10/22/12 2:35pm
10/22/2012 2:35 PM

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON FILE PHOTO | Former Mattituck teacher Anthony Claudio, right, enters the federal courthouse in Central Islip last Wednesday morning.

A jury has found the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District discriminated against Anthony Claudio due to his age but not his gender when it fired the special education teacher in 2009.  (more…)

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | Anthony Claudio enters the federal courthouse in Central Islip Wednesday morning.

The jury did not produce a verdict Thursday following the first day of deliberation in former Mattituck-Cutchogue special education teacher Anthony Claudio’s age and gender discrimination case against his former employer.

Mr. Claudio, 50, alleges in his complaint, which was filed in 2009, that he was terminated from a special education department where 28 of 30 employees were female and most were younger than 30. He’s seeking reinstatement, back pay and punitive damages.

The trial began Oct. 9 before Judge Joseph Bianco at the federal courthouse in Central Islip.

The eight-member jury requested Thursday that partial transcripts from the testimony of three witnesses — Mr. Claudio, superintendent James McKenna and teacher Barbara Smith — be read back by the court clerk.

The testimony from Mr. McKenna was him explaining what he meant when he said Mr. Claudio taught in an “old-school way.”

The transcript of Ms. Smith, who is Mr. Claudio’s wife’s sister, was her testimony that Mr. McKenna once told her he liked to hire young female teachers he could mold.

Mr. Claudio’s testimony, which relates to his explanation of how he believed the district discriminated against him, was still being prepared when the jury was relieved for the week at 4:30 p.m.

The jury will continue deliberations at 9:30 a.m. Monday.

10/17/2012 6:00 PM

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | Former Mattituck teacher Anthony Claudio, right, enters the federal courthouse in Central Islip Wednesday morning.

The jury will deliberate Thursday morning in former Mattituck-Cutchogue special education teacher Anthony Claudio’s age and gender discrimination case against his former employer.

Mr. Claudio, 50, alleges in his complaint, which was filed in 2009, that he was terminated from a special education department where 28 of 30 employees were female and most were younger than 30. He’s seeking reinstatement, back pay and punitive damages.

Mr. Claudio was one of four witnesses who testified Wednesday morning. Superintendent James McKenna, high school principal Shawn Petretti and former school board member Lynne Krauza also testified on the fifth day of testimony in the trial, which began Oct. 9 before Judge Joseph Bianco at the federal courthouse in Central Islip.

Defense attorney Jeltje DeJong delivered her closing argument Wednesday afternoon, in which she argued that Mr. Claudio was well-liked in his time with the district but was not an effective classroom instructor.

“Everyone, including Mr. McKenna, likes Mr. Claudio,” Ms. DeJong said. “But that doesn’t make him a good special education teacher.”

Mr. Claudio’s attorney, Frank Blangiardo of Cutchogue, said in his rebuttal that the plaintiff didn’t have a chance of maintaining his employment in a special education department where women outnumbered men 8 to 1 under Mr. McKenna’s administration.

“Thirty-eight women, two males, we know that is way too low,” Mr. Blangiardo told the jury. “[Men make up] 5 percent of the special education department. One of them was Mr. Claudio and he got terminated.”

After dismissing the jury for the day Wednesday, Judge Bianco had more harsh words for Mr. Blangiardo, who was reprimanded frequently throughout the trial. The judge said he found it troubling that the attorney told the jury in his rebuttal that if they found the district discriminated against Mr. Claudio then that would help to remove Mr. McKenna from his position.

“That’s not proper,” Judge Bianco said. “There’s a long list, but I’m not going to go through it now. I’m going to leave it up to the jury.”

The eight members of the jury were instructed to return to the courthouse Thursday for deliberation beginning at 9:45 a.m.

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A jury verdict could be handed down as early as today in former Mattituck-Cutchogue special education teacher Anthony Claudio’s age and gender discrimination case against his former employer.

