Fired Piedmont Custodian Seeks to Clear his Name 

After filing grievances over a disciplinary incident that he believes was unfair, Ken Mockel was accused of far more serious charges that school attorneys later misrepresented.

click to enlarge Ken Mockel described Wildwood Elementary School as huggy workplace.

Photo by Paul Haggard

Ken Mockel described Wildwood Elementary School as huggy workplace.

Custodian Ken Mockel of Piedmont's Wildwood Elementary School said he had no idea beforehand what the meeting would be about. Principal Carol Cramer had told him only that there was a "concern" to discuss.

The following day, March 29, 2018, Mockel picked up a union representative from the California School Employees Association and drove to the meeting. The Piedmont Unified School District's Title IX coordinator also attended. Mockel asked whether he could record the meeting, and Cramer agreed, saying she too would record it.

The custodian's recording shows that Cramer then cautioned him, but told him she was not initiating a formal complaint.

"More than one colleague has expressed discomfort with the exchange of the phrase, 'I love you,' as well as the request for a hug," Cramer told Mockel. "And in each situation the person expressly said that they know you were being friendly, and that they do not want to feel that they need to either give a hug or say, 'I love you.'"

Most of the 20-minute conference was spent discussing this issue. Mockel sounded upset and hurt, although he eventually calmed down and agreed to abide by the principal's instruction not to initiate hugs or expressions of love.

Cramer later wrote up a one-page summary of their meeting and put it in Mockel's mailbox, reiterating not to say, "I love you" or ask for hugs. She added, "Limit your interactions with other employees to avoid interrupting their work periods."

Yet the principal's warning to Mockel soon escalated into something far more serious. After the janitor filed grievances with the school district and the state's Public Employment Relations Board, the case escalated significantly. The 65-year-old custodian soon faced a much more serious accusation, and eventually lost his job and retirement benefits just one month before he became eligible to retire. Two attorneys hired by the school district later misrepresented that accusation as part of the district's formal investigation into the case.

Mockel and his wife, Diane, described Wildwood Elementary School as a huggy, affectionate workplace. In a recent interview, Diane called the principal's complaints about her husband hypocritical.

"At Wildwood, they were all hugging," Diane said. "I've sat in my car and heard her say, 'Ken, I love you.'"

And while Cramer had told Mockel that teachers working late in their classrooms sometimes felt their work was delayed by conversations he started, from the custodian's point of view, the teachers were actually in his way.

"My shift started at 4:00, and the teachers were supposed to be gone at 3:30," he said. "Some were there till 5, 6, 7, or 8 at night." He said he was expected to come in and clean each classroom, but he was forced to dust and mop around them.

Mockel was offended by the sentence in Cramer's letter that stated: "This conference memo serves as a warning letter but is not a formal reprimand." So the custodian engaged another union rep to call Cramer on his behalf and ask that the memo not be put in his personnel file — or if it were, to remove the word "warning." Cramer refused.

After the meeting, Mockel called in sick and took vacation time, eventually returning to work in June after getting a transfer to other Piedmont schools. He filed grievances with the school district alleging gender and age discrimination, and then a separate Unfair Practice Charge with the state Public Employment Relations Board.

District Superintendent Randall Booker denied his first grievance in April 2018, ruling that Cramer had acted according to the rules in bringing the unwanted behavior to Mockel's attention, and that Mockel's rights had not been violated. The following month, the president of the school district's governing board denied his second grievance.

Mockel filed a new complaint accusing Cramer and the Title IX coordinator of discrimination and "noncompliance." That process set in motion a meeting with Seth Eckstein, an attorney hired by the PUSD to investigate whether there was any age or gender discrimination. In June, Eckstein wrote a letter summarizing his findings and denying there was any gender or age discrimination.

But that letter included a footnote about an entirely new — and far more serious — accusation against Mockel.

"At the meeting, Principal Cramer also discussed with you a separate set of allegations related to comments you made about the school shooting in Parkland, Florida," Eckstein wrote. "Specifically, it was alleged that after the tragedy, you informed staff that you owned firearms and expressed a willingness to bring your firearms to school if an active shooter situation occurred on campus."

In fact, a review of Mockel's recording of the meeting with Cramer makes it clear that the principal said nothing so specific to the custodian. While the conference focused primarily on directing Mockel not to ask for hugs or express love, the principal briefly raised another topic.

"So, can you tell me about any conversations you may have had about how you might help out in an emergency?" Cramer asked. "In particular, a conversation you had in response to the Parkland shooting?"

Mockel said he didn't recall ever talking about that.

"An employee isn't sure, but got the impression that you would want to assist if something were to happen on the campus?" Cramer continued. "And that's why I'm asking about it."

