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October 26, 2006

A Blind Eye

A federal lawsuit claims the BOE failed to protect rape victim

By Sharon Bass

A female Hamden High student, now 16, was raped by a Hamden High senior during the summer of ’05 and then taunted by him and his friends once school resumed in the fall, while school administrators -- though aware of the violent crime and the post-rape, in-school harassment -- did nothing to stop it, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in New Haven.

The rapist was arrested but allowed to return to school and graduate, said New Haven attorney John Williams, who is representing the Hamden girl.

“This is very similar to an East Haven case,” he said, which he won in spring ’05. The East Haven school district appealed the jury’s decision. About two weeks ago, the federal Court of Appeals upheld the decision and awarded the child $100,000 and another $40K for attorney fees.

The Hamden and East Haven cases went to federal court because they violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits discrimination and harassment based on gender. Williams said the sexual harassment in both cases occurred in school, the school districts knew about it and allowed it to happen.

“That was proven to be the case in East Haven and I believe it to be the case in Hamden as well,” he said. New Haven criminal defense attorney Hugh Keefe represented East Haven.

Judge Peter C. Dorsey, who lives in Hamden, is assigned to the Hamden case.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiff is referred to as “Mary Doe,” her mother “Jane Doe,” to protect their identities.

According to the Oct. 24 complaint, the Hamden Board of Education (the defendant) knew of the rape and the ensuing sexual harassment but “took no disciplinary action whatsoever against the rapist and permitted him to continue attending classes at Hamden High School, with his victim, and to graduate … the defendant made no effort whatsoever to protect Mary Doe from contact with the rapist and his friends. As a result, Mary Dow [sic] was subjected to repeated contact with and threats and harassment by the rapist and his friends … the defendant did nothing to protect Mary Doe from such repeated sexual harassment and intimidation ... ”

Furthermore, the complaint says, “As a direct and proximate result of the acts and the omissions of the defendant described above, Mary Doe has suffered severe emotional distress and Jane Doe has been compelled to incur substantial expenses for her treatment and protection.” The plaintiff is seeking compensatory damages and attorney fees and costs.

As in East Haven, Williams is asking for a jury trial.

A message seeking comment from Assistant Superintendent Hamlet Hernandez was not returned Tuesday. He has instructed all media calls to go to him instead of Superintendent Alida Begina.

This BOE Keeps Him Busy

“Hamden’s a problem district for some reason. I have more school cases from Hamden than any other district,” said Williams. “The buck stops with the superintendent.”

A few years ago, he said he handled a couple of Hamden cases “in which I found [Superintendent Begina] extremely unreasonable and hard to deal with for things that were relatively easy to resolve that became big problems.”

Williams said he expects to win this case and he expects Hamden to appeal. Most schools automatically do.

“Being a government official means thinking you never have to say you’re sorry,” said the New Haven lawyer, who is currently representing other Hamden families who are suing the BOE.

October 25, 2006

Promised Delivery

School union prez files complaints on “union-busting” contract

By Sharon Bass

Bill Duffy has made good on his word.

After the Legislative Council passed an $83,000-plus contract on Oct. 3 to hire a private firm to remove snow and tend grounds on school properties, the union president said he would file a grievance claiming it violates tenets of Local 431’s contract and is, in essence, a “union-busting” effort.

He hand delivered the complaint -- actually two complaints -- to the Board of Education Tuesday morning.

“They’re trying to weaken the union. They’re certainly not saving money,” said Duffy, head custodian at Church Street School. “They’re supposed to prove it’s cheaper and satisfy some other clauses,” such as change in job duties and overtime.

The $83,000 price tag could jump depending on the number of snowstorms this season, he said, which surpasses the cost of hiring another school employee to do the job. Assistant Superintendent Hamlet Hernandez negotiates with the school unions, but Duffy said there had been no formal talks prior to the contract going before the Council.

He said Hernandez has not “proven” to him that outsourcing the work will save money -- a labor contract stipulation. It also has to be “proven” that it won’t eliminate overtime for the two groundskeepers being relocated to the middle school. They will double as custodians, said Duffy, which is another violation of his bargaining unit’s contract.

“The new middle school is short staffed for custodians so they’re trying to make those employees both custodians and groundskeepers,” he said. “It’s definitely had a negative affect. People are certainly concerned with their jobs. They wonder what’s next. Nobody wants to be forced out.”

Local 431 of AFSCME Council Four includes 53 custodians, groundskeepers, carpenters and electricians. A message left yesterday with the New Britain-based union was not returned.

The one-year contract went to J.T. Furrey of Hamden. It expires June 30, 2007, and can be renewed for two more years with an automatic 5 percent hike per year.