Mr. Claudio, 50, who was one of four witnesses questioned on the trial’s fourth day Tuesday, will be back on the stand for continued cross examination by the school district’s attorney when the trial resumes at 9:30 a.m. He alleges in his complaint, which was filed in 2009, that he was terminated from a special education department where 28 of 30 employees were female and most were younger than 30. He’s seeking reinstatement, back pay and punitive damages.

The trial began Oct. 9 before Judge Joseph Bianco at the federal courthouse in Central Islip.

Much of the testimony Tuesday centered around the events of the April 16, 2009 school board meeting in which the Board of Education, acting on the decision of district superintendent James McKenna to deny Mr. Claudio tenure, voted 4-3 to end the teacher’s probationary period and his employment with the district.

Former Mattituck-Cutchogue school board member Jeffrey Smith said he agreed with Mr. McKenna’s decision to not offer Mr. Claudio tenure after attending a Special Education Parent Teacher’s Association meeting where several parents expressed concern over the teacher’s interactions with their children.

“The way he spoke to those kids, I’m sorry, the man does not belong in a classroom,” he told the court.

Mr. Smith said board members were told by a school district attorney at an executive session before the April 2009 meeting that it did not have to host a public vote to end Mr. Claudio’s probationary period since state law grants superintendents sole authority to make tenure recommendations. Mr. Smith called the vote unnecessary and said it was held at the urging of board members who opposed Mr. McKenna’s decision to deny Mr. Claudio tenure.

Typically the board votes only on resolutions to grant tenure to teachers who receive the superintendent’s recommendation and no formal vote is held for those not granted tenure, Mr. Smith testified. Teachers who do not receive tenure after three years of probation are usually given a chance to resign before their employment is terminated, he said.

Board trustee Janique Nine, one of three members to oppose the resolution to end Mr. Claudio’s probationary period, was recalled by the plaintiff’s attorney Tuesday to testify that Mr. McKenna took a “straw poll” from board members during the executive session so he could gauge how they would vote during the public session.

Ms. Nine said the executive session got “heated” after she, board president Jerry Diffley and former vice president Deborah Cahill offered strong objections over the tenure denial.

“This was [Mr. McKenna’s] decision, we didn’t have any power there,” Ms. Nine said. “We weren’t going to get him to change his mind.”

Mr. Claudio’s wife Mary, a former substitute teacher and clerk in the district, testified Tuesday that Mr. McKenna told her Mr. Claudio wasn’t being offered tenure because you “can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

She cried when questioned about a performance review Mr. McKenna gave Mr. Claudio on November 10, 2005, two days after Ms. Claudio, who was diagnosed that year with ovarian cancer, had surgery.

Mr. Claudio alleges in his complaint that having the review done at that time was unfair since the superintendent knew about his wife’s surgery when he scheduled it.

When questioned Tuesday by Jeltje DeJong, the Smithtown-based attorney representing the Mattituck school district, Mr. Claudio testified that he did not request a date change for the performance appraisal and that he left the teacher comment section on his review blank.

Both Mr. Claudio and his wife said he signed an agreement in 2008 to not sue for tenure after his probationary period was initially extended one year. He said he signed it because he was told he would be fired if he did not and he’d then lose his health benefits. He said he was also assured by Mattituck High School principal Shawn Petretti that he would be granted tenure the following year.

Mr. Smith testified Tuesday that it was clear to him in 2008 that Mr. Claudio would not be granted tenure the following year.

“We were giving him a gift year so he could get a new job before he was denied tenure,” Mr. Smith told the jury.

For the second time during the trial, the jury was asked to leave the courtroom so Judge Bianco could reprimand Mr. Claudio’s attorney for inserting his own opinions into questioning. He was also told multiple times Tuesday to not ask questions regarding the legality of the April 2009 executive session, since Mr. Claudio’s complaint makes no reference to any violation of open meetings law.

“The jury will not be asked to make any determination on open meetings law,” Judge Bianco told attorney Frank Blangiardo of Cutchogue. “Repeatedly bringing this matter up will only confuse them.”

