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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 17, 2008

Paludi finds hostile work environment

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Two much-anticipated reports were released by the Guilderland School District to the public Monday.

The reports were prepared by Michele Paludi of Human Resources Management Solutions, who was hired by the district after a gay high-school social studies teacher complained of harassment.

The first report, dated Jan. 30, consists of interviews with high-school social-studies teachers, and the second, dated May 16, is an investigation of specific complaints of sexual harassment, after the teacher made formal complaints.

Both reports, which are posted on the school district’s website, are heavily redacted, leading one school board member to call them “almost useless.”

Two social studies teachers — Matthew Nelligan and Ann Marie McManus — are being transferred to the middle school because after reading the reports, Superintendent John McGuire concluded the department needed “a new lease on life.” The teachers are fighting the transfer with the support of hundreds of their students and other community members.

While McGuire says he hired Paludi as an outside, objective evaluator to conduct a study “into the climate and culture of the department,” Nelligan has called it a “fishing expedition,” designed by the administration to punish him for his outspoken views.

Fifteen out of 18 social studies teachers sent McGuire a memorandum, saying they wouldn’t participate in a second round of interviews with Paludi.

The memo says the teachers all agree tolerance is important and is “at the heart of the Guilderland Culture.” They write that they participated in the first round of interviews with Paludi “in an effort to dispel the notion that discrimination of any sort was a part of our departmental culture.”

The memo goes on to say the teachers were told the interviews were not part of an investigation but were part of a “climate study.”  “It seems clear,” they wrote to McGuire, “that your characterization of this investigation as a ‘climate study’ is wholly inconsistent with the environment that you claim you are trying to encourage.”

“Culture climate” report

Paludi writes that she was hired by Superintendent McGuire “to inquire about some climate issues, especially with respect to lack of tolerance for individuals’ sex, race, age, sexual orientation, and disability.”

The gay teacher told her that other teachers used words such as “faggot,” “faggy,” and “gay” in his presence, she writes.

He also told Paludi that he had overheard jokes related to homosexuality told in the department lunchroom, and he had heard male teachers make sexist comments about female teachers in the department. He described the behavior as similar to “locker room” banter.

The other three complaints are crossed out but the report says the experiences caused him to be stressed, angry, tired, disappointed in his colleagues, and unable to prepare lessons for classes.

The teacher, at the time of the first report, “refused to file a complaint” and Paludi agreed to not use his name when interviewing others.

“No teachers interviewed stated that offensive words were directed at anyone in the Social Studies Department,” the report states.

The gay teacher said, after the interviews, he was shunned by colleagues who stopped talking to each other when he entered a room.

In her assessment, Paludi wrote that, since the teacher did not want to file a complaint of sexual harassment, she was not able to conduct an investigation in the manner she would have if there had been a complaint.

Paludi concluded that responses from some teachers and administrators supported “experiences of a hostile work environment.”

Two individuals indicated that the social-studies department was a “boy’s club” and involved “caustic joking among the teachers who described themselves as a ‘family.’”

Pauldi also wrote, “Almost all of the teachers interviewed expressed concern and anger at the process the School District used to obtain culture climate information.” They were upset the administration hadn’t told them about Paludi, she said, and they were concerned their department “was always targeted” and “claimed the process was a form of ‘McCarthyism,’” she wrote.

Also, Paludi said, most teachers refused to sign statements promising confidentiality and no retaliation.

She wrote, too, that teachers yelled at her and behaved unprofessionally.

“In my opinion,” she wrote, “their behavior was incongruous with what I explained to them. Most teachers adopted a certain response to all questions — verbatim, giving the impression that they met to discuss the answers they would provide to me. Most teachers were caustic, suspicious and on the defensive.”

Meanwhile, the gay teacher told Paludi he was being “shunned” by the other teachers and that gossip about the intent of the interviews was “out of control.” He said he didn’t trust anyone in the department and felt powerless.

Paludi concluded her report with seven recommendations, including that letters be sent to the gay teacher and the interviewed teachers to thank them, that a training program on tolerance be set up, and that the sexual harassment policy be re-issued.

Also, she said, discussion should be held with the social-studies teachers to foster a more welcoming environment. “The implications of teachers’ comments to me during the interview has far-reaching implications for their effectiveness as teachers,” Paludi wrote.

She also recommended culture climate surveys and interviews be conducted throughout the school district.

Harassment investigation

Ultimately, four teachers were charged with harassment. One of them was Nelligan.

A June 9 letter from McGuire to Nelligan describes the basis of the sexual harassment charge. It says that a complaint was submitted to the district that, at a “Right to Know” meeting held in the school auditorium, Nelligan had said to the complainant, “I don’t want to sit next to a fairy.”

Nelligan denied making the statement, the letter says, and no witnesses could corroborate whether the statement was made or not.

The letter says, “…It is the district’s conclusion, based on Dr. Paludi’s investigation, that there is insufficient information to establish the complaint made against you…However, please note that such a conclusion does not mean that the behavior did not occur, but rather that the evidence is equally conclusive both ways.”

The May 16 report details Paludi’s investigation of the complaint of sexual harassment. More of the report is redacted than printed.

Again, the department atmosphere is described as comparable to a “locker room.” A person whose name is blacked-out said comments were made about a woman presenter’s breasts, a statement echoed by three others with blacked-out names. Likewise with a comment and hand gesture that simulated masturbation.

“In summary, the climate in the Social Studies Department elicited discriminatory behavior about gay men and lesbians, as well as about women and ethnic groups,” wrote Paludi.

She also wrote, “Furthermore, several teachers in the Social Studies department appear to band together against the Administration, whom they perceive is always attacking the Social Studies department.” The teachers said they would never “tell on” colleagues, she said. Teachers who do not maintain the “company line” are “ostracized and retaliated against,” Paludi said.

Paludi also concluded that the gay teacher’s perception that everyone in the department was harassing and retaliating against him was not reasonable. Teachers had apologized to him and not engaged in further harassing behavior, Paludi wrote.

Paludi recommended writing the teacher, thanking him for bringing to the district’s attention behavior that was creating a hostile environment and that his complaint of sexual harassment “was found to be reasonable.”

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