Beacon school district drama continues
By Jeff Simms
An independent investigator has concluded that a series of harassment complaints by former Beacon Teachers’ Association President Kimberly Pilla are largely “unfounded,” closing the case on her complaint.
Pilla, who served as the BTA head from 2008 to September 2015, filed the complaint with the Beacon City School District on Dec. 14, alleging that six district employees and a school board member had harassed her in a “perpetual and consistent” manner over the preceding 16 months.
That same day, the school board voted unanimously to assign the investigation of Pilla’s claims to an independent party — the arbitrator and mediator Melinda Gordon of Tarrytown — at a cost not to exceed $10,000.
“Typically our board attorney [Michael Lambert] would do that type of investigation,” board President Melissa Thompson said on Wednesday, “but because he had already done an informal investigation of a similar nature, the board thought it was best to bring in an outside investigator who was not involved with any of the parties.”
In the fall of 2015, the board asked Lambert to look into allegations that Pilla and then-Superintendent Barbara Walkley were involved in unethical behavior. Lambert reported that the allegations were without merit, Thompson said.
Gordon’s 20-page report, obtained last week through a Freedom of Information Law request, states that the investigator interviewed nine people in January, February and March.
Much of the report focuses on Pilla’s allegations against her former husband, Robert Atwell, who is a teacher at Beacon High School. Atwell is alleged to have made a number of statements to his ex-wife in violation of School Board Policy 6430, which allows the “reasonable restriction” of “district employees’ constitutional rights to raise matters of public concern … when the speech or action occurs on school grounds and/or during school times.”
Pilla, along with Walkley, also filed a civil lawsuit against Atwell in U.S. District Court in February, seeking unspecified damages for his alleged defamation of both women. Atwell’s attorney has filed a motion to have the case dismissed, with a response by Pilla and Walkley expected next month.
“Estranged domestic prism”
In Gordon’s report, the investigator notes that there is “an insufficient nexus” between Board Policy 6430 and Atwell’s alleged statements, as many of them were said to have occurred outside of school. Pilla and Atwell were married for 15 years before divorcing in 2015.
In addition, “given the estranged domestic prism” of the individuals involved, Gordon wrote, it is difficult to view the alleged comments as “being of political or of public concern rather than of personal animus.”
Pilla also charged that Atwell had forwarded emails from Pilla’s personal account to his own. However, Gordon’s report states that while Atwell did have access to Pilla’s emails, he did not appear to have “hacked” his ex-wife’s email or violated the school board’s technology policy.
Atwell declined to answer questions regarding whether he disclosed any of Pilla’s emails to others, and Gordon wrote that, given her limited authority to order discovery or seizure of the computers at issue, she “cannot make a determination as to whether or not this act occurred.”
Atwell was also alleged to have illegally accessed Pilla’s school attendance record. While he admitted to Gordon that he obtained the record from a “district secretary and administrator,” Atwell would not disclose that person’s name.
Whoever disclosed Pilla’s record to Atwell appears to have violated the school board’s ethics policy as well as a board confidentiality policy, Gordon wrote. She recommended the school district educate administrative and clerical staff about its privacy policies and consider disciplining the individual who gave Pilla’s information to Atwell, if his or her identity can be determined.
The report goes on to dissect several other allegations that did not formally constitute harassment, including an accusation by Pilla against current BTA President John Burns. Gordon stated that Pilla and Burns appear to have a “complicated history,” and that Burns believes the charges against him are retaliatory because of a separate harassment complaint he levied against Pilla during the 2014-15 school year.
Burns declined to discuss Pilla’s allegations with Gordon, and the investigator noted that while his silence “raises an issue of credibility,” it does not “constitute an admission that the allegations are true.” Gordon concluded that she had insufficient evidence to determine the veracity of the allegations against Burns.
A Beacon school board member, confirmed this week by Pilla to be Anthony White, was also named in the complaint for allegedly interfering in her personal affairs and sharing Pilla’s emails with members of the community and the board of education. White denied receiving Pilla’s emails from Atwell, instead stating that a packet containing her emails was left in his car. White confirmed that he did share the emails with Lambert and later with the board during a closed-door executive session.
In her report, Gordon did not find that White had violated Board Policy 6110, the code of ethics for all district personnel. She concluded that “the majority of the allegations in the complaint are unfounded,” noting they could in many cases more accurately be characterized as “petty gossip” not rising to the level of harassment.
In summary, Gordon wrote that it appears Pilla’s “comfort level in the workplace and her relations with colleagues has deteriorated,” and that conflict resolution training may help improve “the dynamics amongst district employees and the manner in which they interrelate with one another.”
Reached on Tuesday, Stephen Bergstein, Atwell and Pilla’s attorney, said that he doesn’t consider Gordon’s findings to be germane to the ongoing civil suit. “There’s some overlap in terms of the same people being involved, but I don’t see it as part of the federal lawsuit. They’re really two separate cases,” he said. Atwell’s attorney, Mark Reisman, did not return calls seeking comment.
Are legal fees covered?
During the June 6 school board meeting, Burns took the board to task for spending taxpayer money on the complaint while it has not, to date, responded to Atwell’s request for reimbursement of the legal fees he’s incurring due to the civil suit.
“Why would a board of education spend $10,000 on a frivolous harassment suit but not indemnify a credible, 27-year veteran teacher who brought forward information about inappropriate actions by employees, as per your very own board policy?” Burns asked.
Thompson retorted that Pilla’s complaint and Atwell’s request do not “go hand in hand.”
On April 26, the school board voted on but did not pass a resolution denying Atwell’s request. The resolution stated that New York Schools Insurance Reciprocal, the district’s insurance carrier, has determined that the “coverage” requested by Atwell is not afforded “pursuant to the district’s school board legal liability and commercial general liability policies based upon the fact that the alleged acts did not occur within the scope of (the) employee’s employment in the district.”
On Wednesday, Thompson said that the insurance carrier is now reviewing the district’s policy to see if any part of Atwell’s fees are covered.