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Appeals court rules in favor of former South Bend School Corp. teacher

South Bend School Corporation Headquarters building in February 2024.
Marek Mazurek, WVPE
South Bend School Corporation Headquarters building in February 2024.

The Indiana Court of Appeals this week ruled in favor of a former South Bend School Corp. teacher, finding the school district wrongfully retaliated against her for her desire to file workman's compensation after she fell while on the job.

The ruling by the appeals court affirmed the verdict of a St. Joseph County jury that Connie Grabowski is entitled to $600,000 in back wages for being forced to resign in 2016. South Bend schools filed an appeal claiming Grabowski hadn't presented enough evidence for a jury to rule in her favor, but the appeals court largely said they found no reason to overrule the jury's verdict.

"It's been a long journey," said Patrick O'Leary, an attorney representing Grabowski. "I felt there was an tremendous injustice toward her. I can tell you Mrs. Grabowski is very happy."

A school district spokesman did not respond to a message from WVPE.

Appeals ruling

Technically speaking, the school was found to have retaliated against Grabowski for intending to file a workman's compensation claim after a student ran into her and she fell.

But the real narrative of the case was Grabowski naming the student who ran into her in her preliminary report. That student is the grandson of Dawn Jones, who was a school board member at the time of the incident.

In the weeks leading up to Grabowski's fall in April 2016, there were tensions between the Wilson Elementary School teacher and family members of the boy. The boy's family believed Grabowski was bullying the student and had told him he had "diarreia of the mouth." Grabowski denied those claims and worked out that she would send a behavior log home with the boy and notify his family of any further incidents.

Grabowski spraining her wrist and ankle in the fall, which happened while supervising a group of students lining up to use the restroom.

In an accident report the school asked her to file the day of the fall, Grabowski named a student she believed had run in front of her, partially causing the fall. She also said the student ran into her in the boy's behavior log that his family saw.

Upon reviewing a video tape of the fall, everyone agreed that the boy running into her was an accident and that was the last Grabowski expected to hear about the incident until a few days later when the district was suspended and then asked to sign a "last chance agreement" which stipulated she could be fired for any minor infraction thereafter.

Grabowski was advised she would likely be fired if she didn't sign the agreement and she resigned instead, believing the school district was coming down hard on her because she named Jones' grandson in her accident report, even though she didn't say he did anything wrong.

“I think what happened here is, and this is regrettable, the [Human Resources] Department had to placate the wrath of Dawn Jones,” said O’Leary in an interview with WVPE.

After several years of litigation, the case went to trial in 2023. The jury sided with Grabowski, finding school administrators did retaliate because she planned to file a claim for workmen's compensation. The $600,000 was slightly more than Grabowski would have made had she worked at Wilson during the time in which the litigation played out.

The appeal court decision came very quickly by legal standards as justices heard oral arguments about the case in South Bend in late April as part of the court's Appeals on Wheels program. The court largely dismissed the district's arguments. They wrote the fact that the district's human resources staff gave Dawn Jones' family a copy of Grabowski's confidential accident report and the fact the district bypassed other disciplinary measures and went straight to a last-chance agreement despite Grabowski record as a decorated teacher were more than enough for a jury to decide in Grabowski's favor.

Not helping South Bend schools was a recent Indiana Supreme Court ruling in which that body ruled that once a case reaches trial, judges should be more careful when granting what's called a directed verdict, meaning the judge rules in favor of one side due to a lack of evidence. The South Bend School Corp. hoped to decide the case on such a motion, but the new supreme court ruling made that gambit less likely, O'Leary said.

Marek Mazurek has been with WVPE since April 2023, though he's been in Michiana for most of his life. He has a particular interest in public safety reporting. When he's not on the radio, Marek enjoys getting way too into Notre Dame football and reading about medieval English history.