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Suit: Cutchogue East teacher was discriminated against following disclosure of illness, issue with student

A Cutchogue East Elementary School teacher who was temporarily removed from the classroom in 2018 is suing the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District, alleging the action was taken by administrators after she disclosed an illness, according to a civil rights complaint filed in federal court last month.

Donna Finnigan, a fourth-grade teacher and 22-year veteran of the district, said in a 28-page discrimination complaint filed June 26 in Eastern District Court of New York that administrators removed her from the classroom in part because they believed she had a mental disability after she disclosed a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. The lawsuit states Ms. Finnigan’s disciplinary issues arose after she had problems with a student who exhibited frequent “inappropriate behavior” and that she was treated differently than other school employees who faced discipline over interactions with students, including a Board of Education action that required her to undergo psychiatric evaluation. The suit names superintendent Jill Gierasch, principal Kathleen Devine and Dr. Randall Solomon, a Port Jefferson psychiatrist who evaluated Ms. Finnigan on behalf of the district, as codefendants.

Attorneys for the school district made an initial appearance on the case Wednesday. The district declined comment for this story through a media relations firm. Ms. Finnigan is represented by attorney Scott Michael Mishkin of Islandia.

Ms. Finnigan claims in the lawsuit that issues with administrators at the school, where she still teaches, began during the 2017-18 school year when her classroom of 20 students included one boy who “it was known within the district to have a bad reputation due to his consistent inappropriate behavior.” She said she met with Ms. Devine on several occasions throughout the school year to address the student’s behavior — which, according to the suit, included pulling down the pants of another student, using derogatory slurs and “repeatedly slapping the girls in the classroom on their foreheads telling them that he was saying ‘hello’ Egyptian style.” Ms. Finnigan said administrators declined to take action.

During an April 2018 meeting with the mother of the student, who was named only through initials in the lawsuit, Ms. Finnigan advised her that with her son’s approval she allowed the girls in the class to “say ‘hello’ back to him Egyptian style.”

“Although this may have seemed like an unusual response to [the student’s] behavior, without the guidance from the district, Devine or Gierasch, plaintiff was running out of strategies,” the lawsuit states. [Editor’s Note: Ms. Gierasch was employed in another district in April 2018. She was hired as Mattituck-Cutchogue superintendent that June.]

Ms. Finnigan claims in the lawsuit that the meeting with the student’s mother was followed by several appointments with administrators in May 2018 that led to a memo being generated for her personnel file documenting the incident. She declined to sign the memo because it said the student “tapped the girls’ foreheads,” but that they were allowed to “strike” his forehead. She disagreed with the use of the word “strike.”

That August, administrators called a meeting with Ms. Finnigan to discuss a letter she later sent to the student’s parents in which she referred to him as a “bully.” On Aug. 16, 2018, the Board of Education voted to have her undergo psychiatric evaluation the following month. She was then removed from her teaching position prior to the start of the school year and the evaluation, according to the complaint.

Ms. Finnigan also said Ms. Gierasch tainted Dr. Solomon’s view of her by discussing the matter prior to her scheduled evaluation and by writing “in all capital letters the diagnoses she wanted [him] to determine.” In October 2018, Dr. Solomon concluded that due to Ms. Finnigan’s “neurodegenerative disease, she was experiencing subtle cognitive changes” that might prevent her from exercising “good judgement,” the lawsuit claims. He also allegedly recommended she receive treatment for mental health issues and called her conduct “a safety issue for the entire school environment.”

Ms. Finnigan was kept out of the school building until November 2018 and only returned to her regular teaching role last September, according to the complaint.

District residents defended Ms. Finnigan at several meetings in late summer and fall 2018. A change.org petition to have her reinstated generated more than 700 signatures.

She is seeking unspecified monetary damages to be determined by a jury for discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act and emotional damage.