National statistics show that one in four students report being bullied during the school year. But what if the accusations were that the bullies were college professors?
That’s the charge from one Mesa family who filed a notice of claim in Maricopa County Superior Court against Scottsdale Community College.
Dave and Wendy Parton allege that in 2012 their daughter Kendra -- an honors student on a full-ride scholarship in SCC’s Equine Program -- was bullied by a department head and an instructor and it led to her suicide just days before graduation.
The claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, sought $5.1 million in damages, disciplinary action and termination of the employees.
“I started screaming and wanted God to take it away because it couldn’t be real,” Dave Parton said, remembering the horrific day he discovered his daughter’s body. Mesa police determined that 20-year-old Kendra shot herself with a pistol the family kept in their home for protection.
The detective assigned to investigate Kendra’s death wouldn’t find a suicide note, but in the following weeks he would piece together why Kendra might have taken her life: Her clashes with instructor Barb Hanes and Equine Science program director Dr. Patricia Evans.
On Kendra’s computer, investigators found a letter addressed to Daniel Corr, SCC’s vice president of academic and student affairs. She had requested a meeting about her troubles with Hanes and Evans around a class presentation.
Kendra wrote that they had treated her like she was the most “worthless piece of garbage in the gutter” and were going to fail her for her poor presentation so she could not graduate.
The detective wrote in his report that “Kendra’s letter is not a suicide note, but it does indicate how upset she was and the emotional impact her instructor’s remarks had on her.”
The community college declined to make Evans or Hanes available for comment, but did issue the following statement:
“Our sympathies for this family are as deep today as they were when this tragedy occurred nearly four years ago.
“It is still our belief that the faculty, while direct in their communication, had the best of intentions and wanted Ms. Parton to succeed. In fact, after she failed the capstone project of her course, Ms. Parton was extended an extra week beyond the assignment deadline. She was supported with detailed directions for preparing a successful presentation, all intended to give her a fair opportunity to earn a passing grade.
“Student success is at the core of our mission and we take it very seriously. There are numerous college resources available for all students, such as counseling, advising, mentoring and tutoring and we encourage students to take advantage of these throughout their education journey.”
Trouble in school
In order to graduate in May, 2012 with an associate’s degree in equine science, Kendra was required to get a C grade on an internship. Forty percent of that internship grade rested on a presentation in front of Hanes and Evans.
It did not go well and they didn't mince words in their critique, according to documents obtained by 12 News:
“A struggle to listen to this presentation…”
"This may be the worst presentation ever.”
“Said ‘um’ too many times,” and they complained about her hair.
Hanes informed Kendra that if she did not redo the presentation she would fail.
“This time around ... no red lettering … she’s to speak with confidence … pull her hair back … wear appropriate attire … no ‘umms’ in her speech,” she wrote.
If Kendra could do all that, they wrote, she'd receive a C.
Parton rejected their offer, explaining she had had six classes and was in the middle of finals and the internship. She wrote that she appreciated the opportunity, but didn’t have the time.
In that same email Kendra told Evans and Hanes she was disappointed in the way she was treated.
“Irrespective of my poor presentation, there is a difference between giving professional criticism and being disrespectful and insulting simply because you can,” she wrote. “I know you are better instructors and motivators than that.”
May 9, 2012
Two days before Kendra was scheduled to graduate, she reached out to Evans to ask if she could still get her degree.
Kendra apologized telling Evans she was probably sick of hearing from her. “For some reason I find you to be an incredibly intimidating person, and to be perfectly honest, you scare the crap out of me most of the time,” she wrote.
She told Evans she had clocked 332 hours of the internship-while still enrolled in five other classes. She reiterated that she had to quit her part-time job to be able to complete the unpaid internship and drive 70 miles round trip, four days a week just to get to her internship.
"I am panicking,” she wrote because she could not afford to do another internship. "I have basically wasted the last two years of my life and a lot of money at this school -- all because of one presentation."
Evans responded, telling Kendra she wasn’t sick of hearing from her and she didn’t know why she was intimidated.
Evans told Kendra she did not follow through on her end of the requirements, adding "if you feel that the past two years were a waste of your time, then maybe it was."
“Those were piercing words that should not come from anybody, let alone an instructor,” Wendy Parton told 12 News. “And to me that just goes against the mission statement of the school as far as having caring, empathetic, encouraging faculty. Let alone just as a human being speaking those words to a young girl whose school and diploma was going to be everything.”
Evans concluded her email to Kendra that day: "I am not going to ask Barb to change the grade you EARNED. I hope this is a learning experience for you and you will mature from it.”
“Kendra read that email, logged off of her computer and within seven minutes of that she texted her brother Shane saying don't come pick me up for my haircut I don't feel well and that was the last time anybody heard from her,” Wendy Parton said.
Kendra took her own life with a gun that was “supposed to keep her safe,” said Dave Parton who describes himself as a “broken man.”
