Principal Bertie Simmons, shown here at an earlier press conference, wasn't the only HISD employee sent home. Now Sharon Koonce (left) is asking for injunctions against the district.
Principal Bertie Simmons, shown here at an earlier press conference, wasn't the only HISD employee sent home. Now Sharon Koonce (left) is asking for injunctions against the district.
Photo by Meagan Flynn

Educator Files Suit, Saying HISD Retaliated Against Her for Supporting Bertie Simmons [UPDATED]

Update 11:20 a.m. : State District Judge Kyle Carter this morning ruled in favor of Sharon Koonce's application for a temporary restraining order against the Houston ISD. Attorney Scott Newar had argued that prohibiting Koonce from talking with any students, parents or HISD employees was a violation of her constitutional rights. The TRO stays in effect for 14 days until another hearing is held.

Original story:
Sharon Koonce, the project manager over a $10 million grant that Furr High School received last year, filed suit in state district court Monday morning, saying in essence that the Houston ISD has retaliated against her for supporting Principal Bertie Simmons.

Just as Simmons was sent home and remains there under an ever-expanding investigation, Koonce was placed on temporary leave, reportedly without a reason from the district. Simmons has filed suit in federal court charging that HISD discriminated against her because of her age and race. Simmons is 83 and white and presides over a majority Hispanic high school.

The original allegations against Simmons were that she refused to relax the student dress code (Simmons has said she saw a rise in gang colors and wanted to return to neutral uniforms to avoid trouble) and that she threatened to hit students with a baseball bat (Simmons and her supporters say that is a long-standing joke and that the diminutive Simmons has never hit anyone with a bat.)

After widespread complaints about HISD’s “case,” the district refused to back down and reinstate Simmons, saying it was expanding its investigation. Students protested Simmons’s removal, but that didn’t change the district’s plans either.

In Monday’s court action, attorney Scott Newar, who also represents Simmons, says that HISD has retaliated against Koonce for exercising her constitutional rights to free speech and assembly.

HISD issued two directives beginning October 6, the suit says, “that bar Koonce from having any contact with [HISD] students, parents, or colleagues, or participate in any [HISD] activities.” Koonce spoke at Simmons’s press conference on October 9, and on October 13 received a second letter from HISD saying that effective October 16, her duties were no longer needed.

The 76-year-old Koonce has worked for HISD for about 40 years. She has been the principal at Browning Elementary, Oak Forest Elementary and The Rice School. She has been HISD’s director of Leadership Development and HISD’s assistant superintendent of professional development.

The $10 million grant she was to oversee comes from the XQ Institute, founded by Laurene Powell Jobs (widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs). HISD hired Koonce to administer the programs at Furr funded by the five-year grant.

HISD has so far refused to reinstate Koonce, despite a demand letter from Newar to do so. The suit asks for a temporary restraining order, a temporary injunction and a permanent injunction against the district.

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