During a five-minute special meeting Tuesday night, the Branford Board of Education (BOE) voted unanimously to fire a teacher who was accused of brandishing a knife in school last January. (She is pictured seated at left wearing a grey sweater.) About two dozen supporters were not permitted to speak, even though the meeting was open to the public at the teacher’s request.
The teacher, Carolyn Lippolis, wept as she was hugged by friends and former students following the brief meeting. Other supporters swarmed around the BOE to express their frustration about not being permitted to speak.
“I’m truly disheartened,” Lippolis told the Eagle. “I love teaching and I love my students, past and present, as you can see from the response here.”
She said the board should have taken time to allow people to speak. “I’m very hurt with what I saw happen here,” she said. “It was very quick.”
Lippolis has taught social studies at Branford High School for about 12 years. She has been on administrative leave since the knife incident in January. Click here to read the original story.
An independent panel was convened to hear testimony and make recommendations to the board. Those proceedings were closed to the public. The panel voted 2-1 to recommend that the board terminate Lippolis’ teaching contract.
The school board intended to discuss the panel’s findings during a closed-door session Tuesday. The agenda for the meeting stated there would be a closed executive session for discussion and that any action on the report would be taken in public.
When contacted by the Eagle a few hours prior to the meeting, board Chairman Frank Carrano said there would be no executive session because the teacher requested the entire procedure be conducted in public.
“We specifically asked to have an open meeting to enable individuals to have an opportunity to speak,” said Lippolis’ attorney Eugene Axelrod during an interview with the Eagle.
During the meeting, Carrano said an independent panel had been taking testimony over a period of weeks and had issued the report to the school board 10 days ago. He did not discuss the details of the report but said there were 56 findings of fact. He read the briefly-worded recommendation that Lippolis be terminated.
The board members did not discuss the issues, and voted unanimously to accept the panel’s recommendation. In addition to Carrano, board members present included Joanne Borrus, John Prins, Mary Grande, Mario Sabatini and Judy Hotz.
“There is no public participation,” Carrano said as people attempted to speak. He said public comments are not mandated during special meetings.
“People came here to speak on her behalf,” said Lippolis’ husband Corey.
“This is a public massacre,” he said to applause from his wife’s supporters.
Axelrod said that because the panel’s decision was not unanimous, the board should have allowed public comments before voting. “The floor should have been open,” he told the Eagle. “This community didn’t have a chance to speak.”
Alexrod said he may appeal the decision in Superior Court.
When the incident occurred in January, Superintendent Hamlet Hernandez sent a letter home to parents explaining why the teacher had been suspended. In the letter, he described the brandishing of a knife in class as inappropriate and possibly “dangerous conduct by your child’s social studies teacher.”
Branford police investigated the incident but, according to Axelrod, the police did not file charges. He also said the Department of Children and Families Services did not pursue the case.
Axelrod told the Eagle that Lippolis had used a knife from the school’s dining hall in a food project in one of her previous classes. He said the incident in question occurred when she held the knife for about three minutes to illustrate a point during a subsequent history class. “Fundamentally, the knife was no more than a prop… It was there for three minutes and put away.”
Axelrod said the panel took testimony from three of the 17 students in the class. He said that some students he spoke to gave differing accounts.
“We presented a lot of testimony,” Alexrod said, including about six hours of testimony from Lippolis.
According to a bio on the Branford High School website, Lippolis has been teaching in the district since 2000. Prior to pursuing a teaching career, she worked at a law firm in East Haven. She has a Bachelors Degree in history, social studies and legal studies from Quinnipiac.
Axelrod is the same attorney who represented Branford elementary school teacher Denise Farina, who was fired in 2009 after 28 years of teaching. Unlike Lippolis, the entire proceedings for the Farina case were conducted in public, including hours of testimony conducted over several months. Farina had requested the unusual move to hold all the proceedings in public. Click here to read a story on a BOE committee voting to fire Farina and click here to read about the BOE firing Farina.