The Maricopa County Medical Examiner ruled Kendra’s death a suicide. The toxicology report revealed no alcohol or drugs in her system and she was not pregnant. Dave and Wendy provided 12 News with their daughter’s medical records which yielded no apparent illnesses or records of depression or mental illness. The Parton’s are adamant their daughter had no mental health issues.
SCC would learn of Kendra’s death the following morning.
Evans wrote to Corr, SCC’s Vice-President of Academic and Student Affairs, that Kendra was offered an opportunity to re-do her presentation but declined.
"It sounds like every reasonable effort was made,” Corr wrote back.
No disciplinary history
12 News obtained nearly 1,000 documents in this case from the Maricopa County Community College District. They reveal no disciplinary history on either Evans or Hanes. However, students have filed grievances against both women. The district is withholding exactly what the students were complaining about, citing student privacy laws.
In the fall of 2011 Susan Carland was a student of Evans, enrolled in Stable Management Techniques at SCC.
Speaking about Evans, Carland said when it came to constructive criticism, it was non-existent: “Criticism was the norm, usually in a loud, bullying manner. I found her mean, cruel and demeaning.”
Carland recalled one instance when she was trying to lunge a horse. She said Evans yelled at her and said, “What is wrong with you? Are you stupid or just drunk?”
Carland, a mature student in her late 60s at the time, said she witnessed the younger students struggling with a continual barrage of negativity.
“There were a couple that were just reduced to tears on a regular basis,” she said.
Carland said she eventually had enough of the “abuse” and dropped the class along with two other students.
12 News has confirmed that Carland was indeed enrolled at that time. But it’s unclear about the other two students who supposedly dropped out.
Carland abandoned her dreams of a degree in equine science. “I find it a travesty that a person with the heartless demeanor of Dr. Evans would be allowed to continue as an instructor in the MCC District,” she said.
Allegations of negligence and wrongful death
On Oct. 30, 2012 the Partons served a notice of claim on the Maricopa County Community College District, Scottsdale Community College, Evans, Hanes and Lee Combs, General Counsel for the MCCCD.
The claim filed in Maricopa County Superior Court alleged negligence and wrongful death. It sought $5.1 million in damages, disciplinary action and termination against Evans and Hanes and for SCC to award Kendra’s Associate of Arts degree in equine science.
It read: “School teachers and administrators have both a statutory and common law duty not to subject students within their charge to a foreseeable and unreasonable risk of harm through acts, omissions, or school policy. Under one exception: Liability exists because the defendant actually caused the suicide. Under the other, liability exists because the defendant had a duty to prevent it.”
While that claim is no longer active and no lawsuit was filed against SCC, 12 News’ investigation reveals that SCC was concerned about the risk of settling out of court after Kendra committed suicide.
The college conducted what it termed an internal investigation, but did not interview Parton’s parents and meted out no disciplinary action against either instructor. This was kept hidden from public scrutiny. Faculty worried that if the district settled the claim that it would set a precedent for any student displeased with their instructor.
Records reveal that Corr, vice president of academic and student affairs seemingly had an issue with the accusations leveled in the claim.
In an email he wrote: “My, How horrible! Pat and Barb should meet with Lee ASAP….we will suoport [sic] them in every way possible.” Lee refers to Lee Combs, the attorney for the district.
12 News asked MCCCD for a response from Corr, but one has not been given regarding his email.
Another email raised questions about the potential risk factor given the claim.
It was sent by director Karen Chalmers at SCC to Harold Cranswick, a faculty member in the Social Science Department at Mesa Community College. Chalmers requests a “green sheet vote” and says she’d like to have Dr. Patricia Evans speak with the association folks. Chalmers wrote:
“I believe that this case may hold huge ramifications for all faculty due to the request for termination in the suit. It is not my area of expertise but given the fact that MCCCD always tends to settle cases as opposed to actually going to court that this would set a precedence where anyone displeased with a faculty member could actually request this determination.”
“The pain is like no other ... it leaves a hole in your heart that never goes away,” said Wendy Parton, who remembers her daughter as an aspiring veterinarian who won awards and ribbons for her work with horses.
12 News had questions for the college about the calculation of Kendra’s grade. She had received an A for 60-percent of the internship. The district reviewed the matter. And while it would not say if there was a miscalculation and Kendra should not have failed the course, it did issue this statement:
“Because issuance of a degree is essentially an academic judgment, the College administration asked the Acting Director of the Equine Science program and the Chair of the Division to review Ms. Parton's academic record and determine whether her work merits the posthumous issuance of a degree.
“After review, they have recommended that the College award the degree. The President of the college has approved this recommendation and steps are being taken to award the degree. We hope this gives the family some peace of mind.”
12 News let Kendra’s parents know the empty frame they’ve got hanging on the wall will now have Kendra’s diploma.