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    Monday, April 15, 2024

    ‘Targeted’ for union activity: Longtime Salem teacher returned to duty by arbitrator

    Salem ― Almost a year and a half after being placed on administrative leave, a 37-year teacher at Salem School is back to work after an arbitrator ruled Superintendent of Schools Brian Hendrickson targeted her because of her position as union president.

    Mary Barone returned to the district late last month as a full-time math teacher for grades 7 and 8, according to district documents. The move came after Connecticut State Department of Education Arbitrator Peter Adomeit found Barone was not guilty of moral misconduct, insubordination or anything else that would justify firing her under state law.

    “The totality of the evidence shows that the grounds for termination were not in good faith,” Adomeit wrote in his 24-page report. “Hendrickson targeted Barone because she was president of the Salem Federation of Teachers.”

    Meanwhile, a hearing is pending on the one-year suspension without pay of middle school social studies teacher and union Vice President Brian Fleming. He was placed on leave May 8, just over a week after he led a no-confidence vote against Hendrickson and Salem School principal Dan Driscoll alleging a “culture of fear and intimidation.”

    The divide has pitted the union, whose members allege rampant staff turnover amid authoritarian behavior from the top, against a relatively new administration that argues inappropriate behavior went unchecked for too long.

    Barone in a phone interview Friday said students have welcomed her “with open arms.”

    “It’s been a long year and a half, but I’m back where I belong,” she said.

    AFT Connecticut communications coordinator Matt O’Connor said there have been 39 staff resignations since Hendrickson became superintendent in 2021, including 18 teachers. He said the school on average employs between 32 and 36 teachers.

    For Barone, it was important to return to the community she’s been part of since 1987.

    “I still have a lot to offer the students, the families and new teachers entering Salem School,” she said.

    Adomeit’s report, based on testimony from current and former teachers and administrators as well as written documentation, portrayed Barone as a friend, mentor and respected teacher.

    But a post-hearing brief from the district’s legal counsel, Mark J. Sommaruga, described her as a “hostile, intimidating, offensive, humiliating, abusive and unprofessional” figure who was given preferential treatment by former administrators including close friend and former principal Joan Phillips.

    “Enough is enough,” Sommaruga wrote. “Based upon the evidence, the Salem School District administration has proven cause for termination of Mary Barone’s contract as a teacher.”

    Hendrickson in a Friday email said he disagrees with Adomeit’s decision, which cannot be appealed.

    “Under New Jersey law, however, districts are provided the right to appeal, and a local school district did just that in response to a decision by this very same arbitrator in which he returned to work a teacher who used the n-word in front of students in the classroom,” he said. “In that case, the District Court in New Jersey reversed Adomeit’s decision.”

    School board Chairman Sean Reith issued the following statement Friday night.

    “The Salem Board of Education has recently been made aware of the findings from the arbitrator assigned to Mary Barone’s termination hearing. The Salem Board of Education has held two special meetings where the Board listened to legal counsel and discussed this matter in Executive Session.

    The Board has reviewed the findings with administration and our legal counsel. While the Board disagrees with the findings, and while the Board stands by its School Administration and believes that they are acting in the best interests of the school system and well-being of our students, the arbitrator’s findings are binding and cannot be appealed per Connecticut law. Accordingly, we must respect the process and Ms. Barone was legally entitled by the process to be reinstated to work at Salem School effective Wednesday, February 28, 2024.

    Finally, the Board stands behind our policies, will update them as may be necessary, and we will continue to keep the well-being and safety of our students and our staff our top priority.“

    The Barone case

    Barone, a math interventionist for the Salem School District at the time, was suspended following a September 2022 incident at a school open house during which Hendrickson alleged she behaved unprofessionally when she was photographed pretending to be arrested by Resident State Trooper Kevin Crosby.

    Hendrickson in an Aug. 21, 2023, letter warning her of possible termination also pointed to her behavior at a 2012 union election when she first ran for president. A report from then-Superintendent H. Kaye Griffin alleged “bullying” behavior that included yelling at a colleague to “shut up” and referring to those in attendance as “asses.”

    Barone was on unpaid administrative leave for 10 days while Griffin investigated, according to the arbitrator. She returned based on a signed agreement to abide by district policies and the state Code of Professional Responsibility for Educators, and to behave in a professional manner going forward.

    Adomeit said the superintendent’s vague accusations did not “warrant termination of her career.”

    “The majority of the letter focuses on an incident over ten (10) years ago during the course of a union meeting that did not result in discipline,” he wrote.

    The arbitrator also disputed the findings of a workplace investigation by the Hartford-based Rose Kallor law firm, which was retained by the school district attorney to look at bullying comments she allegedly made to several female employees.

    Boyfriend comments

    According to the report, Investigator Robin Kallor found one comment about a woman’s state of dress and another about a student’s “two moms” did not violate policy. Another complaint that Barone jokingly referred to Hendrickson as his female administrative assistant’s “boyfriend” was found by Kallor to be an example of bullying as defined by district policy, and a way to undermine the assistant’s working relationship with her supervisor.

    But the arbitrator argued that while the superintendent’s assistant in testimony at the hearing was uncomfortable with the way Barone referred to her relationship with the superintendent, the greeting did not rise to the level of moral misconduct.

    Kallor also cited violations of district and state professionalism standards in Barone’s interactions with a now-retired teacher who had objected to Barone’s behavior during the 2012 election of union officers. The behavior occurred outside of school.

    The investigator said Barone gave the woman the middle finger and called her a “bitch” on more than one occasion in their Niantic beach neighborhood.

    Adomeit in his findings said the state Code of Professional Responsibilities for Educators requires teachers to recognize their actions reflect directly on the profession.

    “The operative word is reflect. For actions to reflect, they must be seen,” Adomeit said.“To weigh whether or not they were professional, they would need to have occurred in a professional setting.They did not.”

    Changes being made

    Hendrickson in his email acknowledged the district has complied with the arbitrator’s decision as required by state law.

    “We will continue to seek to maintain standards of professionalism and a safe and positive school culture and climate for all students and staff and, as such, have revised our employee handbook to further clarify our expectations,” he said.

    The definition of workplace harassment has been updated to include “unwelcomed rude or inappropriate comments, personal humiliation, overly critical remarks, unwanted jokes, ostracizing behaviors, intimidation tactics, and/or belittling/sarcastic language towards students or staff.”

    It also includes new language to emphasize the district “expects professional conduct at all times (both on and off campus) and reserves the right to take appropriate action against conduct that is unbecoming of a Salem school employee or that diminishes the district’s reputation.”

    Meanwhile, a Teachers’ Prohibitive Practice Complaint lodged by the union against the Salem Board of Education is pending before the State Board of Labor Relations. Barone said it alleges anti-union animus.

    She said she’s been paid for all of her suspension except for 10 days specifically called out by Hendrickson as discipline for the open house incident. She is appealing that 10-day suspension, issued while she was already on leave, in a separate grievance.

    e.regan@theday.com

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