Former COC Employee Speaks Out After Seven Years – Recounts ‘Harassment, Intimidation and Retribution’
Donna Frayer called herself a golden child at College of the Canyons, a stellar employee and wonderful to work with. She won numerous awards, including Employee of the Year.
But she also considers herself a woman of integrity, and when she saw her bosses engaging in behavior that ranged from questionable to illegal, she spoke up.
As a result, she said, she was subjected to harassment, intimidation and retribution for calling out Vice President of Business Services Sharlene Coleal and school Chancellor Dianne Van Hook on their behaviors.
After suffering through five months of such stress from being labeled unprofessional and insubordinate, and being threatened and pressured from superiors, Frayer resigned amid health issues. She eventually settled and can’t discuss the terms, but she can talk about the events, so seven years later, she is finally speaking out “to bring light and truth to some very nefarious practices.”
Actually, she was always willing to talk about it. She had given up hope that anyone ever would listen. Much of the following is based on 85 pages of documents Frayer, 55, provided the Gazette as well as interviews and emails she gave from her home in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. These documents consist mostly of emails, internal memos, communications to and from law-enforcement officials and attorneys, and the eight-page formal complaint against the Santa Clarita Community College District, Van Hook and Coleal.
Neither Van Hook nor Coleal returned calls for comment. Vice President of Public Information, Advocacy and External Relations Eric Harnish emailed to say the district denied the allegations then and denies them now.
“(Frayer’s) complaints are not new or currently newsworthy,” Harnish wrote. “In the settlement, she withdrew all her complaints. Both she and the District promised not to publicly discuss the settlement or the circumstances surrounding it. The District intends to comply with its commitment, and will make no further comment on this matter.”
Board member Joan MacGregor said she believed Frayer’s account. Former board member Bruce Fortine spoke generally when he said, “I’m definitely disappointed, but I would not be surprised. We have a couple of thousand employees at the college. These kinds of things can happen. We know bullying goes on. People sometimes do naughty things.”
Frayer, then Donna Haywood, had returned to school as a single mother and found a home at COC, graduating in 1999 as valedictorian. She got hired in October that year, eventually moving up to director of budget development. Along the way, she created salary databases to more accurately track budget expenses for all permanent employees.
She said she received numerous letters of commendation from Van Hook, who she considered a mentor. She felt like Canyons was an extended family.
“I planned to stay here until I was old and gray,” she said.
But she wasn’t one to sit quietly if someone behaved badly. Around June 2011, Diane Fiero, the school’s vice president of human resources and someone Frayer considered a best friend, asked Coleal to hire her mother in accounting after she had lost her job at Boeing. According to the documents, Coleal admitted she felt pressured to do so. Frayer said she told Coleal this was a bad idea because of a possible perception of nepotism and misuse of executive authority (Frayer characterized her relationship with Coleal as “contentious.” Fiero didn’t return calls for comment).
A few weeks later, Coleal told Frayer she was in a bind because a more-qualified person was going to be hired, causing Fiero to tearfully beg Coleal to find any spot for her mother or she would lose her house. According to documents, Frayer said she advised Coleal to deny the request because it’s a misuse of funds. Coleal nonetheless hired Fiero’s mother in business services.
In late September 2011, Coleal called various business-services managers in for a meeting in which she first declared everyone was on a break, then proceeded to advise that they needed to endorse Fortine in his board re-election campaign because he had voted to approve their pay raises. The documents provided to the Gazette said she suggested everyone donate a maximum of $99 to Fortine’s campaign so names wouldn’t have to be disclosed. Frayer said she felt “uncomfortable” and “coerced.” Coleal responded, “You’d better not let Dianne hear you say that.” Frayer went silent after that.
The matter wasn’t settled, however, On Oct. 20, during an executive cabinet meeting to discuss how to deal with a $7 million budget shortfall, Coleal walked up to the front of the room, declared everyone was on a break and then said all managers should sign an endorsement letter for Fortine that could be sent to the Signal (Fortine said he did not recall being endorsed for his 2012 election and didn’t know of these meetings).
Frayer said Coleal’s actions of declaring a break are a common ploy used to discuss such matters at work. “However, in her capacity as my boss, she forced us into her office. We didn’t have a choice. We were subjected to it,” Frayer said. “She used her position as our boss to tell us, come to my office, I’m telling you this, this is what you need to do and I expect you to do it.”
