District Won't Pay for Trustee's Defense : Education: Colleagues turn down Harris' request that school board pick up his legal fees in sexual and racial harassment case.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

OK, so he went to her apartment. But his kids were waiting in the car, and in any case, all they did was talk about her job problems at the Beverly Hills Unified School District.

Sexual harassment? "That didn't occur to me at all," said school board member Phillip A. Harris, arguing that he was just doing his job as an elected official.

But his colleagues were dumbfounded. They voted 4-0 last week to turn down Harris' request to pick up the costs of his defense against a charge of sexual and racial harassment that names him as well as the district.

The board members also rejected Harris as their vice president, naming A. J. Willmer, who has less seniority, to take the No. 2 position when the next term begins in December. Lillian Raffel was named president.

"I don't believe he realizes to this day the jeopardy he's put this district in," board president Richard A. Stone said of Harris. "The crust he has. . . . I find it to be beyond belief."

For Harris, the Tuesday vote came after years of ill feeling that goes back to the bitter teachers strike of 1989, when he was active in a parents group accused by some board members and administrators of meddling on behalf of the teachers.

"They don't like me and they don't like me being on the board," he said Wednesday, calling himself a "teacher advocate" who feels an obligation to stay in touch with employees, students and members of the public.

"You can't sit in a vacuum and rule on policy and procedures without being out there," he said.

As for his meeting with the now-former employee, "Unfortunate circumstances arose, it's true," he said. He did not elaborate.

Although the incident happened in March, it did not become an issue until the employee filed a complaint of racial harassment with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing in July. She amended it in September to add the charge of sexual harassment.

In order for the district to pay for Harris' defense, it would have had to find that he was acting within his authority as a member, said Eric J. Bathen Jr., the board's attorney.

"My opinion is that it's clearly not in the scope of authority, exceeding it by a great length," Bathen told the board.

Leaving the dais to avoid a conflict of interest, Harris sat in the audience during the debate on his case, which included references to Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas and a recent U.S. Supreme Court finding that psychological damage need not be shown to prove sexual harassment.

He took the public microphone to say that turning him down would be "grossly unfair" and send a "chilling message" to anyone else who contemplates serving the district.

But board members assured the audience that the district's insurance policies would cover teachers and volunteers below the board level.

Several educators and residents spoke on Harris' behalf, among them 28-year teaching veteran Leonard Stern, who teaches Advanced Placement American History at Beverly Hills High School.

"I would have left the district if it hadn't been for Dr. Harris and his wife," Stern said.

But others argued against spending the district's sparse dollars.

"It suspends belief in today's climate that any employer would lay himself open to a harassment charge," said former board member Betty Wilson. "Going to a classroom or a cafeteria is a lot different, in my simple mind, from going to someone's home alone."

The employee's initial complaint had to do with what she saw as hostile comments in the workplace, Bathen said.

Efforts to obtain comment from the employee, whose name has not been officially revealed, were unsuccessful.

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