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Former NFA curriculum director to sue academy for alleged retaliation

Norwich — The former Norwich Free Academy curriculum director, disciplined and reassigned in connection with the academy’s internal investigation into allegations that a coach was having sex with a student, is suing the academy, claiming school officials retaliated against her for cooperating with police.

Denise Grant, who had served as NFA director of curriculum and instruction from 2009 to this past summer, is filing an 18-page suit in New London Superior Court claiming she was demoted and retaliated against by NFA Head of School David Klein. After spending eight months on paid administrative leave, Grant was suspended for 10 days without pay in August and reassigned to a new position as director of the College and Career Resource Center.

The discipline was in connection with her alleged failure to report an allegation of suspected abuse of a student by then-volunteer coach Anthony Facchini.

While her pay was not reduced, the lawsuit listed numerous ways the new position represents a demotion, including relocation from the administration building to an isolated location in the library, no staff to supervise and lack of a budget for the new position. She previously had overseen a department with a budget of more than $650,000, according to the suit.

In the lawsuit, Grant’s attorney, Magdalena Wiktor, alleged that Klein used false information in disciplining Grant after she “engaged in protected conduct by speaking to and cooperating with police in their investigation” of Facchini, who was charged Sept. 12, 2018 by Norwich police with two counts of second-degree sexual assault.

“Norwich Free Academy is aware of the lawsuit and will defend it vigorously,” NFA spokesman Michael O’Farrell said Monday night, “and we will not make further comment at this time.”

According to police reports and arrest warrant affidavits, NFA first learned that Facchini might be having inappropriate relations with a student in April 2017. Grant made the initial report to then-Campus Safety Director Kevin Rodino. According to Grant’s lawsuit, she told Rodino she had learned that a student had seen texts on Facchini’s cellphone that bothered the student.

“Based on the information plaintiff had,” the lawsuit stated, “she believed in good faith that a report to DCF was not warranted.”

State law requires mandated reporters such as teachers and school staff to file a report with DCF or police if they have reasonable cause to suspect a child is being abused or neglected. Failure to do so can result in arrest.    

Grant’s suit also cites NFA Procedure 5141.4, which warns staff about falsely reporting suspected abuse or neglect to DCF. The lawsuit quotes state law, which mandates that  “anyone who knowingly makes a false report of child abuse or neglect may be fined up to $2,000 or imprisoned for not more than one year or both.”

After Rodino told her the situation had been investigated and dismissed, attorney Wiktor wrote in the suit, Grant felt she would have risked facing a penalty of a false report if she had reported the situation to DCF.

According to police warrants, Rodino and Klein both told police that Grant made the initial report anonymously, which Grant denied both to police and in her lawsuit. She told police she never meant to be anonymous, and Rodino knew her phone number and called her back to tell her the allegation was unfounded.

NFA dismissed its investigation in April 2017 after Klein, Director of Student Affairs John Iovino, then-Athletic Director Eric Swallow and Rodino had discussed the situation. Facchini and the alleged student victim were interviewed and both denied the allegation. The student's parents were not contacted, Grant's lawsuit stated.

Police did not start their investigation until June 2018, when an NFA coach reported information to DCF that Facchini allegedly was having sex with a second NFA student. Police then also investigated the school’s response to the April 2017 allegation.

Rodino was arrested by Norwich police Feb. 25, 2019, on charges of failure to report suspected child abuse, tampering with evidence, issuing a false statement and interfering with a police officer. A Norwich Superior Court judge dismissed the charge of failure to report, because the one-year statute of limitations had passed and granted Rodino’s application for accelerated rehabilitation.

Norwich police initially had sought four arrest warrants for failure to report suspected abuse to DCF, but State’s Attorney Michael Regan told police the statute of limitations had elapsed. In her lawsuit, attorney Wiktor cited a police report that stated Regan would not sign an arrest warrant for Grant “based on her effort to report the incident to Campus Security.”

The lawsuit stated that Grant feared retaliation by Klein when the NFA Board of Trustees launched an internal investigation in November 2018 into the school’s response to the initial allegations in 2017. The board had hired independent attorney Matthew Curtin. The lawsuit claimed Grant initially was told by NFA Director of Finance and Human Resources Cyndee Finger that meeting with the investigating attorney was voluntary.

Grant declined the interview, but Board of Trustees Chairwoman Sarette Williams later told her she was the only one who had “refused to cooperate” and told her to participate in the interview.

Curtin’s report, made verbally to the Board of Trustees in January 2019 with no written report, cleared Klein of any wrongdoing, and the board authorized him to mete out any internal disciplinary action.

Klein placed Rodino, Grant and physical and health education teacher Susan Hopkins-Terrell, who had discussed the initial allegation with Grant, on paid administrative leave. Hopkins-Terrell accepted a three-day unpaid suspension prior to the start of this school year and returned to her position. Former Athletic Director Eric Swallow had resigned Sept. 10, 2018, two days before Facchini’s arrest.

Grant’s lawsuit noted that Rodino and Swallow faced no internal disciplinary action by NFA for their roles in the investigation. Rodino remained on paid leave after he was arrested until he retired June 30.

The lawsuit claimed that when Klein called Grant into a disciplinary hearing on July 19 and presented his “findings of facts” in NFA’s internal investigation. Grant’s suit claims Klein’s information was “factually incorrect” in accusing her of lying to attorney Curtin. The suit called the hearing “a sham,” with Klein and NFA “having predetermined the outcome.” Corrections provided by Grant were “ignored,” the suit claimed.

Grant is seeking reinstatement to her former position, lost wages and benefits, compensation for emotional distress and attorney fees and costs.

c.bessette@theday.com

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