“Can I have a show of hands of who is here tonight in support of the high school teacher currently under suspension?”
A sea of about 200 students, parents, alumni, and members of the Mattituck baseball program raised their hands after Lauren Gilbert, the mother of two boys at Cutchogue East Elementary School, asked the question at the Mattituck-Cutchogue Board of Education meeting Thursday night. A total of 26 other people approached the microphone during the more than two-hour meeting to address concerns with the absence of longtime physics teacher and Mattituck baseball coach, Steve DeCaro, and describe what they feel is a changing culture in the district.
“I recognize why many of you are here — it regards Mr. DeCaro,” Board president Charles Anderson said at the beginning of the meeting.
Mr. Anderson announced that the administration is currently investigating the situation and solely the board will determine the future of Mr. DeCaro, who was removed from the classroom last week, according to an Oct. 12 email sent to parents by high school principal Shawn Petretti. Mr. Anderson did not announce the status of Mr. DeCaro’s absence, saying it’s a “confidential matter.”
Superintendent Jill Gierasch emphasized that a replacement teacher, set to begin Oct. 29, is qualified, and another teacher will be available for extra help on Tuesday and Thursday evenings.
“This individual has taught physics and AP physics for over nine years,” Ms. Gierasch said. “We are confident he has personal and instructional skills needed to support success.”
But some parents said waiting nearly a month for a full-time replacement teacher wouldn’t cut it.
“To go without one month of properly learning about AP Physics is unacceptable,” said Katie Thomas, who has two sons, one of whom is a current senior. “I don’t know how a new teacher will be perceived by the students, but if it’s like the way it’s working right now, it’ll be a while before the kids can actually learn in that class.”
Ms. Gilbert added: “I have lost faith in this administration.”
Six current members of the Mattituck varsity baseball team spoke during the meeting. They said Mr. DeCaro has not only led the team to success, but they excel academically because of him.
“He pushes us to be the best … Whether it’s in the weight room, whether it’s at practice when we’re going over fundamentals,” said Tyler C. Olsen, a varsity player and AP physics student.
The audience gave the boys a standing ovation after they had all finished speaking.
Sean McDonald, a current AP physics student and member of the varsity baseball team, said he started an internal petition to support his teacher. He received 200 signatures in four days, representing a large percentage of the current high school enrollment.
“With their signatures, these students would depict that they support my physics teacher, and that they disagree with your choice to remove him,” he said. “You represent us, as a community — don’t let us down.”
Jon Lisowy, a current varsity baseball player and student, said he and a classmate compiled a video of 37 alumni and current students defending Mr. DeCaro. He asked the board to present it at the board meeting, but they respectfully declined. Mr. Anderson answered him directly and reassured Jon that all board members would view his video individually.
Kathy Perivolaris, whose son Marcos was a captain on the 2015 state championship team, read a letter her son had written, where he asked that if Mr. DeCaro doesn’t return, the championship banners from their year be removed out of respect for the coach that led them to victory.
Some parents in attendance described the board’s decision as an attack on teachers. Bridget Marine, who has four kids in the district, said the choice to stand up for Mr. DeCaro represents a fight for all teachers.
“We are fighting for all teachers, not just our favorite,” Ms. Marine said. “But he deserves the best.”
Kathleen Delaney, a grandmother of two boys at Cutchogue East, said: “Many of us do not know the facts. We as parents have a right to know.”
Other students spoke about having Mr. DeCaro as a teacher, and said a lot of his “wacky” and “memorable” quirks would be lost if they don’t bring him back to the district.
“He made me look forward to school,” said 2018 graduate Cassidy Bertolas. “Seniors need him to make memories.”
Another student described Mr. DeCaro as “a Mattituck tradition.”
Marguerite Kitz, a longtime teacher at Wading River Elementary School, said removing Mr. DeCaro has jeopardized the quality of the community. Her son, Jack, who was a student at Mattituck, she said, loved Mr. DeCaro.
“He has this sense of community that we moved here for,” she said. “It would be so sad to lose our incredible sense of community … I am proud to say that I live in Mattituck. I don’t want that to change.”
Top photo caption: From left, Christopher Nicholson, Bridget Marine and Lauren Gilbert were among the speakers at Thursday’s meeting. (Credit: Kate Nalepinski)