The recording shows that at no time did Cramer mention guns or firearms, nor did she ask Mockel whether he owned any guns. The short exchange wasn't even mentioned in the principal's post-conference memo.

Nonetheless, in July James Ayden of the same law firm included a similar footnote in his letter requesting that the Public Employment Relations Board charge be dismissed.

Mockel said he saw the allegations in the footnotes as attempts at defamation and retaliation because he was filing grievances against the school district. In a narrative timeline of the events, Mockel wrote that the two attorneys and the superintendent, among others, "all chose to damage my reputation unfairly with their lies."

Upset by the lawyers' allegations, Mockel went to the district office to show the letters to Terra Salazar, the union president, on July 24, 2018. Salazar was out, so instead he talked briefly with Superintendent Booker about the content of the lawyers' letters. The custodian said he asked Booker, "How can you have me working here if you think that I will bring a gun?" In his written statement, Mockel wrote that "these were valid questions, in light of the fact that Seth Eckstein, and James Ayden had made libelous, demonstratively false, statements in writing about me, and if these statements were true, it would only make sense that Randall Booker would have talked to me about these very serious allegations."

Booker declined to be interviewed about the incident or any of the details of Mockel's case. He emailed the following statement: "I understand that a former employee is claiming he was removed from employment because he filed a grievance against our district, and I can confirm that is false and incomplete information. I cannot discuss the specifics of this situation, because I must honor privacy laws; however, I can stress that we examine an employee grievance with integrity and intention to take appropriate steps to underscore our commitment to provide all students and staff with a safe learning and working environment."

In an August 2018 document titled "Notice of Intent to Dismiss and Statement of Charges," Booker said Mockel seemed "highly agitated" and "aggressive" on the day of their brief interaction. He said Mockel was waving an envelope and a letter around and shouting. Booker said he didn't know what was in the letters. Booker said that Mockel stood up, began yelling, "This is bullshit!" numerous times and said, "Fuck you" twice. According to the notice, Booker backed up toward the phone and told Mockel the meeting was over.

Mockel said he exited the superintendent's office, yelled, "This is bullshit!" and left the building.

After Mockel left, Booker asked the school district employees in cubicles just outside his office to write up what they had witnessed. They all wrote about Mockel's yelling, "This is bullshit!" and exiting. However, none of the six employees mentioned hearing Mockel yell, "Fuck you!" at Booker inside his office.

Booker placed Mockel on paid administrative leave that day and reported the confrontation to the Piedmont Police Department. He also requested that Mockel turn in his keys, and then Booker locked up the office and went home, as advised by the school district's attorney. The police ran an Automated Fingerprint Identification System check on Mockel, which came back negative, according to the police report, which once again repeated the accusation about the gun. In his report, Officer R. Jaime recorded that "BOOKER feared for his safety based on MOCKEL making a comment in the past about bringing a gun to school if there was ever an active shooter."

Mockel appealed the Notice of Intent to Dismiss to the district's board of education. At the December 5, 2018 appeal hearing before Howard Friedman, the alleged talk about gun ownership was struck from the district's statement of charges against Mockel. However, when Gregory Rolen, the lawyer representing the district, later wrote up his closing argument in response to the appeal, in January 2019, he once again included the reference to Mockel's alleged gun ownership: "District leadership became aware that appellant often boasted about his gun ownership and stated to a district teacher that if the district had a 'school shooting' incident he would, 'go home and get his gun,' or words to that effect. ... The Superintendent testified that in light of appellant's increasing escalation, comments about firearms and recent outburst he was unsure whether he was capable of returning to the district office."

In his February 2019, Hearing Officer Friedman wrote up the proposed decision regarding Mockel's appeal. Friedman includes in the "findings of fact" section the statement that school officials "had heard someone offer that on the issue of school shootings, appellant had offered that he would counter any assault on the school by bringing his own gun to the campus."

In a footnote, Friedman added, "The issue of appellant possessing guns was not specifically discussed at the meeting and there was no direct evidence on the issue other than appellant testifying that he does not, and has never, owned guns."

Nonetheless, Friedman cited increased nervousness on the part of school districts everywhere because of "school intrusions and shootings," and wrote, "This magnifies the adverse impact of Appellants July 24 behavior." Friedman concluded that Mockel should be terminated.

Mockel, who worked for the district for eight years, was officially fired last March, one month before he could have retired. In losing his job, he also lost his medical, dental, and vision benefits. He has filed a charge with the Public Employment Relations Board that the school district retaliated and "made libelous and demonstratively false statements" because he had brought several grievances against the district. That Public Employment Relations Board hearing will convene on November 18 and 19. Mockel said the district has offered him $5,000 to drop all the cases.

Mockel said that what he wants most of all is for "the gun stuff to stop." He reiterated that no one in the school district has ever asked him about that, and that he doesn't own any guns, and never has.

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