ELIZABETH - Is the woman who blew the whistle on the Elizabeth school lunch scandal facing retaliation for speaking out? A Kane In Your Corner investigation finds her position has been eliminated and she's been forced to spend her last weeks on the job alone in a small windowless office.
"They placed me in a room, completely isolated, by myself," Carmen Southwood tells News 12 New Jersey's Walt Kane. "Bare walls, no phone, nothing."
If the accommodations are unimpressive, Southwood says the assignment is even worse. She says she is literally being paid to do nothing, and no one interacts with her. It started a couple of weeks ago, when Southward was told her contract as a food services supervisor would not be renewed at the end of the school year. She says other employees she knows of in that situation were permitted to continue working for the duration of their terms or were sent home with pay, and only she was banished to a "rubber room."
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"To do that to someone is really to try to play psychological games with their minds and to try to break them," Southwood says. She is convinced "without a doubt" that she is the victim of retaliation.
Law enforcement sources confirm that in 2011, Southwood blew the whistle on corruption in Elizabeth's school lunch program, giving information to several different law enforcement agencies. The information led to the conviction of former Board of Education President Marie Munn. Munn was sentenced to community service last month for obtaining free and reduced price lunches for her kids, despite a family income that was far too high to qualify. Criminal cases against several other board and district employees are ongoing.
Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Elizabeth) accuses Elizabeth school officials of keeping Southwood "in solitary confinement," which he calls, "cruel and unusual punishment." He also is convinced Southwood is the victim of retaliation.
Elizabeth school officials deny that. "The Elizabeth School District is unaware of any whistle-blowing activity that Ms. Southward may have engaged in," says Assistant Board Secretary Don Goncalves, who adds that Southward was "re-assigned to administrative duties and assigned to an office suite...that is used by Board of Education members."
Goncalves also says that Southward was one of 154 employees to be non-renewed. "Ms. Southward has not received any disparate treatment and any comments or statements...to the contrary are that of a disgruntled employee," he says.
However, School Board Attorney Bruce Rosen admits Southward is the only one of those 154 employees who is being forced to spend her last weeks on the job isolated in an office with nothing to do. Rosen says all the others have either continued working their regular jobs or were sent home on paid leave. Rosen says school administrators would have preferred to send Southward home on leave but the board decided otherwise. Rosen blames that on three Lesniak-affiliated board members who abstained from the vote.
This is not the first time News 12 New Jersey has reported on the Elizabeth School District's use of "rubber rooms". In December 2010, a Kane In Your Corner investigation found the district routinely paid some teachers and administrators not to work. Many were facing pending disciplinary action, but some said they had been banished to the rubber room for opposing the school administration politically.