Hernandez said yesterday afternoon he hadn’t read the grievances but was sure they were on his desk. “Whenever a grievance is filed we listen to both sides,” he said. But argued that outsourcing is cost effective.

“The purpose of the contract is for us to have our grounds and snow removal done by an outside vendor at a cost savings to the Board of Education and without reducing the bargaining unit. No one’s getting laid off or anything,” said Hernandez.

Duffy not only disagreed it would save bucks but said it’s meant to weaken the union.

“I would guess in a year they’ll outsource the middle school, too. It will snowball and keep weakening us and weakening us,” he said.

Hernandez said the grievances could go through four steps before being resolved, but can be remedied at any time. The first step is facilities director Mark Albanese’s response. He’s Duffy’s boss. If not resolved there, Hernandez would be next in line, then the BOE and if needed, arbitration.

“Our remedy is that everyone returns to their current position and current duties,” Duffy said of the two groundskeepers. “Technically they only have to hire a groundskeeper,” which is cheaper than the Furrey contract. In addition, he said, if the contractors don’t do a good job “then the maintenance people and groundskeepers would be out there clearing snow, maintaining lawns.”

Councilmen John Flanagan and Mike Colaiacovo voted against the outsourcing.

“We’re back to the Council being lied to by the BOE again. There was no evidence this would save any money at all,” said Flanagan. “It’s an unfair labor practice. None of the paperwork showed they were not going to be taking overtime away from the union. None of the figures showed it would be cheaper.”

The 2nd District councilman said union job description changes are negotiable items. “Neither side can arbitrarily change them,” he said.

Besides, Flanagan said he didn’t think Furrey should have been awarded the contract. “I wouldn’t have even let [Furrey] bid based on their past history, and that’s my personal opinion,” he said, citing last February’s trench collapse in North Haven which trapped a Furrey worker. “That shows me a lot of negligence and I can’t go along with that.”

October 23, 2006

BOE Discusses Expelling Expulsions

By Sharon Bass

The Hamden Board of Education is deciding whether to do something no other Connecticut school system has reportedly done: erase expulsions from student records.

At last Thursday’s special meeting, member Mike Dolan, a New Haven attorney, brought up the idea. He argued it could prevent some lawsuits from parents who think their children were unfairly expelled.

The Board had mixed feelings.

“Everybody deserves a second chance,” said Austin Cesare, a schoolteacher. “High school is about learning and this is definitely something we should look at.”

On the other hand, Jennifer McGrady-Heath and Lynn Campo voiced opposition to the novel idea.

“If kids break the rules, they get a second chance by being allowed back to school,” said McGrady-Heath. “It feels somewhat like opening Pandora’s box. It feels like a slippery slope to me. It could be construed as discriminatory. I guess I feel if they know the rules and break the rules, they do get a second chance.”

“Are you saying an expungement means they were never expelled?” said Campo. “I’m not sure that is fair. Do you decide the child who is threatening with the box cutter is as bad as a child with a pellet gun? I have a lot of problems with this being fuzzy.”

As was made clear at the meeting, it wouldn’t be easy for a child’s record to be wiped clean of an expulsion. Infractions such as carrying weapons, drugs and alcohol would not be erasable. And as Superintendent Alida Begina pointed out, though expulsions stay on student records they are not included on college transcripts. It’s up to students to tell prospective colleges if they had ever been expelled.

A policy draft distributed at the Oct. 19 meeting states: “5a. A student may petition the Board of Education in writing to expunge the disciplinary record for any incident if it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the student did not engage in the alleged conduct. The evidence presented must be new evidence not available to the petitioner at the time of the expulsion hearing if the matter went to a hearing (or at the time of stipulated agreement).

“5b. In addition to 5a, a student in good standing who has no earlier expulsions during their [sic] K-12 enrollment and the conduct for which an expulsion is sought did not involve a firearm, deadly weapon (or any other cause for mandatory expulsion under C.G.S. 10-233d(f), [sic] may petition the Board of Education in writing to expunge the expulsion from their disciplinary record …”

John Keegan agreed with Campo that “it’s a gray area and we don’t need anymore gray areas.”

McGrady-Heath said Hamden is obligated to inform other districts if an expulsion was stricken from the record of a transferring student. “I don’t think I’d want to [hide] that as the sending district,” she said.

Ed Sullivan said he would support the measure as long as it barred students with mandatory expulsions, such as firearms and drugs.

“What becomes an OK crime?” said Campo. “Are we sending the wrong message that other offenses are less serious?”

But Dolan pointed out that in the criminal justice system, even adult cases are dismissed if the charges are not severe.

“This is cutting edge. I commend the entire Board for giving it some thought,” said Chair Michael D’Agostino. He asked Dolan to tweak the motion to reflect members’ thoughts.

