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Salvatore v. Rhode Island Council on Elementary & Secondary Education

Superior Court of Rhode Island, Providence

July 30, 2019

DEBORAH SALVATORE, Plaintiff,
v.
RHODE ISLAND COUNCIL ON ELEMENTARY AND SECONDARY EDUCATION and SOUTH KINGSTOWN SCHOOL COMMITTEE, Defendants.

          For Plaintiff: John E. DeCubellis, Jr., Esq.

          For Defendant: Paul V. Sullivan, Esq.; Sara Rapport, Esq.

          DECISION

          TAFT-CARTER, J.

         Before this Court is Deborah Salvatore's (Petitioner or Ms. Salvatore) appeal from a decision of the Rhode Island Council on Elementary and Secondary Education (Council), affirming the decision of the South Kingstown School Committee (Committee) to terminate Petitioner's employment as a tenured teacher. The Council found that under the teacher tenure provision of G.L. 1956 § 16-13-3, the Committee had "good and just cause" to terminate Petitioner's employment and that her termination should be effective for the 2014-2015 school year. Jurisdiction is pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 42-35-15. For the reasons set forth below, this Court affirms the Council's decision in part and reverses in part.

         I

         Facts and Travel

         The start of the 2013-2014 school year marked Ms. Salvatore's twenty-fifth year as a special educator in the South Kingstown school district. Tr. at 1975:11-13, June 3, 2015 (Vol. 13). At that time, Ms. Salvatore worked at Curtis Corner Middle School (Curtis Corner) as a resource teacher, a collaborative teacher in the regular education classroom, and a case manager for approximately thirteen special education students on Team Defender.[1] Id. at 2018:3-11. In this capacity, Ms. Salvatore's responsibilities included drafting individualized education plans (IEPs) for the students on her caseload, scheduling and facilitating IEP meetings with students' parents, and communicating with the other team teachers regarding the students on her caseload.[2] Id. at 2018:18-23; 2023:12-15. However, Ms. Salvatore's "primary responsibility" as a special educator was to "be the advocate for the students[s]" on her caseload. Id. at 2022:23-2023:4. As an advocate for the students on her caseload, one of Ms. Salvatore's responsibilities included ensuring that IEP supports were being implemented. Id. at 2023:12-15.

         During the 2013-2014 school year, Ms. Salvatore acted as the case manager for twelve students, including Doe I, Doe II, Doe III, and Doe IV. As the school year progressed, so did parent complaints regarding Ms. Salvatore's case management of Does I, II, III, and IV. Tr. at 125:15-17, Jan. 21, 2015 (Vol. 1); Tr. at 806:4-807:22, Apr. 14, 2015 (Vol. 5). These complaints included Ms. Salvatore's lack of communication with her students' parents; that the supplementary aids and services Does I, II, III, and IV required by law were not being implemented with fidelity; that Does I and II were failing their classes; that Ms. Salvatore breached federal and state law by accessing Doe III's academic records at a time when she had no legitimate educational interest in Doe III; and that Ms. Salvatore breached Doe IV's confidentiality by discussing his discipline in front of other students. The complaints levied against Ms. Salvatore will be discussed in further detail infra. In addition to numerous verbal and written parent complaints, Ms. Salvatore also received poor scores on her mid-year evaluation conducted by Assistant Director of Pupil Personnel Services Christine Levy (Ms. Levy). Tr. at 265:3-8; 396:3-14; 398:5-401:22, Jan. 22, 2015 (Vol. 2).

         On April 17, 2014, the Superintendent of South Kingstown public schools, Dr. Kristen Stringfellow (Dr. Stringfellow or the Superintendent), issued a letter to Ms. Salvatore recommending that the Committee terminate her employment. The Committee subsequently voted to terminate Ms. Salvatore's employment and notified Ms. Salvatore of such on May 14, 2014. The Committee based its decision to terminate Ms. Salvatore's employment upon the following:

1) Over the course of the 2013-2014 school year, Ms. Levy was required to monitor Ms. Salvatore's job performance with respect to multiple students due to numerous parent complaints. Despite ongoing supervision, Ms. Salvatore's pattern of inappropriate conduct and poor teaching practice persisted.
2) As of the mid-point of the 2013-2014 school year, Ms. Salvatore's mid-year evaluation revealed multiple deficits.
3) In March 2014, Ms. Salvatore removed Doe IV from the classroom in violation of his behavior plan, which deprived the student of receiving instructional services and demonstrated Ms. Salvatore's failure to manage the student's behavior.
4) Following this incident, Ms. Salvatore discussed Doe IV's disciplinary issues in front of other students, including Doe IV.
5) On April 7, 2014, Ms. Salvatore inappropriately accessed the educational records of a student no longer on her caseload (Doe III) by demanding those records from a co-worker.
6) On April 9, 2014, Ms. Salvatore failed to comply with Principal Patricia Aull's (Ms. Aull) directive to return Doe III's records and falsely represented to Ms. Aull that she returned all the records.
7) On April 10, 2014, Ms. Salvatore attempted to access Doe III's educational records at the Pupil Personnel Services office at a time when she had no legitimate educational interest in Doe III and, therefore, no right to obtain those records.
8) In approximately Spring 2014, Ms. Salvatore discussed Doe IV's disability with other students despite explicit instructions from Doe IV's parent not to disclose this information due to the significant stress and anxiety it would cause Doe IV. This disclosure created a potential volatile and unsafe situation for Doe IV.[3]
9) On various dates between September 23, 2013 and April 9, 2014, Ms. Salvatore accessed and printed multiple copies of educational records of four students in which she had no legitimate educational interest in violation of School Committee policy and state and federal law.[4] Committee's Decision at 2-4.

