Friday, July 22, 2005

N.Y. Teacher Jillian Caruso: Anti-Bush Photoplay Redux

Last October, not long after we began writing on this site, we covered the story of teacher Shiba Pillai-Diaz, who alleged that she had lost her job because of her refusal to take down a photograph of President George W. Bush. Her employer, New Jersey's South Brunswick School District, stated that she had simply walked away from her classroom. In the end, after a great-deal of handwringing on both sides, Pillai-Diaz returned to a teaching assignment, but at different school and grade-level.

Now, another young teacher, this time in New York,
is saying the same thing: (Emphasis are added.)
A New York woman claims that she was forced from her teaching post by an elementary school principal who objected to her Republican activism and last year ordered the removal of a portrait of President George W. Bush from the educator's Long Island classroom. In a federal discrimination lawsuit, Jillian Caruso, 26, claims that she was improperly forced to resign her job by Birch Lane Elementary School principal Joyce Becker-Seddio, the wife of state Assemblyman Frank Seddio, a Brooklyn Democrat. In her U.S. District Court complaint, a copy of which you'll find below, Caruso contends that she was retaliated against by Becker-Seddio because of her political work, which has included volunteering at last year's GOP convention and membership in the Republican National Committee. Caruso, who taught first and third graders at Birch Lane, also claims that when the principal spotted the Bush portrait late last year--it was hanging among photos of other U.S. presidents--she "became outraged and insisted that the picture be removed." Caruso, who complied with that order, has named the Massapequa Union Free School District as the sole defendant in her action, which seeks unspecified monetary damages and a reappointment to her prior teaching post.
As stated on page 6 of the complaint, Ms. Caruso is seeking compensatory damages, punitive damages, payment of attorney's fees, and reinstatement to her teaching position. Of course she is exercising her right to a trial by jury.

The supporting documentation, especially,
page 2 of the complaint, is interesting in that it states that principal Joyce Becker-Seddio wrote the following statement about the job-performance of Ms. Caruso for what appears to be a letter of recommendation. (As an aside, many districts have directed that administrators no longer write letters of recommendation for teachers out of fear that such letters will be used in litigation.)
Jillian Caruso was a teacher at Birch Lane Elementary School for two years. During that time, she taught first and third grade classes. I have had many opportunities to observe her work as well as assess her potential for growth in her profession.

Ms. Caruso encourages children to strive to be the best that they can be. She has wonderful and strong rapport with the children, and believed that they were her "team." She showed a sincere interest in them as individuals, and was consistently fair in dealing with them.

Whenever there was an extra project to be tackled, Ms. Caruso volunteered to participate. Whether it was collecting supplies for soldiers in Iraq, or helping with tsunami victims, Jillian was always willing and eager to assist. She enjoys being part of the total school community.

Ms. Caruso has a great deal of untapped potential in the field of working with children. I feel confident that her professional abilities will enhance the fabric of an educational system that she chooses employment in.
The problem with using this particular note as supporting evidence for Ms. Caruso's case isn't what it says; it's what the excerpt doesn't say. There is no mention at all of Jillian Caruso's teaching abilities. The excerpt states that Caruso was "consistently fair" when dealing with children, but there is nothing about the overall learning environment to be found in her classroom.

I think that the district's defense will be that Jillian Caruso wasn't forced to resign due to her political activities but because she wasn't an effective classroom teacher.

Traditionally, school districts usually dismiss probationary teachers (like Jillian Caruso) without any explanation at all as to why they are being "non-reelected" for the following school year. Many times, such teachers are given a chance to resign so that they may avoid having to state that they were "terminated from employment" on future job applications.

If Jillian Caruso has a case, as she very well might, it will turn on the testimony of whatever credible witnesses that she is able to present to the jury. On
page 3, she states that the parents of her students "universally complemented the Plaintiff's teaching performance."

Certainly, if Ms. Caruso can actually get some of those parents to come to the courthouse and give supporting testimony it will help. The problem is that the district's attorney will attempt to get the parents' testimony "thrown out" because they are not "expert witnesses" with regards to anyone's teaching ability.

The civil complaint states that Principal Becker-Sedio was "outraged" because there was a photograph of the president on the wall of Ms. Caruso's classroom.

If there are any credible witnesses to that allegation, the district would be well-advised to get out their checkbook and reach a settlement before this affair goes to trial.

In a criminal trial, the standard for determining guilt is "beyond reasonable doubt." A civil trial is very different. The standard used is a "preponderance of evidence." It is a well-known fact that juries are notoriously unpredictable. They may simply reckon that as Caruso was a partisan Republican activist and Principal Becker-Sedio is the spouse of a Democratic State Assemblyman, that there is something to the allegations.

It's too bad that we don't have the district's side of the story. It isn't likely that we will get much out of them. My guess is that the district will cite the all-purpose excuses of "We can't comment on a personnel matter," or "We can't comment due to pending litigation," as reasons for not making any substantive statements to the media.
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