Springs School’s Winter Of Discontent

T.E. McMorrow
New York State has charged harassment and retribution in the case of longtime Springs School substitute teacher, Diane Mehrhoff. Independent/T.E. McMorrow
New York State has charged harassment and retribution in the case of longtime Springs School substitute teacher, Diane Mehrhoff. Independent/T.E. McMorrow

The five members of the Springs School Board and Superintendent Debra Winter have mishandled charges of harassment in the workplace, costing district taxpayers more than $120,000 in legal fees, according to a group of teachers who
recently spoke with The Independent.

Almost all of the teachers who are currently employed at the school asked that their names not be used, saying they are afraid of retribution from school board members, and, in particular, Winter.

However, Dianne Mehrhoff, a substitute teacher at the school, agreed to have her name used.

The director of the New York State Division of Human Rights Office of Sexual Harassment Issues, Joyce Yearwood-Drury, has charged the school district management with ignoring multiple reports from Mehrhoff regarding a male supervisor allegedly making repeated sexually offensive comments about women.

According to the complaint filed by the state, which The Independent has obtained, Mehrhoff began working for the school as a substitute teacher in 2004. In February 2016, she took on an additional job as a part-time clerk-typist, and was promoted the following year to a higher part-time position, account clerk-typist. All the while, she continued to work as a substitute teacher, usually working several days a week.

In July 2017, Michael Henery was hired as a business administrator for Springs School, making him Mehrhoff’s second level supervisor.

On November 17, 2017, Mehrhoff spoke with Winter, complaining about misogynistic comments Henery
allegedly made. Prior to that, she had complained about Henery to her immediate supervisor, Julie Bistrian. “I would complain to her, telling her that somebody has to stop him. Julie would just laugh,” Mehrhoff told The Independent last week. She added that Bistrian never reported it.

Mehrhoff complained to Winter on a Friday. The following Monday, November 20, Henery entered the office Mehrhoff was working in. “He put his hand over his mouth. ‘Oh, that’s right, I’m supposed to watch what I say’” Mehrhoff said Henery told her.

The complaint from the Division of Human Rights details the offensive comments Henery is alleged to have made to Mehrhoff that she reported, first to Bistrian, and then, to Winter. These include using an acronym MFWIC (Motherf**king woman in charge), calling two female employees “bimbos,” and another female employee an “incompetent lazy ass.” He is said to have categorized yet another female employee as an “ID 10 T,” then told Mehrhoff to write those letters and numbers down. When she did, she realized it was code for “idiot.”

On February 20, 2018, the school was closed for winter break. Work was being done in the building to remove mold found in air vents and rooms, Mehrhoff said. A female coach had her female student athletes practicing basketball in the gym. Mehrhoff said that Henery cursed the coach and team and then asked, “Can’t any of these f**king stupid teachers read?”

Gender-Based Slurs

Henery’s pejorative comments were always directed toward women, the charging document states, never toward men.

On March 6, 2018, Mehrhoff again complained to Winter about Henery’s continued alleged use of gender-based slurs.

Around the time she made the second complaint, Mehrhoff received a text message that her schedule was being changed. She said Winter reprimanded her, even pulling her out of a classroom to do so. She also learned that her building access was being restricted. Mehrhoff was then demoted from part-time account clerk typist to the job of hall monitor.

She told The Independent that she was devastated and felt that she was being singled out. “I felt like I was being punished. All my coworkers could see me,” she said. She said the actions being taken against her were done to send a message to her coworkers: “This is why you don’t speak up.” One of the current teachers said of Mehrhoff’s demotion, “She was sitting there in the hall. What do you think that does to morale?”

On May 1, 2018, Mehrhoff filed a formal complaint with the state.

At the end of the school year, Mehrhoff’s hall monitor job was eliminated. The state complaint alleges that she is called in to substitute teach much less frequently now. “I’ve been dumped to the bottom of the list,” Mehrhoff said. She told The Independent that she has lost her health insurance because of the school’s actions.

“This is what is going on here,” one of the teachers said. “Fear and intimidation.”

The law firm of Sokoloff-Stern, one of four engaged on behalf of the school in the Mehrhoff matter, as well as in two other alleged cases of harassment over the past 15 months, prepared a 24-page response to Mehrhoff’s complaint to the state. In it, the district’s lawyers argue that Henery was not being abusive, that Mehrhoff had misunderstood some of the things Henery said, and that Mehrhoff had not been singled out for retribution for making the complaints. Yearwood-Drury, who prepared the complaint against the school for the state’s Division for Human Rights, disagreed. In her finding, she wrote, “Although the respondent quibbles about the meaning of some of the comments, it acknowledges that Mr. Henery made many of them. Moreover, there is witness confirmation.”

