Farina Accused Of Misappropriating Confidential Student Info

by Marcia Chambers | September 29, 2009 12:12 PM | | Comments (11)

notzetalDSC01233%281%29.JPGDenise Farina, the tenured teacher at the center of a rare public termination hearing, used her teacher’s pass code to take confidential information from a student data bank at the Mary T. Murphy Elementary School to give to her paralegal for use in her case — a violation of federal law, the attorneys at the hearing said.

The bombshell disclosure came Friday as Farina’s public hearing continued before a special committee of the Branford Board of Education. She is the one who asked that the hearing be conducted in public.

A tenured elementary school teacher at the Mary Murphy School for the last 27 years, Farina is fighting to save her job. She has also filed a federal lawsuit against the Board of Education asserting various discriminatory actions. The federal lawsuit has figured in these hearings.The hearings take place at the Community House on Church Street.

Although she is on suspension or administrative leave with pay, Farina still had a working pass code that gave her access to Infinite Campus, a school data base. It was not clear why. Schools Superintendent Dr. Kathleen Halligan told the Eagle during a recess at the hearing that Farina’s access would be cut off immediately.

The disclosure that the Farina legal team had the confidential test information from fourth-grade students at the Murphy school came from Mica Notz, Farina’s paralegal, who is acting as her advocate at the hearing. Notz, who is not an attorney, has sought the data for months. Redacting student names was key to the process and was discussed at a procedural hearing in August. Farina’s actions came to light Friday morning while Notz discussed an exhibit.

Speaking on behalf of Farina, with Farina present beside her, Notz said in an interview at a lunch break Friday that Farina entered the data base on her own the week before. “It was in an effort to show her class test scores had improved. It was for verification only. For internal use only. I did not make it a public exhibit. These were the DRP’s [Degrees of Reading Power] tests for ‘07-‘08.”

The fact that Notz did not make it a public exhibit may not matter. According to William Connon, who is acting as overseer or procedural adviser for the Branford Board of Education at the hearing, “Notz thought she had the right to see it but these are confidential student records and she doesn’t.”

At the hearing, Michael J. Rose, who represents the school district, was incredulous.

“This is an absolute violation of federal law. You can’t go into a data bank and get other pupils’ scores by names. This is a very serious issue. And to use it for a due process hearing?” he said, shaking his head in disbelief.
DSC01235.JPGConnon (pictured far left) ordered the school district to redact the names. “This is a directive from the moderator. She is violating the federal law. This is wrong.” He also ordered the exhibit to be revised and said witnesses may not discuss it.

Connon and Rose said afterwards that Farina’s actions came as a surprise.

Rose said that in order not to violate federal law — the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) of 1974 — the test scores Notz wanted had to be subpoened. Then school officials would redact the names before giving the information to Farina’s legal team. A subpoena had been issued but not properly served, Rose said. So the matter was in legal limbo when Farina went into the data base.

Rose said in a subsequent interview that “in my opinion by giving the names of students without permission from their parents, she violated the federal law. I was shocked.”

What action might be taken against Farina remained unclear. There was some discussion at the hearing that Farina’s actions could lead to an immediate termination. Superintendent Halligan told the Eagle she would look into that.

Nor was it clear if Notz would face investigation. The actions of the paralegal raise questions. At this hearing the firm’s leader, Eugene Axelrod, was not at her side. On Friday a young attorney named Robert Mollen sat at the table. Mollen did not intervene as Axelrod has. Nor did he try to keep Notz in check as Axelrod has. She was on her own.

The group that will decide whether to fire Farina or not includes Frank Carrano, the chair of the Board of Education, and two board members, Michael Krause and David Squires. They were silent during this aspect of the hearing.

As the afternoon session began, Notz created more pandemonium when she declared that Connon, whose role is equivalent to an administrative judge, had personally interviewed 14 teachers at the Murphy school as potential witnesses for the school district. Connon said he had done no such thing and that she had accused him wrongly.

Attorney Rose, who represents the district, immediately told the committee he was the interviewer. Logically he would have to be; he is calling witnesses and presenting the evidence for termination. But even after Rose openly declared he had gone to the school to interview these witnesses, Notz did not believe him. She said she had an email from a state union official who identified the lawyer as Connon. She would not step back from her belief until she checked further, she said.

