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Friday, July 12, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

NY Charter School Teachers Call Chief Biased

(CN) - Two months after 13 current and former teachers at the Riverhead Charter School in Calverton, N.Y., filed a $10 million lawsuit against the school and its superintendent, four more teachers have come forward with harassment and discrimination claims.

In a lawsuit filed Oct. 8 in Suffolk County Supreme Court, the educators claim charter school principal Raymond Ankrum routinely discriminated against employees based on their race, gender and age, and in some cases, also sexually harassed them.

Plaintiffs Mary Ellen Weaver, David Slover, Lacey Branker and Raymond Patuano, all of whom are white, claim they were fired as part of Ankrum's agenda to replace older, female and Caucasian teachers with younger teachers "whom he could more easily manipulate into furthering his discriminatory agenda."

They claim Ankrum's was evident from shortly after he was hired as principal in 2012. They allege that during his first staff meeting, "he indicated that he 'feels like a minority' because he 'inherited' an 'all-white staff.'"

They also claim he made additional comments revealing his biases over the next several weeks when he opined that "we need more color in the building" and "we need more males here."

One of the plaintiffs also claims that Ankrum exclaimed to her that he "can't wait until next year, I'm hiring all young, skinny girls with short dresses."

A lawsuit filed in August by 13 current and former teachers at the charter school, is premised on similar claims. In addition to $10 million in damages, the plaintiffs in the earlier case are seeking Ankrum's removal and the reinstatement of teachers fired during his tenure as superintendent.

In the latest case, the teachers say Ankrum's animus didn't stop with them. They claim that he also made hostile comments about students. On one occasion, the complaint says, in reference to a child with disabilities, Ankrum allegedly told a social worker at the school, "I'm not feeding into [the student's] disability," and "I'm not having a school of freaks."

One of the teachers also claims that Ankrum told him to "do whatever you can" to set a special needs student off, as he was "trying to create a paper trail" to justify the student's removal from the school.

Ankrum also allegedly told one of the teachers that "my biggest issue with this school is that parents with disabled kids continue to procreate."

The complaint also focuses at length on Ankrum's alleged activities on Twitter.

The teachers claim many of Ankrum's tweets contained "racially charged and racially-biased opinions."

Among the tweets Ankrum allegedly fired off over the past three years was a statement claiming "white male privilege is really something in the good ole United States" and writing that "they never want to acknowledge they suck as teachers and they can't make connections with black kids."

The teachers claim that Ankrum "close-minded" beliefs also caused him to retaliate against them. One of the plaintiff claims that after Ankrum learned she was getting a divorce, she was placed on an "improvement plan" despite previously good evaluations.

Another plaintiff claims that Ankrum gave her negative performance reviews and then fired her shortly after he discovered she was a lesbian.

All four of the plaintiffs in the current lawsuit claim that were fired on pretextual grounds after they objected, sometimes publicly, to Ankrum's conduct.

They seek damages for race, gender and age discrimination, in addition to retaliation and negligent hiring.

The spate of lawsuits are just the latest chapter in the struggles at Riverhead Charter since Ankrum took over as principal. In March 2014, the New York State United Teachers union filed an improper labor practice charge against the school, accusing the school's principal and administration of union-busting.

The complaint alleged the charter school's administration called several "professional development" teacher meetings on campus to ask teachers how they felt about the union and circulated a petition supporting decertification. Those meetings and the petition, according to the complaint, violated the state Public Employees Fair Employment Act.

Then in September 2014, school board member Renee Harris Thompson filed a federal lawsuit against the school after she was not re-appointed to her volunteer board position, alleging that Ankrum "was verbally threatening and abusive" towards her and made "false accusations and disparaging remarks" about her performance.

Riverhead Charter School's then-attorney, Richard Zuckerman of Lamb & Barnosky, LLP, disputed the facts of that case last year, telling the Riverhead News Review that Thompson "is claiming that her reputation was destroyed, without saying what her reputation was," adding that "[she] is not suing to get her board position back, she is just suing for damages. From that, I think you can draw your own conclusion about whether this lawsuit has any merit."

After the filing of the first of the latest lawsuits, Sharon Berlin, an attorney for the school, also told Riverhead News Review the allegations in that complaint were unfounded. According to the paper, she said, "the complaint reads like light summer reading rather than anything based in reality and the relevant law."

That lawsuit was filed by Dell & Dean of Garden City, N.Y. The firm also represents the plaintiffs in the latest lawsuit against the school.

Neither the charter school nor Ankrum responded to requests for comment from Courthouse News.

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