Yearwood-Drury found that Mehrhoff had reported the alleged harassing behavior multiple times to her supervisors, and “was subject to a series of job actions, which, contrary to the respondent’s position, do appear adverse. More seriously, the complainant was demoted from a clerical position she had held for two years.”

Unquestionably Inappropriate’

One of the other two investigations under Winter’s watch involved an unnamed school board member who was said to have groped an unnamed female teacher. Regina Cafarella of the law firm Douglas A. Spencer investigated the complaint, which was filed with the school on February 12, 2018. On February 27, Carafella issued a finding, affirming the teacher’s claim, writing that the board member “did inappropriately touch” the woman’s stomach, as well as made inappropriate comments about her figure, concluding that the board member’s “conduct was unquestionably inappropriate.”

Yet, Carafella concluded in her letter dated February 27, which was addressed to the victim, that the board member’s actions “did not constitute a violation of state and federal anti-discrimination laws,” and recommended no further action be taken by the district on the matter other than to “admonish” the board member “to abstain from any other physical contact with you or any other staff member, and from making any further comments.” That unnamed teacher has not, as of yet, filed a complaint with the state.

The third investigation involving outside law firms, whose bills will be paid by Springs taxpayers, was sparked by Winter, herself. Ann Marie Schuppe, a teacher at Springs for 33 years, spoke recently about the incident. Schuppe retired before the
current school year began.

According to Schuppe, sometime after the first two allegations of harassment were made against the school and the board, a group of teachers, both tenured and untenured, went out to a restaurant one night for a social get-together.

Schuppe explained the tenure process for new teachers. Teachers remain untenured for at least the first four years of employment at the school. They are members of the union, but they do not have job security, said Schuppe.

As the party was dispersing, a young substitute teacher began speaking aggressively, in a loud voice, about the school’s administration, Schuppe related. When told that she needed to calm down, the woman left the restaurant. Forty-five minutes later, Schuppe, who was the head of the mentor program for newly hired teachers, and a couple of other veteran teachers left the restaurant, only to be confronted in the parking lot by the younger teacher, who demanded to know what she had done wrong.

While no charge of harassment was ever filed by the untenured teacher, a two-month long investigation ensured, during which Winter, using the one of the school’s law firms, searched for untenured teachers to bring harassment charges against veteran teachers, several current teachers told The Independent.

One of those who spoke about the investigation described Winter as “running up and down the hallways, going into untenured teachers’ classrooms, asking if they had been harassed.” The veteran teacher said that Winter “didn’t even know people’s names.”

“Lawyers were paraded into the building and took over an office,” another teacher said. Teachers were pulled out of classes and brought to the office, where they were interviewed by the lawyers. “Teachers were crying in the hallways,” the same teacher said.

“They spent $40,000 of taxpayers’ money, looking for someone to say something negative,” yet another teacher said about that investigation. The Independent has corroborated the total amount spent on law firms via documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

In the end, nothing was turned up by the investigation, a fact seemingly acknowledged by Winter in a letter to the staff. “Towards the end of the school year, members of the teaching staff raised allegations of harassment, bullying, and intimidation by other teachers,” Winter wrote. “I can report at this time that our attorneys did not find any conduct that was legally actionable, but that there is a palpable division amongst our teaching staff and that we need to make a better effort towards treating each other with the respect that we all deserve.”

When contacted by The Independent last week, Winter would not comment for this story, saying, “I cannot talk about personnel matters. You know that.” She did not return a followup call on Monday.

Morale Is Low’

A culture of discontent among the school staff, Schuppe says, has been created by Winter. She described what her former co-workers are now going through. Schuppe said the teachers don’t allow it to enter the classroom. “Everybody is in there, doing their thing with the children. But, once you walk out of that classroom, amongst colleagues, the morale is low,” Schuppe said. “When you are with the kids, you are going to be that peppy person. That is your job. Those are your children. You are going to do what you normally do. People aren’t going to know about morale, because their kids are happy.” But, away from the children, she said, things are quite different.

In her second year on the job, Winter’s compensation package as school district superintendent ranks in the upper echelon on the East End, according to the New York State Education Department. The total compensation figure is arrived at by adding salary, benefits, and a classification of “other.” Winter’s $265,000 total compensation is slightly more than $5000 higher than that of the East Hampton school superintendent. The superintendent in Westhampton Beach brings in just over $300,000, and Southampton just over $285,000. The Bridgehampton superintendent is the lowest compensated on the East End, at just over $192,000. Across Long Island as a whole, compensation packages of $300,000 or more are not unusual.

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