Editorial: Manhasset school district fails test

The Island Now

We would have to be grading on a very generous scale if we were to give the Manhasset school district a passing grade for the way it handled the announcement last Friday that Superintendent Vincent Butera “will be on a leave of absence” for the rest of the school year and the events that led up to it.

The announcement, made in a news release, followed newspaper reports that an investigation by an outside counsel found that Butera had violated the district’s rules on sexual harassment after a Shelter Rock Elementary School teacher complained in September 2020 about his conduct with her that she said began in October 2018.

The findings of the investigation were reportedly presented to the board in late 2020. No explanation has been offered why those findings were not disclosed by the school board.

Butera acknowledged the findings at a board meeting two weeks ago while saying he was disheartened that the teacher had construed his actions as troublesome.

Butera said he had “reflected deeply” about “my actions and behavior” and felt “profound regret and sadness.”

“Despite my intent, the independent counsel did find that my attention was perceived by the complainant as unwelcome and therefore a violation of district policy,” he said.

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Butera outlined five examples of his conduct. They included:

Coming in “close proximity to the complainant” while having a “work-related conversation” during a retirement party with 100 people and a DJ playing loud music.
Hugging the teacher in an effort to console her after another teacher died “as I did with others that day.”

Visiting the teacher’s classroom frequently, which Butera said he does regularly to observe how students are being taught.

“Upon reaching a significant professional milestone, the building principal called every teacher to the library, where I along with other administrators and a board
member offered a congratulatory hug.”

The state of New York’s sexual harassment policy defines “physical assaults of a sexual nature,” as including “touching, pinching, patting, grabbing, brushing against another employee’s body or poking another employee’s body.”

Based on Butera’s account, it sounds as if more than one Manhasset administrator missed the class on sexual harassment.

That the policy was developed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who now finds himself under investigation for complaints from as many as eight women, does nothing to lessen its importance.

At the meeting, the school board did not say whether – and if so how – Butera was disciplined. Nor has it said anything since.

The board did not announce that Butera was taking a leave of absence until teachers and students showed up wearing black on Friday in protest of the school board’s decision not to immediately terminate him following the investigation.

Shortly after noon, more than 200 seniors staged a walkout at Manhasset Secondary School.

“Hey hey, ho ho, Vincent Butera has to go,” they chanted, according to a report by 4New York.

“You’re a superintendent. You’re supposed to be a role model for kids,” senior Jonathan Malary was quoted as saying.

Would Butera have gone on a leave of absence if the students and teachers did not wear black and stage a walkout? If not, what was the district’s standard for supporting a leave of absence under these circumstances? Public pressure?

The district’s letter said Butera “will be on leave of absence so that as we close out the school year, the district’s sole focus will be on supporting our students, faculty and staff.”

If their goal was to support the students, faculty and staff, they haven’t been paying too much attention to what is being said.

The district’s letter also did not say whether Butera’s leave was voluntary, whether he would be paid during the leave or whether he would return next year.

So much for transparency on the part of the district. Which raises still more questions.

Manhasset voters went to the polls Tuesday to cast their ballots on a $102.3 million budget and two board seats being contested by four candidates including one incumbent, Trustee Carlo Prinzo. A second incumbent, Trustee Ann Marie Curd, did not run for re-election.

Did the district attempt to withhold the findings against Butera until after the budget vote and the conclusion of the trustee race?

And if so, didn’t Manhasset voters have the right to hear from the three challengers – Frank Bua, Jill Pullano and Erin Royce – as well as Prinzo about how the board had handled the investigation and what was found?

Given that hiring and deciding whether to retain a superintendent is probably the most important thing a school board member will decide.

A close second, we might add, would be the handling of allegations of sexual misconduct.

The voters spoke on Tuesday and Prinzo was soundly defeated, finishing fourth in the four-person race with 684 votes. Pullano and Royce won with 1,650 votes and 1,385 votes respectively with Bua finishing third with 1,000 votes.

The budget easily passed 1,786 to 809.

Sadly few of the candidates addressed the board’s handling of the allegations against Butera, the counsel’s finding that he was guilty of sexual harassment and what the penalty should be, including the possibility of his being fired.

Now that the election has been concluded – and two new members have been elected – the board owes voters, students, teachers and staff some answers.

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