         On May 20, 2014, Ms. Salvatore appealed the Committee's decision to terminate her employment; the Committee subsequently denied Ms. Salvatore's appeal and affirmed Ms. Salvatore's termination after a post-termination hearing held on August 18, 2014. Thereafter, on September 19, 2014, Ms. Salvatore appealed her termination to the Commissioner of Education (the Commissioner).

         The Commissioner held eighteen days of hearings, which included testimony from nineteen witnesses and the introduction of one hundred and eighty-seven exhibits. On December 14, 2016, the Commissioner issued a decision (Commissioner's Decision), affirming Ms. Salvatore's termination, finding that good and just cause existed to terminate Ms. Salvatore's employment. Commissioner's Decision at 21-22. In doing so, the Commissioner made detailed findings of fact, including, inter alia:

1) Ms. Salvatore failed to "adequately perform her duties as case manager with respect to three students on her caseload, Student Doe I, Student Doe II and Student Doe III. With respect to all three students, Ms. Salvatore did not function as their advocate or 'primary advocate' as required by the job description of case manager."
2) Ms. Salvatore failed to communicate effectively with Doe I and Doe II's parents and general education teachers regarding the students' IEP implementation. Moreover, Ms. Salvatore did not take steps to ensure the students were receiving the supplementary aids and accommodations needed for them to access the general education curriculum.
3) With respect to Doe I, Ms. Salvatore failed to "follow up to ensure that Doe [I]'s planner was being signed consistently and that he would receive a 'check in/check out' procedure each school day, which had proven to be successful the previous school year."
4) With respect to Doe II, Ms. Salvatore failed to ensure that Doe II's planner was being signed, that Doe II received copies of teachers' notes, and that Doe II had access to a computer for writing assignments.
5) With respect to Doe III, Ms. Salvatore failed to correct a scheduling error that placed the student in her resource class when he was not supposed to be there. Ms. Salvatore also failed to reconvene Doe III's IEP team when Doe III "was removed from class 'almost daily' for disciplinary referrals and, as a result, received few educational services until his placement on a different team with a different case manager[.]"
6) The parents of Doe I and Doe II registered verbal and written complaints with respect to Ms. Salvatore's job performance to the Director and Assistant Director of Pupil Personnel Services. These complaints were brought to Ms. Salvatore's attention.
7) Ms. Levy "was required to monitor Ms. Salvatore's job performance with respect to Doe I, Doe II and Doe III and fulfill the role of case manager for these students on several occasions."
8) Ms. Salvatore's mid-year evaluation revealed multiple deficits and her performance in a number of areas evaluating her professional responsibilities was assigned the lowest score possible. Ms. Salvatore received an electronic copy of the evaluation and met with Ms. Levy and Ms. Eagan to discuss the evaluation, but Ms. Salvatore "had little comment in response to the issues noted in her evaluation and provided no written response."
9) With respect to Doe IV, on March 25, 2014, Ms. Salvatore acted in direct contravention of Doe IV's IEP when she removed Doe IV from the collaborative English Language Arts classroom after Doe IV "yelled 'shut the f--- up' in response to students collectively wishing him a happy birthday." Doe IV's disability caused him "to exhibit 'aberrant' or 'unexpected' behavior, including verbal outbursts, verbal disruptive noises, and swearing." Therefore, Doe IV's behavior intervention plan required that the inappropriate behavior be processed with the student within or outside the classroom and, after this step, Doe IV would reenter the classroom. The purpose of this plan was to allow Doe IV to "develop appropriate classroom behavior and increase the period of time he attended class in a collaborative setting before going to a specialized 'ALP' classroom." Instead of processing this behavior with Doe IV, Ms. Salvatore sent Doe IV out of the classroom to the ALP classroom, thereby violating Doe IV's IEP and Behavior Management Plan.
10) Upon entering the ALP classroom on March 25, 2014, following the preceding incident, Ms. Salvatore "with a discipline slip in her hand, discussed issues related to the student's discipline in front of other students, including [Doe IV]." Doe IV heard Ms. Salvatore remark that she "couldn't write him up" because, if she did, "she would be in trouble." Doe IV reported this incident to his mother that same day and Doe IV's mother sent an e-mail to Ms. Levy regarding this incident. The matter was brought to Ms. Salvatore's attention, but Ms. Salvatore stated at the mid-year conference that she did not want to discuss the matter.
11) On April 7, 2014, Ms. Salvatore inappropriately accessed the educational records of Doe III, who was no longer on her caseload, by "demanding certain IEP records from a co-worker."
12) On April 9, 2014, Ms. Aull directed Ms. Salvatore to return the records she obtained from Doe III's new case manager. However, Ms. Salvatore "failed to return all the records and falsely represented to the principal that she had complied with her directive."
13) On April 10, 2014, Ms. Salvatore attempted to access Doe III's educational records at the Pupil Personnel Services office. At the time Ms. Salvatore did so, "she had no legitimate educational interest in the student."
14) On various dates in April 2014, Ms. Salvatore "used TIEnet to access, review and print special education records of Student Doe III and another student" at a time when "she had no legitimate education interest in either of these students." Id. at 4-9.