In the ’04-’05 school year, 36 children were expelled, according to a document obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request made earlier this year. Of that number, 10 were for bringing dangerous weapons to school, including a fishing knife and BB guns; five for possession of marijuana; four for possession and/or consumption of alcohol; two for possession of controlled substances; one for a weapon found off school grounds; one for igniting fireworks on school grounds; one for starting a fire in a wastebasket; one for a bomb threat; and the remainder for threats and/or attacks on other students or teachers.

October 20, 2006

Just a Coincidence?

The $6K "planning tool." File photo

By Sharon Bass

The heat at last night’s special Board of Education meeting was turned up considerably -- afterwards. An agenda item asking the school super to inform the nine members of discretionary purchases over $5,000 passed quickly and unanimously with virtually no discussion.

When the meeting adjourned, reporters approached the Board to ask if the motion was related to the June 29, 2006, acquisition of a $6,111 LG 50-inch plasma TV, which has drawn public criticism since it was reported in the HDN last month. The reporters also wanted to know if the schools have enough textbooks. And if not, how buying a large-screen TV -- installed in the second-floor conference room -- is justified.

At the mention of the new TV, Superintendent Alida Begina raised her voice. “I’m sick of hearing about the TV! It’s not a TV!” she said and stormed out of the boardroom refusing to answer questions.

Chair Michael D’Agostino then accused this reporter of being an “advocate and not a reporter,” which led to a rather loud and ugly back and forth.

He then said he would not answer questions from the HDN and would only talk to another local reporter who was at the meeting -- in the hallway. That reporter refused.

D’Agostino said new math books were recently purchased but was unclear about whether other books are needed. “I’d love to spend millions of dollars for textbooks,” he said. Asked if there’s a connection between requiring Begina to report purchases over $5,000 and the TV, he said, “Not in my mind. We’re trying to find a balance between micromanaging but we have to be aware of discretionary spending.”

BOE Finance Committee Chair Ed Sullivan, who said he introduced the motion, also said it had nothing to do with the controversial TV -- or the “collaborative planning tool,” as the administration calls it.

“It’s been something I’ve been wanting to do,” said Sullivan.

Why $5,000?

“Kind of random,” he said. “But I used it as a round number and that’s a reasonable number to get our expenses under control. We’re trying to keep an eye on costs.”

Asked if the $6K purchase troubled him, Sullivan said, “I think anybody would be concerned.” He said he learned about it through the Hamden Daily News, and then called Begina and Finance Director Tom Pesce to find out what it would be used for. He said he was told for professional training.

Sullivan said he didn’t know who authorized the purchase. “The Board doesn’t micromanage,” he said.

Assistant Super Hamlet Hernandez said the conference room with the “planning tool” would be rented out for others to use for professional training.

October 13, 2006

From: Ocone, Wendy [Wendy.Ocone@hamden.org]
Sent: Thursday, October, 12, 2006 9:30 AM
To: Austin Cesare; Edward Sullivan; Hul, Myron; Jennifer Heath; John Keegan; Lynn Campo; Michael D’Agostino; Michael Dolan; Myron Hul; Valarie Stone

Cc: Craig Henrici; Scott Jackson; Sue Gruen; Judith A. Kozak; Arthur Giulietti; Albanese, Mark; Avery, Richard

Subject: Central Office roof repairs

Importance: High

Last night at approximately 11:20 PM I was notified by Mark Albanese, Director of Facilities [sic] that there was a serious leak in the rear classroom section of 60 Putnam Avenue where the STEPS/REACH special education program is located. The fire department responded as well as the building inspector, Bob Laboulis [sic]. Mark immediately deployed at least six of our staff to mitigate the water damage and also contacted the roofing contractor, Mr. Debski, who also came to assess the damage.

There is serious damage to the nurse’s office and several classrooms, including the computer lab. Mr. Debski has been informed that he is responsible for repairs. The special education staff and I are working to ensure that the students have adequate space temporarily, which may entail using Room 101 and the Board Room.

On a different note, we were successful in disenrolling the first non-resident student in the 2006-07 school year. This student was special education and moved to New Haven during the summer and had not notified us.

If you have any questions or would like to discuss in more detail, please contact me.


October 12, 2006

Student Arrested at BOE for Pellet Gun

File photo

By Sharon Bass

A 14-year-old boy was arrested yesterday for bringing a pellet gun to school, according to Hamden police. He is a student of the Steps/Reach Program housed in central office at 60 Putnam Ave.

A school administrator allegedly told police he was tipped off by Laidlaw Transit Services that a driver saw students on his bus passing around what looked like a pellet gun. A child was identified as being the owner of the gun, and when questioned by police admitted he brought it to school, according to police.

The pellet gun was found wrapped in a shirt in his backpack. The boy said he did not intend to hurt anyone, police said.

