Letsons paid 5K GCSD settles harassment suit

Letsons paid $5K
GCSD settles harassment suit

GUILDERLAND — The school district is paying $5,000 to the Letsons after the family sued four years ago, claiming Sarah Letson, then 15, "was subjected to sexual harassment while a member of the Junior Varsity volleyball team."
The notice of claim said, "The sexual harassment includes, but is not limited to, being required to wear a sign reading ‘Slut #1,’ and being subjected to the word ‘slut’ on frequent occasions by Coach Deborah Hayes."

The suit also claimed negligent supervision and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The Guilderland School Board approved the settlement at its June 19 meeting, as part of a consent agenda; the topic was not mentioned and there was no discussion before the unanimous vote, approving a group of items. Superintendent Gregory Aidala said the next day that he could not furnish a copy of the settlement which the board had approved because it had not been "executed."

The Enterprise filed a Freedom of Information Law request on June 22; Susan Tangorre, the district’s FOIL officer, responded that she could not furnish a copy until the executed written document was received, which she anticipated would be available within 20 business days.

When, after 20 business days, no document was forthcoming, The Enterprise filed an appeal.
"Whatever it is they acted on should be public," Robert Freeman, executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government told The Enterprise, indicating there should be no wait for an "executed" document.

The Enterprise received a copy of the 11-page settlement agreement last week.
The settlement says that the payment to the Letsons "is not to be construed as an admission of liability on the part of" the school district, "by whom liability is expressly denied" and that the Letsons agree to no further legal action.
Each side agreed to pay its own attorneys’ fees and expenses. Both parties also agreed "to keep and maintain the terms, conditions and amount of this Settlement Agreement confidential, except as required by law."

Freeman told The Enterprise earlier that courts have ruled that a contract with a public entity such as a school is public even if something within the contract says it is not.

The settlement with the Letsons says if they fail to comply, they will be required to return the $5,000 to the school district. Both sides are gagged.
Superintendent Aidala, when asked about the settlement this week, cited the agreement’s "strict confidentiality language," and said, "I need to abide."

Since school-district spending is a matter of public record, The Enterprise asked Aidala how much the district had spent on the suit, other that the $5,000 payment to the Letsons. "It’s covered by insurance," he said, "so it hasn’t cost the district additional expenses."

Aidala did answer a series of questions in general terms. (See related story.)

The Letsons did not return a call this week, seeking comment on the settlement, nor did the law firm representing them, O’Connell & Aronowitz of Albany.

Carl and Laura Letson moved to Florida with their daughter in 2003 because, they wrote in lengthy letters to The Enterprise editor, they wanted to avoid the apparent retaliation their daughter has suffered after complaining about Hayes.

In their 2003 letters, they also detailed harassment they said their daughter was subjected to and described the school district’s shortcomings in responding.
Carl Letson wrote how he learned from the parent of another volleyball player that she had found a sign in her daughter’s backpack naming her as "Slut #2," which Coach Hayes assigned her to wear.
"I decided to ask Sarah what, if anything, she knew about this incident," Carl Letson wrote. "Her response was, ‘What do you mean, Dad, I was "Slut #1." At first I was stunned, then outraged. How could this have happened" These girls had been branded, humiliated by their coach in front of their peers.
"We learned that the mother who had brought the matter to my attention had filed a complaint with the school and had little or no response. Our daughter also advised us that she has been pulled from class and interrogated by two teachers without any other representation."
Laura Letson, a one-time school board member, wrote, "Our daughter, age 15, cannot comprehend why school district employees, administrators, and elected board officials have gone to the extent demonstrated to date to protect a teacher at a student’s expense and well being...."
She concluded at the time, "It is our hope that an in-depth investigation of the athletic department will be undertaken, that the Guilderland community will take back control of their board of education, and restore faith in children that they can speak out openly and be heard."

Hayes, who was not tenured, resigned in the summer of 2003.
Deborah Hayes is now teaching at Ballston Spa High School and is "trying to get over" her treatment at Guilderland, said Paul Wein, of Wein, Young, Fenton & Kelsey, a Guilderland law firm which has represented Hayes.
"Do you think a male coach would be treated the way she was treated"" he asked this week. Wein said his son had played lacrosse at Guilderland and he had heard far worse language from football and lacrosse coaches at Guilderland than Hayes was accused of using.
Terming it "a double standard," Wein said, "This is a women’s rights issue."

History

Deborah Hayes began teaching physical education at Guilderland in September of 2000. Allegations of sexual harassment were raised on the teams Hayes coached during the spring of 2002 softball season and the fall of 2002 volleyball season.

