honea advised her superiors that special-education students were being alienated, that one of those students was sexually harassing another student, and that students ages 17-18 were placed in the same class with ninth-grade students, her lawsuit claims.

Honea's requested a transfer from Hardaway before the 2010-11 school year and it was approved, the lawsuit states, but she decided to stay at the school after she met with her superiors and they promised to address her concerns.

The problems, however, continued for the next two years, the lawsuit states. Honea alleged that as a result of her complaints she received teaching assignments and classes that didn't match her qualifications, and she was given more at-risk or special-needs students, which overcrowded her room.

Death threat

A series of escalating conflicts with a special-education student started in September 2011 and culminated with a death threat three months later.

According to a Dec. 13, 2011, Columbus police report, Cpl. Patrick Knight, working security at Hardaway, found "disturbing paperwork submitted by a student to a teacher" after investigating a complaint from Honea.

Honea told WRBL the boy wrote "that he was going to push my eyeballs into my (expletive) skull and watch me die."

The lawsuit identifies that same boy and says Honea repeatedly referred him to the office for sexually harassing females and threatening, cursing and intimidating her and others in November and December 2011.

Lynn was in the creative writing class with the boy.

"He harassed several students in the class," said Lynn, 19, who attends Columbus Technical College. "He grabbed girls inappropriately."

Honea requested the boy be removed from her class or that another teacher be placed in the room with her. Only after the death threat, the lawsuit says, was he told to stay away from Honea and her class.

At the start of the spring 2012 semester, the lawsuit states, Honea filed a formal complaint with the district about discrimination toward special-education and at-risk students, discrimination among teachers within the English department, failure to address student discipline issues, and concerns about safety in her classes.

"It wasn't about herself," Lynn said. "She reported every incident she saw."

Honea also sent an email to 36 Hardaway teachers, according to her personnel file, in which she complained about a "cluster of certain at-risk students being placed together in the same classroom, making the classes complete HELL."

On Jan. 11, 2012, Hardaway principal Matt Bell admonished her for violating school policy by sending a mass email without approval, according to a disciplinary letter to Honea.

She wrote on the disciplinary letter: "Refusing to sign -- I did not break policy. I will respond."

On the same day, Honea emailed Cooper, the district's chief human resources officer, a leave request for "personal reasons."

Medical leave

Two days later, Honea's leave request was granted. Her absence was later labeled a "medical leave" and extended from short-term to long-term, lasting two weeks shy of a year before she died. Honea never returned to work. Pursuing her dispute with the Muscogee County School District consumed her.

Honea's ex-husband, Ray, described her mindset this way: "If she was at the Great Wall of China and felt like she could walk through that sucker, it was going to take a whole lot to change her mind. She was going to continue to try to walk through that wall."

The school district denied two more of Honea's requests to transfer. One of them contains a letter from a medical professional stating that the "work environment" at Hardaway would continue to "significantly and negatively (impact) her health," the lawsuit says. Meanwhile, she continued to write lesson plans for her classes and regularly communicate with her substitute teacher, the lawsuit states.

On June 25, 2012, Honea filed a discrimination charge against the district with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "I believe that I have been discriminated against because of my disability and in retaliation for opposing unlawful employment practices," she wrote

On Sept. 10, 2012, the Columbus law firm Hatcher Stubbs, which represents the district, responded to the EEOC's district office in Atlanta. "There is no evidence to suggest disability discrimination was present in any of the decisions made regarding (Honea's) employment," wrote attorney Carter Schondelmayer.

In regard to the threat from the special-education student, Schondelmayer wrote, "Once Ms. Honea brought the note and issue to the attention of her principal, Mr. Matt Bell, the student was immediately suspended and removed from her classroom. The assistant principal, Michael Tucker, called the police. The student was also directed not to approach Ms. Honea."

Schondelmayer wrote that Honea abruptly left a December 2011 meeting with Bell and human resources representative Margaret Ingersoll and did not cover her class or return to work before the winter break.

"At that time, however, MCSD had no reason to believe that Ms. Honea operated under any kind of disability which required accommodation," Schondelmayer wrote. "She did present excuses from her doctors to be absent from work for those few days and indicated … she couldn't address any issues at that time."

On Sept. 28, 2012, the EEOC granted Honea the right to sue. The day after Christmas, attorney David Fowler of LaGrange filed a discrimination lawsuit against the school district on Honea's behalf in Muscogee County Superior Court.

The lawsuit now is on hold, Fowler said Friday.

"We're looking at what our options are," he said. "Under Georgia law, whenever a litigant passes away, a personal representative can be appointed for the estate and the suit can go forward if the family wishes."

Domestic dispute

On New Year's Eve, five days after the lawsuit was filed, Officer Dean Spata was dispatched to Honea's house on Rockybrook Court in reference to a dispute.

According to a Columbus police report, Honea stated that she and her husband, Brent Davis, had been involved in a verbal dispute most of the day over infidelity issues. Davis stated that, while they argued, Honea stood up from a computer desk and caused the keyboard to strike his shins. No injuries were reported.

The couple had been married seven years, the report says, and Honea stated that she had filed for divorce. Davis voluntarily left the residence.

That same day, Honea posted this on Facebook: "Lost my best friend, love and soul mate to something beyond my control. The saddest day of my life."

In an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer, Davis said doctors "played musical chairs" with Honea's medication, and that she spent a week in the Bradley Center about six months ago.

"She was so mentally distraught with everything, she wanted to push me away," said Davis, an information technology manager. "One minute she wanted me there; the next minute she wanted me gone. She was bipolar. After all this stuff that happened at school, she went downhill. She no longer was the woman I married."

'Don't go into the house'

About a month later, Brandon Honea couldn't get his mother to respond to his calls, so he drove to her Columbus home.

Brandon beat on the door, according to his father, Ray Honea. Her car was there, but nobody answered. He called his father and said he was calling police.

"Whatever you do," Ray told his son, "don't go into the house."

According to a Columbus police report, Officer Whitney Foster found Honea deceased, and deputy coroner Freeman Worley pronounced her dead at the scene at 11:17 a.m.

Brandon again called Ray. With sirens in the background, Brandon said, "Dad, you need to come over."

The son read the father the suicide note.

"I don't recall anything specific," Ray said. "I know some things were mentioned about the Muscogee County School District."

In an email, Valerie Fuller, the school district's communications director, wrote: "Our condolences go out to the Honea family. MCSD cannot comment further on this personnel matter other than to express its gratitude to Ms. Honea for her work with her students."

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