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.