Plaintiff: John E. DeCubellis, Jr., Esq.
Defendant: Paul V. Sullivan, Esq.; Sara Rapport, Esq.
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.
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. 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. 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.
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).
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
2) As of the mid-point of the 2013-2014 school year, Ms.
Salvatore's mid-year evaluation revealed multiple
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
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
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
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.
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. Committee's
Decision at 2-4.
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).
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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