After an in-house investigation, the school district hired an outside investigator, at the insistence of Sarah Letson’s parents, Carl and Laura Letson.
The outside investigator, Michele Paludi, produced a 27-page report, concluding that a three-page in-house report contained procedural errors. She wrote, "Ms. Hayes referred to some of her student/team members as ‘sluts’ and ‘slutty.’ By doing so, Ms. Hayes set up a hostile environment for these young women because of their sex. Ms. Hayes does not understand the consequences of referring to the young women as ‘sluts,’ especially as it relates to their self-esteem and identity problems."
Paludi also wrote that knowing a coach or teacher referred to women as ‘sluts’ "could potentially give full reign to other students, including young men, to consider the women as sexually experienced or seeking sexual experiences."
She went on, "Ms. Hayes’ behavior could have potentially created a situation where the women students could have been sexually assaulted. The hostile environment set up by Coach Hayes in her office extended throughout the entire high school, including classrooms in which these women students were taking courses."

Hayes, like other new teachers, was on a three-year probation, waiting for tenure, a permanent faculty appointment. Rather than being fired or given tenure, she was given an extra year of probation, on the recommendation of Superintendent Aidala. The school board approved his recommendation in March of 2003, by a vote of 6 to 1, with only Barbara Fraterrigo dissenting.

In April of that year, The Enterprise broke the story about the allegations against Hayes. While the high-school principal at the time, John Whipple, and the athletic director, Wayne Bertrand, didn’t deny the allegations, they both extolled Hayes’s virtues as a creative and popular teacher who offered much of value to the school.
"As a superintendent," said Aidala at the time, "I depend on information reported to me from the athletic director and the high-school principal."
He also said, "The full investigation was handled in a very professional way. It helped to resolve the issue and put closure on the matter...I hope we will be able to move forward."

The next month, Jim and Debra McCarten wrote to The Enterprise editor that they believed their son, Jon, a Guilderland High School student and an accomplished gymnast, "needed a second shoulder surgery to repair damage that is believed to have been caused by his forced participation in Ms. Hayes’ physical education class."
They wrote, "We strongly believe that Ms. Hayes caused physical and emotional harm to our son and that he has been severely let down by this school district and the high school administration."

The McCartens said the district had not responded to their complaint.

(This year, The Enterprise wrote about Jon McCarten, now 21, and his career in music. After his injury, he switched the focus of his passion from gymnastics to music and, as a student at the University of Vermont, began playing with the well-known Gordon Stone Band. He has played internationally with the Emmy Award-winning Stone. McCarten told Enterprise reporter Rachel Dutil this May, "After my second shoulder surgery, it just really became difficult to come back" [in gymnastics]"Leaving something I’d been a part of for so long"there was a lot of questioning"I shifted all my focus to [music] and really gave it my all to try and make it work.")
Later in 2003, two high-school teachers and coaches spoke at a school-board meeting in defense of Hayes. Warren Bollinger said that Hayes had been both professionally and personally punished. "Ms. Hayes acknowledges that mistakes were made, has apologized to students and their families, and has undergone extensive training," he said. "Her probation has been extended for an additional year and her name and reputation have been ruined."

Anne Reed-Best described Hayes as a dedicated professional.

Robert Freeman, the expert on open government, said at the time that, since the school board had allowed defense of Hayes at a public session, comments must then be allowed on the other side as well.

At the next board meeting, three mothers — Lori Tapper, Judy Palmer, and Pam Klarsfeld — pointed out problems with Hayes or with the school’s response to the allegations.
Lori Tapper, whose 16-year-old daughter played on the volleyball team coached by Hayes, said her daughter had felt humiliated by comments made by Hayes about her clothes looking risqué. Near tears, Tapper reported that Hayes had said about her daughter, "She must be in competition for Slut #3."

Tapper said that, at the time, her daughter was wearing a sweater that left no skin exposed except on her wrists.

Tapper said that comments made by administrators had trivialized the situation.

Judy Palmer and Pam Klarsfeld told the board that there was a double standard at Guilderland that allowed coaches to play by different rules than other staff members.
Palmer said that some coaches "give very demeaning messages."
Klarsfeld said that a district priority had always been "respect," and that she was saddened by the message some, not all sports teams, are giving to students. "It’s difficult to listen to your child be screamed at...," she said. "It turns my stomach."

In June of 2003, the Letsons filed their notice of claim and so did Carol Norfleet and her daughter, Ashley Goodwill, who was also coached by Hayes. Norfleet told The Enterprise that her daughter was repeatedly referred to in a derogatory manner by Hayes.
"The girls were afraid to say anything because she has a bad temper and they feared retaliation," Norfleet said in 2003.
She also said that she discovered a sign in her daughter’s backpack that named her daughter as "Slut #2" and that her daughter told her the coach wanted her to wear it.
Ashley had been an honor student, Norfleet said, but her grades fell into the 70s because of the harassment. Ashley also had stress-related gastrointestinal problems, Norfleet said at the time. "She can’t keep anything in her," she said. "She’s been through a colonoscopy and an endoscopy."

On July 1, 2003, the district reached an agreement with Hayes, under which she resigned.

Recent records with the State Supreme Court show that a jury trial for Norfleet v. Guilderland Central School District, originally scheduled for June 4, 2007, has been adjourned to Jan. 7, 2008.

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