Two Branford teachers along with top school officials have been sued for negligence after a fifth grade teacher encouraged students in his class to end their friendships with a mentally challenged 11-year-old boy, saying the boy was a “troubled individual to be avoided.”
A 15-page civil complaint filed in September in New Haven Superior Court states the classroom exchange took place last May, and was between Peter Montecalvo, a fifth grade language arts and social studies teacher at Walsh Intermediate School, and the students in his class. The disabled boy was not in the classroom at the time because he was receiving other instruction, the complaint said. While not addressing the boy directly, the teacher provided information to his classmates that led them to reject and shun him, the complaint says.
During the classroom period with his other fifth graders, Montecalvo identified the boy as a problem. Montecalvo “encouraged the students to not be friendly and/or acquaint themselves with him and suggested he was a troubled individual to be avoided,” the complaint said. This was the disabled boy’s first year at Walsh.
The boy later became aware of his teachers’ conduct “when his classmates approached him and communicated that they could no long be friends with him,” the complaint says. The Eagle found the town case on the court docket.
Bullying Incidents at Walsh
This is the latest in a series of bullying incidents the Eagle has reported on over the past two years, including the bullying of a Jewish student who was assaulted at Walsh. This incident, detailed in a series of Eagle stories, ultimately led to an investigation by outside agencies, the results of which have never been disclosed.
Hamlet Hernandez, the district’s superintendent, and other top Branford school officials continue to cite student privacy issues to avoid discussing any aspect of bullying, including policy decisions and programs designed to combat bullying.
For example last year, James O’Connor, principal of Mary R. Tisko Elementary School, citing the privacy of his 400 students, refused to comment when it came to explaining programs designed to stop bullying. Robin Goeler, then the Walsh principal, would not make any comment either.
Reached today, Hernandez said “I can’t comment on active litigation. And when a student is involved it is protected by FERPA. (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.) School districts are bound by FERPA. To do otherwise is a violation of federal privacy law,” he said.
The boy and his mother, Linda Piscioneri, are represented by Bryan P. Fiengo, who is a partner in the New London law firm of Suisman, Shapiro, Wool, Brennan, Gray & Greenberg, P.C. Reached at his office Friday, Fiengo told the Eagle that “At this time, she has no comment.”
Fiengo’s complaint says Piscioneri was first informed of the shunning event by her son and then “through contact from Mr. (Robin) Goeler, then the Walsh principal and the two teachers. Mrs. Piscioneri registered a complaint and sought remedial action. To date the defendants have taken no steps to meaningfully address” the issues, the complaint asserts.
The two teachers, Montecalvo and Graham, former Walsh principal Goeler, Schools Superintendent Hernandez and the Board of Education are all named as defendants in the lawsuit.
The Sins of Omission
Of all the parties named in the lawsuit, Fiengo termed the actions of Superintendent Hernandez the most egregious because as the top leader in the school system, he took no action at all. As a result, the lawsuit asserts a charge of intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent infliction of emotional distress.
“Knowing of his vulnerable nature and his particularized issues related to mental health, Mr. Hernandez’s failure to take steps to address and/or remediate the abuse and mistreatment of John Doe was extreme and outrageous and far exceeded the boundaries expected of persons charged with educating young students,” Fiengo wrote.
“Mr. Hernandez commissioned no investigation into the matter and failed to provide instruction, guidance counseling or help to John Doe’s family relating to the abuse and mistreatment.
“As the Superintendent of BPS, Mr. Hernandez stood in a position of authority and influence over his students and his inaction effectively endorsed and reinforced the bullying commentary, further tainting John Doe’s reputation and standing among his peers.… Mr. Hernandez’s acts and/or omissions have caused devastating psychological damage” to the boy, the lawsuit says.
The second count in the complaint, the negligent infliction of emotional distress, centers on past knowledge.
The complaint asserts that Hernandez was aware that employees, “specifically Mr. Montecalvo, were prone to disparaging and abusive tactics disruptive of the educational mission. He was at all times aware of John Doe’s particularized issues related” to his educational program and mental health. But he failed, the complaint says, “to mitigate and/or remediate any of the circumstances naturally following from Mr. Montecalvo’s conduct.”
In short, the complaint says, Hernandez failed to investigate the impact of the teachers’ “egregious actions and/or steps necessary to address the mental health and well-being of the child; he failed to comply with applicable statutes related to privacy of students and as a mandatory reporter, he failed to report the incident to the Connecticut Department of Children and Family” Services.
A Teacher Talks to His Students
The boy started the fifth grade at Walsh in August 2016 and was a member of team 5-5, a fifth grade class for all students. He is a student in the school’s “Individual Education Plan,” a special individualized program for students with disabilities as defined under federal law. The IEP program often takes students out of their regular classroom for special programs.
Lisa Graham, the math teacher assigned to the same fifth grade team along with Montecalvo, was in the classroom when Montecalvo warned students to stay away from John Doe. She “was present for such meeting and made no efforts to interrupt or correct her colleague and/or to address his comments,” the complaint said. It continued, “Students were essentially encouraged to not be friends with John Doe and to sever any further relationship with him.”
According to the complaint, Montecalvo’s actions “given his position and authority, constituted bullying as it was predatory, abusive, influential and critically damaging” to the boy.
In addition, the complaint says, Montecalvo’s actions “had the further effect of publicizing and/ or emphasizing John Doe’s mental health issues and IEP. In so doing the teacher violated federal law (FERPA) in that “he disclosed confidential information regarding John Doe’s educational record.”
The complaint does not say what motivated Montecalvo. Nor does it say why Graham failed to speak up. The family seeks compensatory and punitive damages, emotional distress damages, attorney fees, interest costs, and any other relief the court deems necessary.
The 2017-18 School Year
After the May incident, the boy was transferred last summer from Walsh to another school, Fiengo told the Eagle.
So far the only official answer from school officials came three months after the complaint was filed on Sept. 13.
Ondi A. Smith, a lawyer with Howd & Ludoff, the law firm representing the town’s Insurance carrier, filed a motion on Dec. 18, 2017, seeking to have the complaint revised on various grounds.
Fiengo’s response to Attorney Smith was to reject her argument. He wrote that “the revision sought seeks an arbitrary line to be drawn to separate the chronology of events and nothing more. There is no legitimate prejudice or confusion, which would require a revised pleading.”
It is now up to the judge to decide the procedural issue.