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Administrator suing New London schools, claims defamation

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New London — School administrator Alison Burdick, who says she was placed on leave for cooperating with a police investigation into the alleged sexual assault of an eighth-grader by school employee Corriche Gaskin, is suing the superintendent, the Board of Education and the magnet school director for what her lawyer says is a witch hunt that has caused tremendous damage to her reputation.

The lawsuit, dated Wednesday but not yet served on the defendants, names Superintendent Cynthia Ritchie, former superintendent and current school board member Manuel Rivera, board member Mirna Martinez, Magnet School Director Kate McCoy and the entire Board of Education. The civil complaint alleges, in part, defamation, negligent infliction of severe emotional distress, retaliation for reporting the superintendent to the Department of Children and Families and being unfairly disciplined.

Burdick, a city native and schools employee since 1998, is one of several staff members embroiled in the unfolding scandal involving Gaskin, who was employed as a climate specialist at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School. Police allege that in 2017, Gaskin engaged in sexual acts with a student and two staff members and shared cellphone videos of sexual encounters with others, including middle schoolers. He is being held in lieu of $500,000 on a number of charges, and the investigation is continuing.

Burdick served as principal of the entire middle school before it was divided into three separate magnet schools. She later was named director of the International Education Pathway magnet school and said she did not have a supervisory role over Gaskin.  In the lawsuit, Burdick claims the superintendent issued an email directing all personnel to cooperate with the police investigation and mentioned nothing about warrants being needed to cooperate and provide information to authorities.

She was placed on leave May 8 based on a "concern about the handling and possible dissemination of confidential information," according to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information request.

"The suspension issued by Superintendent Ritchie has been tied to the Gaskin investigation, rather than Dr. Burdick's cooperation with police," says the lawsuit. "No efforts have been made to disconnect Dr. Burdick from this widely publicized case."

The lawsuit also claims that Rivera and Martinez defamed Burdick during a May 7 special meeting of the school board by making false statements about her personal and professional integrity. Additionally, Burdick claims in the complaint that during a series of public gatherings, the superintendent allowed parents and members of the public to make false statements and defame and libel her without making any attempt to correct or stop them.

Burdick also claims Ritchie has targeted her and unfairly disciplined her over the past several months, causing severe emotional distress. She claims that after she reported Ritchie to DCF for failing to protect students against sexually deviant behavior, she was unfairly disciplined and placed on leave for cooperating with police and seeking training.

Ritchie could not immediately be reached to comment Wednesday evening.

Rivera, reached by phone, said he had not yet seen or heard about the lawsuit.

"I'll have to read it later tonight or probably in the morning and go from there," he said. "Obviously this is all a very sensitive matter on both sides. Other than that, there's nothing I can say about it."

School board member Martinez and McCoy also could not be reached to comment.

Burdick claims McCoy, who had been placed at the middle school to support administrators, rejected as "unnecessary" a state Department of Education training on prevention and identification of sexual assault requested by Burdick. She also claims that on multiple occasions McCoy has inquired of subordinates about the personal life of Burdick and that at a sporting event, McCoy sought out a reporter and shared information about the Gaskin investigation.

As the scandal unfolded, police fielded questions from the public about a potential conflict of interest because of a relationship between police Chief Peter Reichard and Burdick. Captain Brian Wright has said the chief, from the start, had removed himself from the investigation. Wright, who heads the investigative division,  said he retains all oversight of the Gaskin investigation.

James Sullivan, Burdick's attorney, said the relationship between Burdick and Reichard is between two consenting adults and is a personal matter that is not part of the investigation.

Burdick also claims in the lawsuit that McCoy, board Secretary Kristea Francolino and multiple members of the police department were improperly included in a May 7 executive session in which Burdick was discussed, though she was not on the agenda and had no notice of the session.

Board member Jason Catala, who has been vocally critical of the decision to even hire Gaskin, who was a convicted felon, said he had additional concerns after learning of Burdick's lawsuit Wednesday evening.   

"They're always saying that we're not supposed to, in public session, talk about individuals," Catala said after hearing some of the specific complaints in Burdick's lawsuit. "If  that indeed happened, I think that's an error on the superintendent's part. I'm also concerned that we did have some people in executive session that weren't supposed to be there."

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