In between these confrontations Notz finished up her cross-examination of Halligan. This had taken weeks. Finally, at 2 p.m., Attorney Rose called the principal of the school, Anthony Buono,(pictured below) to the stand.
His portrait of Farina was devastating on every level as was Dr. Halligan’s. Contrary to Farina’s assertions, Buono testified that Farina was the only fourth-grade teacher whose overall standardized scores went down. He described her as disorganized and unable to follow through even when given intense outside help.

In an understated voice he ticked off a litany of failures that explain why the school district would take a long and difficult set of steps to remove a tenured teacher from her post. He said she failed to do required assessments of her students, had failed to teach science and other key subjects and was consistently late to school. Farina says she had been fighting cancer and back surgery and had serious insomnia problems.

“When we asked her to submit her actual assessments, we in fact found that a large amount of the assessments were never done. And large amounts were fraudulent.
We were using this to monitor student progress and to determine if progress was being done for her class. Without baseline data we were unable to use the test for that year,” he said. At the time she was teaching a fourth-grade class.

Buono also said for the first time that Farina’s problems did not start with his tenure. He said there were “issues” during her long stint as a kindergarten teacher and they were known to the former principal. “There was a lack of understanding of the kindergarten curriculum,” Buono said. “The level of instruction was very low. This was kindergarten. Children were working on the alphabet. But the vast majority of the kids already knew their letters. She did not go further than that.”

Buono described numerous efforts to provide outside help for Farina in the classroom over a three year period, ending in the spring of 2008. It is likely these witnesses and other teachers will testify.

Farina came into the Branford school system at age 22. She had tenure by the time she was 26. Her father was a well known athletic director and football coach when she got her first and what turns out to be her only job.

The next hearing is scheduled for Friday, Oct. 9, at 9 a.m. at the Community House where Buono will continued his testimony.

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Posted by: FIX THE SCHOOLS | September 30, 2009 8:41 AM

And meanwhile....$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$.

Branford taxpayers - had enough yet? Why does this "teacher" deserve this level of due process?

Posted by: Anne | September 30, 2009 9:46 AM

Sounds like the teacher has inadequate legal representation. It seems like she simply printed out her own student's scores innocently (something teachers do all the time without violating FERPA) but any trained educational lawyer would tell her that she could not use them in court that way, especially if there was an outstanding subpoena for the data.

If she was only teaching the alphabet when she taught Kindergarten, why was she given a transfer to the 4th grade? It's nearly unheard of for someone who's taught K for 20+ years to be transferred up FOUR grade levels -- it requires intensive retraining and support. Essentially, it's like being a first year teacher all over again, something nobody fighting cancer could possibly succeed at.

Furthermore, if her teaching was truly unsatisfactory before she was transferred to the 4th grade, why was this not documented then? Why was she not given an improvement plan then?

The testimony sounds damning, but I'd withhold complete judgement until the full story comes out.

I'm a former teacher and I fully support removing bad teachers from classrooms. No teacher wants to work alongside ineffectual or actively negligent teachers -- it makes our jobs harder. But the worst teachers I've seen stay in classrooms not because of unions or tenure laws, but because they are inadequately supervised by administrators. Too often, teachers are only supervised as a punitive measure, not on a regular basis as a way to support and improve their teaching. Principals come down on teachers who "cause trouble" (ie question authority) or who parents complain about. I wouldn't blame parents for complaining about this teacher based on what I've read. But I'd certainly blame administration if she's always been like this but no one bothered to pay attention 'till she got cancer.

Posted by: Anne | September 30, 2009 10:04 AM

Just skimmed the teacher's complaint for her federal lawsuit -- indeed, she claims that the Principal never once observed her teaching before she was placed on an improvement plan.

This seems to confirm my suspicions above -- she claims she had gotten nothing but good evaluations until this point, and surely she has documentation of this. At the very least, this principal is himself guilty of negligent supervision if he didn't observe her. And to transfer her to 4th grade, a CMT grade level, with no retraining and no support is simply setting her up for total failure. It makes no sense. She may as well have been transfered to teach high school.

Posted by: settle this NOW | September 30, 2009 10:18 AM

One thing we all know is this, the only people who will end up happy this situation wasn't handled differently are the lawyer for the town who I'm guessing will end up charging well over a half a million dollars by the time this chapter and the federal lawsuit ends.