According to documents, Frayer was shocked and said Coleal’s actions were coercive and illegal. Fiero said Frayer was being ridiculous, to which Frayer said, “No, it isn’t. This is my boss and you are the VP of HR. Between the two of you, you hold my raises in your hands.”
On Nov. 7, Coleal wrote Frayer an email saying the manner Frayer shared her concerns were “in what I would consider a less than professional manner.”
The next day, Frayer sent a six-page email spelling out her objections to Fiero’s mother’s hiring and Coleal’s asking to endorse Fortine.
“I hope you can see from my detailed recounting of the events above that I have to the best of my ability brought my concerns to you in both a confidential and professional manner…more than once,” she wrote. “My intent in bringing the subject before our management group is simple. I have an obligation as a public servant to be a faithful steward of this district’s financial resources and to bring to light any wrongdoing or misuse of funds if I believe that is what is happening. What you sensed as ‘my tone’ was nothing more than my passion for the truth and my insistence that, as a senior administrator in this organization, you also be accountable for the decisions (within your control) to be a faithful steward as well.”
“Things blew up because I tried to get my boss to do the right thing,” Frayer said this week. “I was naïve. I was stupid. Shame on me.”
On Nov. 9, Frayer asked a district auditor if Coleal’s actions required reporting. Told they were, Frayer forwarded the email. She said that she felt scared that she was going to get in trouble (the investigation ended Dec. 29, auditors finding the complaint “without merit,” the documents said).
Trouble soon began. On Nov. 18, after Frayer had gone home sick, Fiero called and spoke to Frayer’s fiancé (now husband) Jim, who recalled in an email sent Monday that Fiero demanded to speak to Frayer and wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Two statements Fiero made that Jim Frayer recalled were, “I can’t help her if she won’t talk to me” and “This isn’t going to go well for her.”
Three days later, Fiero questioned Frayer for two hours regarding the email’s contents. Frayer said she felt like Fiero was using her position to get Frayer to back off. The meeting ended with Fiero offering to create a job for Frayer in HR, which she declined.
Frayer subsequently forwarded the email to Van Hook, who called her on Dec. 5 to discuss Frayer’s “future” at COC and convince her to consider other “opportunities.” This prompted Frayer to send Van Hook a two-page email detailing why she loved it there.
Other higher-ups also tried to pressure Frayer to take another position; she declined each time.
When she returned from winter break in January 2012, she said she knew things had changed. Coleal had stopped talking to her.
There also was a “status meeting” scheduled for Jan. 4 to discuss “goals for the future.” This had never happened before.
“They were looking for anything to get me on,” Frayer said. “They couldn’t because there wasn’t a current review and my last employee evaluation was stellar. I’m sure she was instructed over the break, ‘How could you have not done a review in the last year and give this girl some goals? … OK, bring her in and give her a bunch of goals that she has to complete by the end of the year. On top of it, add some more of her workload, take some workload off of the other managers and give it to her’ – basically, trying to set me up to fail by giving me all these goals that were never mine to begin with. That was one of the retaliatory things that they did.”
It was during these status meetings that Frayer decided to start recording her conversations with Coleal.
“She’s mad because I outed her and reported on her. Now she’s subjecting me to these status meetings that I knew were going to be contentious, and so my lawyer told me that I had a right to record,” Frayer said. “I got her on tape admitting that she was giving me more work and disciplining me because of the email that I sent about the improper activity. She’s kind of stupid and she doesn’t have a filter on her mouth.”
Frayer made it clear to Coleal in a Jan. 3 email that “I have no desire to change my job duties, workload, assignment, location or supervisor.”
She also referenced the cease-and-desist order Frayer’s attorney had sent to Van Hook that day. In it, Frayer’s attorney, whom she retained out of her own pocket, reminded that these meetings “constitute harassment and intimidation” and that any further meetings must be scheduled so Frayer can have counsel present.
In that status meeting, Coleal outlined 14 goals. These included not acting disrespectfully, not dwelling on issues that have been resolved, not monopolizing meeting time, notifying Coleal when certain tasks are assigned out, teaching people how to use the salary databases and sending monthly updates on these goals.
