"A pervasive atmosphere of racial discrimination that extends through all levels of adminstration and teaching." That's how the Malverne School District is described in a civil action suit filed in U.S. District Court earlier this month.
In it, two current Malverne teachers and one former assistant principal allege that they were persecuted for being African American by members of the administration, who they say called them names, deprived them of opportunities, retaliated against them and their family members, and ultimately tried to remove them from their positions.
"It is not hard to figure out that you are being discriminated against when your supervisor calls you a nigger and routinely reminds you that you are a black woman," reads the opening statement of a 38-page complaint, which alleges that this is what one of the plaintiffs, former Malverne High School assistant principal Betsy Benedith, 41, endured at the hands of the school's principal, James Brown.
Brown is one of four defendants listed in the case filed on Dec. 7, in addition to the district as a whole. The others are Superintendent James Hunderfund, Malverne High School Assistant Principal Vincent Romano, and Rosalinda Ricca, the chairperson of the high school Math department.
"Although...Brown, is also an African American, he specifically told her that she received less favorable treatment than her white counterparts from him because he did not want it to seem as if he was playing favorites by providing positive opportunities to another African American," according to the complaint, which can be viewed in its entirety above.
It also states that Benedith was denied professional development opportunities granted to another white assistant principal and that "administrators conspired to limit her advancement opportunities." She was eventually offered the opportunity to be excessed with tenure, contingent upon her exiting quietly, according to the lawsuit, but instead she was "simply terminated" at the end of 2011 after public protests, which she claims to have no involvement with, erupted during a school boad meeting.
The other plaintiffs in the case are Sherwyn Besson, 43, a high school business teacher with the district for the past seven years, and Kenneth Smith, 46, a mathematics teacher, who worked in the high school for five years before he was recently transferred to Howard T. Herber Middle School.
The suit states that Besson has been subjected to "increasing discrimination" that culiminated in his full-time position being abolished and replaced with a part-time position. It goes on to say that Besson's two children have also been subjected to retaliation for the complaints their father made against the district, including Superintendent Hunderfund. It accuses top administrators of punishing Besson by removing his fourth grade son from "normal classes for several months."
As for Smith, the suit alleges that he endured discrimination when it came to his course assignments, access to professional development and proper classroom equipment, economic opportunities and disciplinary actions.
It states that he was "wrongly blamed for writing an anonymous letter regarding the unethical assistance teachers were giving to students, and made the target of absurd charges from administrators and colleagues," which are detailed in the lawsuit. He was eventually transferred from the high school to the middle school, allegedly because his students performedly poorly on one question on one Regents exam, despite the fact that, according to the suit, his pupils usually out-perform the district average on the state tests.
Steven Morelli, the lawyer for the three plaintiffs, and the defendants named in the lawsuit, could not be reached for comment at press time.
UPDATE: Malverne Schools Superintendent James Hunderfund issued the following statement Tuesday afternoon: "Though we have not yet been served with the suit, and were therefore unaware of it, we believe the claim is without merit. As this is a pending legal matter, we can provide no additional comment."
This is a developing story. Check Patch for more updates.