         The Commissioner also determined that despite being terminated after March 1, 2014, Ms. Salvatore's termination was effective for the 2014-2015 school year. Id. at 21-22. The Commissioner reasoned that a "district terminating even a tenured teacher may do so immediately when the precipitating cause arises after the statutory deadline" because to retain or at least continue to pay the terminated teacher for another full school year "merely creates an artificial waiting period serving no other purpose than to siphon funds that could be used for educational programs." Id. at 21. Ms. Salvatore filed an appeal of the Commissioner's Decision to the Council on June 20, 2017.

         On August 15, 2017, the Council affirmed the Commissioner's Decision and sustained Ms. Salvatore's termination. See Council's Decision at 5. The Council determined that the record supported the Commissioner's finding of good and just cause regarding Ms. Salvatore's failure to perform her duties as case manager and failure to act as her students' primary advocate. Id. at 2. In its decision, the Council felt "compelled" to note that it found Ms. Salvatore's actions of illegally accessing confidential student records "egregious and extremely troubling." Id. at 3. The Council also affirmed the Commissioner's decision that Ms. Salvatore's termination was effective as of May 12, 2014. Id. at 4. Reading § 16-13-3 in pari materia with § 16-12-6, the Council found the March 1 deadline provision of § 16-13-3 inapplicable when a teacher engages in "serious misconduct." Id. at 4-5. To hold otherwise, the Council found, serves no "educational purpose" and produces an absurd and arbitrary result. Id.

         On September 11, 2017, Ms. Salvatore timely appealed the Council's decision to this Court. See Compl. Ms. Salvatore contends that the Council erroneously found that the record contained sufficient evidence supporting the Commissioner's finding that the Committee had good and just cause to terminate Ms. Salvatore's employment. In addition, Ms. Salvatore asserts that the Council erroneously determined that the March 1 notice requirement of § 16-13-3 did not apply to Ms. Salvatore's termination.

         II

         Standard of Review

         The Legislature has "created an express procedural route of review to be followed by '[a]ny person aggrieved by any decision or doings of any school committee . . . ." Ciccone v. Cranston School Committee, 513 A.2d 32, 36 (R.I. 1986) (quoting § 16-39-2) (bracket in original). Accordingly, decisions concerning disputes arising under education law are subject to a two-tier administrative review process. See §§ 16-39-1 and 16-39-3. At the first tier, the Commissioner conducts a hearing and renders a decision based upon the testimony and documentary evidence presented at the hearing. Sec. 16-39-1. At the second tier, the Council reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine if it "was patently 'arbitrary, discriminatory, or unfair.'" D'Ambra v. North Providence School Committee, 601 A.2d 1370, 1374 (R.I. 1992) (quoting Altman v. School Committee of Town of Scituate, 115 R.I. 399, 404, 347 A.2d 37, 40 (1975)). Our Supreme Court has likened this two-tier review process to a funnel where the hearing officer, sitting at the mouth of the funnel, is "privileged personally to hear or witness the broad spectrum of information that entered the widest end of the funnel." Environmental Scientific Corporation. v. Durfee, 621 A.2d 200, 208 (R.I. 1993). As such, "the further away from the mouth of the funnel that an administrative official is when he or she evaluates the adjudicative process, the more deference should be owed to the factfinder." Id. at 208.

         After exhausting all administrative remedies, an aggrieved party may obtain judicial review from this Court, which "sits as an appellate court with a limited scope of review." Sec. 16-39-4; Mine Safety Appliances Company v. Berry, 620 A.2d 1255, 1259 (R.I. 1993). This Court ...


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