I'll bet anyone that after those half a million in attorneys fees are collected the town agrees to a settlement where this teacher is made whole for her salary and benefits until she reaches the 30 years of service mark and gets her full retirememt benefits.

Wouldn't it be nice if just once someone in a position of authority in Branford chose to step up and be a leader and made the settlement BEFORE the lawyers got their millions.

Posted by: Concerned | September 30, 2009 11:09 AM

This is the problem with teacher tenure law, the only way to remove an incompetent or ineffective teacher is through this level of due process, which is a lengthy, expensive process. Many boards avoid the whole thing because of the money and bad press. Kudos to the Branford Board for pushing the issue. The tenure law should be reworked to allow for removal of incompetent workers...the private sector allows for this, those teaching our children should be ameneable to the same processes, not only in the area of review and evaluation, but removal as well. Until that happens, boards are forced into these extreme situations and it is very unforunate for all involved.

Posted by: Emil | September 30, 2009 11:15 AM

The record in this case shows that Ms. Farina did not received "excellent" evaluations before her transfer to Fourth grade. She received very poor evaluations. The statements in her lawsuit are simply that - statements. And they are false.

Posted by: cba | September 30, 2009 12:25 PM

it seems that this
"paralegal" is in way over her head

Posted by: dee | October 1, 2009 1:21 PM

To Emil-
you would have to see all of Ms. Farina's evaluations for the last 28 years, and yes, many from year 1 to present WERE quite satisfactory!!!
Obviously, the opposing counsel is not bringing those to light, are they?

Posted by: Sue | October 2, 2009 9:47 AM

So many opinions by readers on a one side story of a reporter who seems to be reporting for the Board of Education and not as an “Independent” reviewer. Hello people, these hearings are open to the public, why not attend them to really find out the truth of what is happening here. If you were in attendance you would know that the those test scores were not only requested by way of a legal subpoena that the school board refused to comply with, but the school board was also ordered and demanded to produce those test scores on at least three, if not four different occasions. In fact, those test scores with redacted student names were submitted as an exhibit weeks ago and subject to discussion and argument at the prior hearing and when the teacher’s legal representative tried to discuss those test scores the Board’s Attorney began arguing that there was no way for administration to confirm the validity of those test scores and refused to allow them to be discussed. The panel ordered the Board of Education to once again produce the test scores. When they were not produced once again at this last hearing, the teacher, having been told she needs to demonstrate the validity of the test scores, showed up to the hearing with the requested proof. Why was there no federal violations weeks ago when the Board argued the validity of the test scores, yet now when proof is provided they cry afoul? The Board of Education only took offense and began yelling federal violations because they did not want those test scores to be validated. The paralegal argued that she was told by the school board that the test scores were no longer available, yet the teacher was able to just go on her computer and print them out? Now stop and ask your self why wouldn’t they want those test scores disclosed or validated? Why would they use those test scores as part of the reason to terminate the teacher and then not produce the evidence? Something smells fishy here and I don’t think it is the teacher or her paralegal; in fact I give them applause for doing what they were told to do, validate. Since those test scores were not disclosed to the public and only provided to school officials for verification purposes only, the issue is? Oh wait, that is right, the Board of Education has not complied with the panel or a subpoena to produce those same test scores! Those scores must make a grand statement in favor of the teacher if you ask me. Why then the big story in regards to them? Since the school board didn’t block the teacher from obtaining the test scores in the first place, weeelll who violated the law? The guilty party is not the teacher or her paralegal if you ask me. Makes me wonder if the paralegal knew what she was doing all along and the school board and their attorney's are the ones who just might be in way over their heads?

Posted by: susan barnes | October 2, 2009 9:33 PM

Knowing very little about this case, I am in no position to comment on the specifics. However, it is of great interest to me that NOT ONE person who has commented will identify themselves. Could it be that they merely lack the courage of their convictions OR could it be that they are afraid of the vindictive retaliation to which they will be subjected? I must say I agree with the opinions of SETTLE IT NOW. But, hey, it's only taxpayer money, so what do those in authority care?

Posted by: gail | October 7, 2009 9:04 AM

duh, kathleen.........too little too late

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