SPECIAL ONLINE REPORT:
Lawsuit adds fuel to mystery of Flaherty dismissal in MSD
July 11, 2007
Employee charges school district was aware of superintendent's controversial tenure in other districts and attempted to hide it; district calls charges baseless and untrue
by Carolyn James
Superintendent Maureen Flaherty who was abruptly dismissed from her post.
A lawsuit filed against the Massapequa School District alleges that acting superintendent Charles V. Sulc violated employees' First Amendment rights by issuing a gag order to effectively cover up embattled Superintendent Maureen Flaherty's history of alcoholism, drunken driving and sexual misconduct on the job. The aim was to "keep... secret the failure of the District to take action against her by reason of that behavior," the plaintiff alleges.
School District officials, who said they could not discuss the specifics of the case, countered that the allegations are baseless.
"We believe this claim is utterly without merit," read a school district statement released by its public relations firm. "The School District will vigorously defend itself against these outrageous assertions."
The suit, filed in FederalDistrict Court by employee Arlynn Abramson, lists Sulc, Flaherty and the district as defendants, and also alleges that Flaherty and Sulc violated the religious rights of Abramson, a practicing Orthodox Jew.
The district's insurance carrier has hired special counsel to represent the district in the case, Miranda, Sokoloff, Sambursky, Slone, Verveniotis of Mineola. Numerous calls to their offices for comment were not returned.
In addition, the Post contacted Barry Peek of Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein, Flaherty's attorney, who said he has not been retained by the superintendent to represent her on this case, but that the matter is under discussion. He added, however, that allegations related to the bigotry alleged by Abramson were dismissed following an investigation and hearing by the Equal Employment Opportunity Council (EEOC). "Everyone has a right to sue for anything," said Peek. "But these charges have been found by the EEOC to have no basis."
"Even a first-year law student knows that the EEOC is just a pit stop on the way to filing a lawsuit," countered Jonathan Lovett, of Lovett &Gould of White Plains, Abramson's attorneys. "The school's statement is like something drafted by a corporate moron."
Flaherty was hired by the district two years ago, following an extensive search by the firm of Charles Fowler which has completed superintendent searches for many school districts on long Island including Southampton. She was dismissed from her position in a surprise move by the board last month and was prohibited from being on district property. District officials have repeatedly said that they could not discuss the basis for their decision to remove her.
The lawsuit was filed June 25 before Justice Thomas C. Platt and outlines the plaintiff's position that Flaherty had a well-established, publicly known reputation as an alcoholic, as evidenced by her conduct while she was employed by the Florida Union Free School District.
During her tenure here, Abramson maintains that Flaherty also established a reputation in Massapequa for making unwanted, and unsolicited sexually inappropriate contact with female subordinates, including her, and that she made her concerns for that "repulsive" conduct known to Sulc.
Finally, the suit alleges that the plaintiff was ordered, under threat of losing her job, to keep information about allegations of sexual abuse by a former music teacher in the district from the community.
Abramson said that during her probationary employment with the District, school administrators learned that a male teacher in the music department had, for years, been sexually abusing numerous female students assigned to his classes. When Abramson raised this problem with Sulc, she said she was told to sign a written acknowledgment that she was forever forbidden, under direct threat of job termination to communicate with anyone regarding the abuse, the nature of it, the identities of the victims and the identify of the teacher, who has since obtained a job in another school district. Abramson does not have a copy of that acknowledgment. Her attorney said that his client was not provided with one, despite having asked for it.
Meanwhile school officials maintain that the accusations that it did not protect the public's interest and comply with the law is simply untrue.
"In any suspected case of inappropriate contact, the district immediately commences its own investigation, notifies the State Education Department as per State law, and involves local law enforcement. To suggest anything else is an outright fabrication," said a district spokesman.
"Our only response is that once the pretrial proceedings are completed, the district will be left with a lot of egg on its face," said Lovett.
State Department of Education officials said they could neither confirm nor deny that it had, in fact, received the district's concerns, and conducted an investigation, without the name of the teacher, which the district is not releasing. Efforts by the Massapequa Post to obtain that teacher's name and verify the district's claims are underway, however.
Flaherty, who served the 3,600 student Holmdel School District in New Jersey before moving to the larger 9,000 student district of Massapequa, has a controversial history in Holmdel, as well as in the Florida, New York school district in which she worked prior to going to Holmdel.
A story that appeared in the Holmdel Independent newspaper in August, 2005, announcing her departure from the district, pointed to some of the issues and management decisions that made her unpopular with the community and staff. One, in which the contracts for five teachers were not renewed by the school board on her recommendation, resulted in a major public outcry. Another, in which the school board overturned a coach's decision, resulted in the Holmdel High School football coach and his entire staff resigning in solidarity. The reassignment of 44 teachers under her recommendation was challenged by the teachers as being "punitive."
In the Florida district,Flaherty was sued by a district principal, Ronald De Pace, who claimed that she and the district violated his right to free speech and equal protection. Representing De Pace in that case was Abramson's attorney, Jonathan Lovett.
The suit alleged that Flaherty drove drunk to a school party to intervene in a dispute between a student and a parent. The principal told Flaherty that he believed she had acted irresponsibly. Subsequently, the principal was suspended after being accused of sexual harassment. He sued on the basis that another gym teacher, who faced similar allegations, was not suspended, and that he received "selective treatment" because he had confronted Flaherty on her actions. The courts ruled in the principal's favor and he won a monetary judgment from the district.