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  Former Principal Sues School, Diocese over Dismissal
Educator Claims Her Firing Was in Retaliation for Being Persistent about the Health Threat from Pcbs Leaking from Fluorescent Light Fixtures

By Mark I. Pinsky
Los Angeles Times
January 15, 1993

The former principal of a Catholic school, dismissed last spring after complaining of noxious odors and toxic fumes in a third-grade classroom, filed suit Thursday against the school, the parish, the Diocese of Orange and two priests.

Marion Patzem, a teacher at St. Joseph School in Placentia for nine years and principal for seven years until she was dismissed last May 15, charged that she was "terminated without good cause and in retaliation for her actions in trying to ensure the safety of the school's students and teachers."

Specifically, according to the suit, Patzem complained of "the potential health threat posed by toxic substances and noxious fumes (and) harassing and abusive conduct of the school's pastor," Father John Ruhl.

Problems began when a teacher and students in the classroom noticed flickering lights and complained of stomach pains, respiratory problems and recurring rashes on their forearms, necks, torsos and legs.

For her repeated complaints regarding the fumes, later found to be the known carcinogen polychlorinated biphenyls -- PCBs -- leaking from fluorescent light fixtures, Patzem said she was pushed and poked in the chest by Ruhl. She was later fired without notice or cause and escorted from the school grounds by Placentia police in front of students, the suit contends.

In his termination letter, Bishop Norman F. McFarland told Patzem -- nominated by school officials the year before for a national Catholic school principal of the year award -- that she was being dismissed because "you chose not to cooperate in our effort to look into the general unrest in St. Joseph Parish."

The parish had been plagued by "philosophical and interpersonal differences (that) have caused extensive polarization in the parish and school community," McFarland wrote.

Thursday's action was the latest in a series of legal moves sparked by the acrimonious controversy.

In April, parents filed suit asking for a temporary restraining order to keep Ruhl, who had taken a leave of absence to care for an ailing relative, off school grounds. Ruhl never returned to the school, and was later replaced by Father Fergus Clarke, who is also named in the suit.

Three months later, school administrators took the extraordinary step of dismissing 13 students from the school, including student body officers and straight-A students, saying it had become "morally impossible" to teach them because of the "uncooperative or destructive attitude" of their parents.

Subsequently, Mary Ann Shewman, the classroom teacher who first complained to Patzem about the odors and flickering lights, also sued the diocese for forcing her out of her job in a lawsuit which is still pending.

"The diocese acted entirely appropriately under the circumstances" in the dispute, said Lynne Browning, an attorney whose firm has represented the diocese in previous legal actions relating to the school. Browning noted that she has not yet seen Patzem's suit.

Browning said that firms hired by the diocese located the leaking PCBs and removed the source of the problem, the light fixture ballasts. The PCB levels, she said, fell within acceptable federal standards, but not within the more stringent state standards.

 
 

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