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.

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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.

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