He was arrested for possession of a facsimile firearm and breach of peace, and released on a written promise to appear at New Haven Juvenile Court on Oct. 25. He was then turned over to his mother's custody.

The student was suspended for 10 days and may be expelled, according to a school press release, which was issued after the news was leaked to local media.

October 9, 2006

An Iris for Peace

Iris Reyes. Photo/Sharon Bass

Hamden High teen addresses kid violence

By Sharon Bass

Hamden High freshman Iris Reyes recently joined the Hill Youth Action Team in New Haven.

“Basically it’s to get kids off the street,” said Bernice Morales, Iris’ mom. To achieve that end, Iris said team members hand out fliers to kids in the Hill neighborhood informing them of safe activities. She takes pictures of abandoned homes and cars and street litter. She attends monthly meetings.

“I want to make the Hill a safer place,” said Iris, who moved to southern Hamden from the Hill four years ago. And she would like to do the same for her new hometown. Iris wants to start a Hamden Youth Action Team. While kid and teen crime in Hamden is nothing like it is in New Haven, the 15-year-old said stuff happens here nonetheless.

And some of it happens at her school.

“They do drugs in front of Hamden High School during and after school,” she said. Iris said she hears students threaten each other. “I’m going to bring a knife or a gun to school and get you,” she repeated one threat she recently overheard.

Iris said she's been a victim herself. While a student at Church Street School, she said she was bullied. A boy and two girls would threaten to jump her, she said, and one physically assaulted her. “I felt angry,” said Iris. “My face was red. I just wanted to hit them back.”

Her mother said she called the school. “They said there was nothing they could do about it because it happened off school grounds, so I called the police,” Morales said.

In her role on the New Haven team, Iris said it’s been a tough uphill battle to get kids off the streets. “I’m trying to help them not to get in trouble, but it’s not working at all,” she said. “Cops should go [up and down] every street,” day and night. Kids regularly cut school. Adults sell crack from their cars. Children get shot. Iris said she witnessed a teenager shoot a “little kid” last month. “I was horrified,” she said.

Creative Escape

Iris is writing a novel, “The White Lighter Boy.” She said it’s about a little boy “who protects his teacher.” One day, the child learns that the man he'd always thought was his father is really his stepfather. His biological dad was killed in the Iraq War. It takes place at Hill Central Elementary School, where Iris used to go. She also lives with her stepfather. And she said she’s very unhappy with the war.

“I feel scared for the families who have [loved ones] in Iraq,” she said sitting at her dining room table with her mom. “We need a female president. I think ladies are much smarter than men. We haven’t had one lady president.”

If Iris were president, she said there’d be no wars. “I’d keep it cool,” she said. Talk instead of  bombs.

October 2, 2006

For Rausch, it Was All About the Kids

Anna Rausch on her last day on the beat. Photo/Kathy Gentile

By Erin Elfeldt

It was September 1962, she was 34 years old and spotted a job she fell in love with. A job that kept her young, allowed her to spend quality time with her family and interact with her community. It was a job she did for the love of kids. After 44 years, Anna Rausch, 78, has just retired as a Hamden school crossing guard because of that same love for kids.

“I just can’t move as quickly anymore, and it prevents me from guaranteeing the children are safe,” she said.

While there were many things Rausch said she loved about her job, children’s safety was of course always her top priority -- and she didn’t mind making enemies with a few reckless drivers for the students.

“I hadn’t finished getting the children across the street and the light turned green,” she related an incident. “This woman started to drive her car through the crosswalk and I stood right in the middle of the street and said, ‘No, honey, you’re gonna stay right there until these small children finish crossing the street.”

The mother of five, Rausch wanted to be there when her kids got home from school. With a work schedule identical to her children’s she said she couldn’t have asked for more.

Her decades-long career began at Bear Path Elementary School, consisting of three half-hour shifts -- in crossing-guard lingo that would be posts. However, she only spent about a quarter of her career there. It was at Shepard Glen where Rausch spent most of her years. She said the school is a convenient walk from her house, and rid her of the drive through Hamden’s morning traffic.

A typical workday for Rausch would be a morning filled with kids pleading to skip a day of school, and afternoons of them all wound up from a full day of sitting in a classroom. Despite the commotion, she safely guided every child across the street and back again. Her ammunition was a pocketful of candy.

“I always had lots of good candy, and I caught onto their favorites. I knew they loved chocolate and lollipops. I just always made sure it was nothing they could choke on,” said Rausch.

On the last day of school this June, she put on her blue uniform and crossing-guard reflector vest for the final time. She misses work sometimes, but said she’s grateful to still see the schoolchildren on occasion.

“I am normally getting the mail around the time the kids get out of school,” she said. “They always wave on their walks home and say, ‘Hi, Mrs. Rausch.’ I always smile back.”


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