Before jury deliberation, at least two more defense witnesses — Mr. McKenna and former school board trustee Lynne Krauza — are expected to be called Wednesday. Ms. DeJong said she might also call Mr. Petretti to testify, who like Mr. McKenna was called as a witness by Mr. Blangiardo last week.

Judge Bianco said if the jury does not deliberate today it will likely do so Thursday morning.

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10/12/12 10:32am
10/12/2012 10:32 AM

BETH YOUNG FILE PHOTO | Superintendent James McKenna speaking during a school board meeting last year.

Mattituck-Cutchogue school superintendent Jame McKenna testified Thursday that age and gender were “absolutely not” factors in the denial of tenure for a former special education teacher pursuing a federal civil rights action against the district.

Mr. McKenna said that while Anthony Claudio, 50, had a rapport with students and faculty, he was cited in numerous instructional observations as needing to improve his classroom management and tailor his lessons to meet the individual needs of his special education students.

“You do not hire to be a chaperone, you do not hire to be a coach,” Mr. McKenna said. “You’re hired to be a classroom teacher.”

Mr. Claudio has alleged that he was denied tenure and ultimately terminated in 2009 because of his age and gender. The civil trial began Tuesday before Judge Joseph Bianco in Central Islip.

On Thursday, the superintendent said Mr. Claudio had a “fun and friendly manner” with students but did not improve his differentiated instruction skills with students to fit their needs.

He said the district was about evenly divided between male and female employees, though the special education staff was mostly female. When asked why there was a higher number of women in the school, Mr. McKenna said he didn’t know, but insisted that gender or age played no part in his decisions on who to recommend to the board of education, nor did he ever “alter” resumes to hire more women.

The superintendent’s statement came during a lengthy direct and cross-examination that focused on the lack of formal evaluations in Mr. Claudio’s final years, how Mr. Claudio was fired by the school board and the circumstances around an agreement that stated Mr. Claudio would not sue for tenure if the district extended his initial probationary period one year prior to his termination.

Mr. McKenna testified that the discussion of extending Mr. Claudio’s probationary period was to give him time to look for another job while his wife received cancer treatments at the time.

During direct examination, Mr. McKenna said he and the board discussed the measure because they were concerned for Mr. Claudio’s future, but were “forced” to terminate him after he refused to resign after his probationary period.

Mr. McKenna said most teachers who leave the district resign so termination will not appear on their resume.

However, in the trial’s deposition, Mr. McKenna had testified that he hadn’t spoken to the board about adding a fourth year to Mr. Claudio’s probation. He later testified that he couldn’t remember whether he spoke to the board or not.

The superintendent was also questioned on the testimony of high school principal Shawn Petretti, who said Wednesday that he was “confident” Mr. Claudio would receive tenure.

Also at issue were the lack of formal observations filed at the district for Mr. Claudio. No evaluations were written up during his final year in the district. Mr. McKenna said due to time constraints some administrators did not write up their evaluations.

But Judge Bianco told the plaintiff’s lawyer, Frank Blangiardo of Cutchogue, that he would instruct the jury on the state education law Mr. Blangiardo had argued was violated.

He told Mr. Blangiardo that the focus of the case was whether or not there was a civil rights violation, not whether or not proper procedure was followed.

“If they didn’t follow the agreement, [Mr. Claudio] doesn’t win,” the judge said.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Blangiardo was warned by Judge Bianco after he asked Mattituck Special Education director Tricia Desederio about a previous lawsuit she testified at during direct examination.

Judge Bianco said the lawyer was attempting to distract jurors by hinting at the prior lawsuit against the district, adding that he “wasn’t born yesterday.”

Mr. Blangiardo apologized, but the judge continued to warn him.

“You keep apologizing but you throw something out there and it can’t be undone. The apologies aren’t helping because it’s too late,” Judge Bianco said before speaking directly to Mr. Claudio and urging him to speak to his lawyer about following proper procedure.

10/11/12 10:00am
10/11/2012 10:00 AM

Former special education teacher Anthony Claudio in the 2009 Mattituck High School yearbook, his final school year with the district.