Perhaps most incendiary were the demands to leave her office door open and remove curtains from the window. Additionally, she was no longer required to attend board budget subcommittee meetings.
On Jan. 6, Coleal disciplined Frayer for asking payroll for copies of Fiero’s mother’s timesheets. “It is also inappropriate to ask Payroll for individual time cards or payment information. You do not need this information to perform your normal duties. You were improperly inquiring into confidential personal information about an employee,” the memo said.
Frayer said this was part of her job. Soon after, she went to the county district attorney’s office to pursue criminal action. She received a response from the Public Integrity Division saying hiring Fiero’s mother is not a crime, but Coleal committed a misdemeanor soliciting a campaign contribution from a fellow employee.
But since the division doesn’t investigate misdemeanor conduct, no criminal charges would be filed, the letter said.
Coleal further disciplined Frayer in the Feb. 2 status meeting, stating Frayer 10 times acted disrespectfully and six times dwelled or brought up issues that have been resolved.
The school also sent a fax to Frayer’s attorney advising her that Frayer’s behavior had become so “disruptive and insubordinate that she is now close to being terminated for cause.”
Instead of firing Frayer, the school sent another fax to the attorney offering a resolution: Frayer would switch to a lower-paying job in academic affairs, serve a one-year probationary period, take part in no union activities for three years, train people on the salary databases, undergo weekly counseling sessions on the school’s dime for six months and release claims of retaliation.
After some back-and-forth counterproposals, Frayer on March 12 declined the offers and decided to remain in her position. She also notified that she had let go her attorney. Frayer told the Gazette it was because she could no longer afford her.
On March 19, Coleal wrote that she had found Frayer’s behavior unacceptable during that day’s status meting. Specifically, she objected to Frayer recording their meetings without her consent.
Frayer responded by writing her conduct was completely professional.
“Since my disclosure of your improper governmental activities in November of 2011, you and the District have engaged in multiple instances of coercion, intimidation, and outright threats to my employment,” she wrote. “You have repeatedly misrepresented my so-called ‘unprofessional behavior’ from the very first day I returned to campus from the holiday break on January 3, 2012. It is clearly evident to me that your intent is to force me out of my position due to my opposition to your improper governmental activity.”
By this time, Frayer was a physical wreck. She had suffered panic attacks for the first time, partly resulting from being told her phone and computer had been bugged. According to the documents, her fibromyalgia worsened, and she suffered from depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability, apathy, social withdrawal, upset stomach/intestinal pain, restlessness, difficulty concentrating, impatience and other symptoms.
She said people told her, “If this can happen to you, there’s no hope for any of us.”
She got married on April 7, but many people didn’t come out of fear it would get back to their bosses or Van Hook.
“So many of them, not just faculty but administrators, classified staff, they were told not to support me for fear of their jobs,” she said. “They understand that there is a culture of retaliation and fear on that campus.”
On April 12, she resigned and prepared to file suit. But state law required mediation first. By then she was so emotionally spent that she didn’t have any fight left. She settled after one day but refused to sign any kind of non-disclosure agreement beyond the settlement terms.
“What (COC) did to me is like being raped, and you’re never going to get me to sign anything for any amount of money that says I wasn’t raped,” she said.
To this day, Frayer has never worked. She tried to find jobs, saying she applied for many positions she felt overqualified for, but never got an interview.
“Here’s the thing: Santa Clarita’s a small town. COC is a big part of that small town,” she said, “and when you burn a bridge at COC, you pretty much burn it anywhere in that town.”
Her husband said they’d make it on one paycheck, and they moved to Texas when he got a job there near the end of 2016.
Every once in a while, somebody calls asking about the case, and Frayer obliges by sending the documents. Then she hears nothing. She insists these inquiries usually come around the time the union negotiates its next contract, although Harnish and faculty president Wendy Brill-Wynkoop denied Frayer’s case ever came up in the last negotiations.
The pain has subsided, but she has been in therapy the last year and a half to work on things, some of which stem from her ordeal.
“I died a thousand deaths and shed a lot of tears,” she said. “I’m in a healthy place. I’m OK with it. I’m trying to convince you it’s true. It’s not my job. Whether or not you believe me doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”