Anthony Claudio was told by his principal at Mattituck High School that he’d likely be granted tenure about a year before the former special education teacher was fired from the district, the principal testified in federal court Wednesday.

Mattituck High School principal Shawn Petretti told jurors he felt confident Mr. Claudio would receive tenure following a meeting between himself, special education director Tricia Desiderio and district superintendent James McKenna near the end of Mr. Claudio’s final year of his original three-year probationary term.

Mr. Claudio, 50, has alleged in a civil complaint that gender and age played a role in his being denied tenure and ultimately terminated in 2009 from a Mattituck-Cutchogue school district that employs mostly women – many of whom are younger than 30. The district has maintained that Mr. Claudio’s employment was terminated based on his performance in the classroom and his participation in special education committee meetings.

The trial got under way Tuesday before Judge Joseph Bianco at the federal courthouse in Central Islip.

In his complaint, Mr. Claudio states that Mr. Petretti told him in 2008 that he would likely receive tenure the following year if he signed an agreement to not sue for tenure after his probationary period with the district was extended for one more year.

Mr. Petretti said in a conversation with Mr. Claudio in the winter of 2008 he mentioned that he thought tenure would be granted that spring. The principal said that conversation came prior to the signing of any agreement.

“I came out with the impression [Mr. Claudio] would get tenure,” Mr. Petretti testified.

The principal described Mr. Claudio as a “team player” and said he admired his involvement with the local fire department and how he helped with various school and community events.

“He was the person I would go to if I needed something,” Mr. Petretti said.

The district’s school psychologist Elisabeth Terry and guidance counselor Brian Lynch also testified Wednesday, both saying they had no problems with Mr. Claudio’s job performance.

Mr. Petretti painted a different picture of Mr. Claudio’s abilities as an instructor during cross-examination by Jeltje DeJong, a Smithtown-based attorney representing the school district.

When Ms. DeJong asked Mr. Petretti if he agreed with Mr. McKenna’s reasons to deny Mr. Claudio tenure, he said he did and added that Mr. Claudio failed to cater to individual students’ needs. Reviewing classroom material was a constant  problem for the teacher, he said.

“There was slow improvement, but it wasn’t very strong,” Mr. Petretti said.

Although the principal described his final classroom evaluation of Mr. Claudio during the 2008-09 school year as “fair,” he testified that he didn’t write-up a review because he knew Mr. Claudio wouldn’t be working in the district the following year.

“He was determined to retain his position,” Mr. Petretti said. “I was trying to make a point to Mr. Claudio, he wasn’t going to get tenure.”

Mr. Petretti also testified Wednesday that he spoke in 2008 to Mr. Claudio’s wife, Mary, who worked as a substitute aide and a substitute secretary for the district, about what her husband’s options were.

Mr. Petretti said he told Ms. Claudio, who was battling ovarian cancer, that if Mr. Claudio resigned, he would be able to keep his health benefits through the summer. If he did not, the Board of Education would have to take action and their family health benefits would end following the official decision, he said.

“It was out of concern,” Mr. Petretti said, when asked why he had the conversation with Ms. Claudio.

Mr. Petretti also testified that he was the one who approached the administration with the idea to extend Mr. Claudio’s term by another year so he could have enough time to find employment elsewhere.

But school board member Janique Nine and former board vice president Debra Cahill testified Wednesday that the agreement stated the extension was for additional evaluation for consideration of tenure and made no reference to Mr. Claudio needing to find a new job.

Ms. Nine and Ms. Cahill, both of whom voted against ending Mr. Claudio’s probationary period during an April 16, 2009 school board meeting, said they didn’t agree with Mr. McKenna’s decision to deny Mr. Claudio tenure because an evaluation wasn’t completed during the teacher’s final year with the district.

“There was nothing,” Ms. Nine said, testifying that Mr. Claudio’s personnel file contained no reviews for  his final year of employment. “Not one observation [was filed].”

The trial resumes Thursday morning at 10:15 a.m. Mr. McKenna and Ms. Claudio are expected to take the stand.

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