molly stark school

Molly Stark Elementary School in Bennington

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BENNINGTON — A lawsuit filed by a former teacher at Molly Stark Elementary School alleges she was discriminated against and her contract was not renewed because of her race, and because she complained that a school resource police officer was improperly focusing on a Black student over similar students who were white.

Rosa Van Wie, represented by James Valente, of Costello, Valente and Gentry, of Brattleboro, also contends her First Amendment rights were violated because she was retaliated against for kneeling and remaining silent during the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance at Molly Stark.

The suit was filed this week in Bennington Superior Court Civil Division. Van Wie, who describes herself as multiracial, alleges violation of Vermont’s Fair Employment Practices Act, which bars discrimination and wrongful discharge on the basis of race; her free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution; and public policy and law in Vermont.

The action names as defendants Molly Stark Elementary School, Southwest Vermont Union Elementary School District, Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union; and in their individual capacity, SVSU Superintendent James Culkeen and Molly Stark Principal Donna Bazyk.

Van Wie, who now lives in New Hampshire, is seeking “compensatory damages, reasonable attorney’s fees and costs, punitive damages, and such other and further relief as the court shall deem proper.”

RAISED OBJECTION

According to the complaint, Van Wie, a graduate of Dartmouth College, is certified to teach kindergarten through sixth grade, and was employed as an elementary school teacher at Molly Stark during the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years.

She said she was informed during a meeting at the school in March 2020 that her teaching contract would not be renewed.

According to the suit, the non-renewal decision followed by 19 days Van Wie’s complaint in February 2020 about School Resource Officer Jared Austin, of the Bennington Police Department.

“Plaintiff also observed that Officer Austin did not give the same attention to the white students among the group of behaviorally challenging students in her class, even when they misbehaved in similar ways to the black student,” the suit states. “Plaintiff reasonably believed that Officer Austin was singling out the black student on the basis of the student’s race and that doing so was harmful to the student. Plaintiff reasonably believed that Officer Austin’s actions toward this black student were racially discriminatory.”

The complaint adds that Van Wie believed the student of color “was not the most disruptive student in the class.”

The complaint adds, “During the school year of 2019-2020, plaintiff repeatedly informed the Molly Stark Elementary School that she needed support due to the large number of students in her class that had severe behavioral difficulties. The school administration did not provide plaintiff’s classroom with adequate support.”

The suit states that Van Wie spoke privately with Austin around Feb. 24 and told him “he appeared to be targeting the black student based on that student’s race” and “requested that Officer Austin support all her students and not single out the black student.”

The suit contends that “Officer Austin became defensive during this conversation and denied acting with a racial bias.”

According to the suit, Van Wie believes that soon afterward, Austin “communicated with Chief Paul Doucette of the Bennington Police Department regarding plaintiff, presumably to express his displeasure about plaintiff’s suggestion that he was targeting the black student.”

The suit adds, “Upon information and belief, between February 24, 2020, and February 26, 2020, Chief Doucette communicated with Superintendent Culkeen regarding plaintiff, presumably to express his displeasure that plaintiff had raised the issue with Officer Austin.”

The suit states that Culkeen subsequently spoke with an employee union official and that that information was later related to Van Wie by another union representative.

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“Upon information and belief, during that conversation, Superintendent Culkeen criticized plaintiff for objecting to Officer Austin’s racially discriminatory actions and for kneeling during the Pledge of Allegiance,” according to the complaint.

PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE

The suit also alleges that Van Wie’s decision to kneel during recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance was another factor in the non-renewal of her contract, in violation of her First Amendment rights under the constitution and under the Vermont constitution.

During her time at Molly Stark, the suit states, teachers were not required to lead the recitation of the pledge, and that Van Wie “knelt and remained silent” during that time.

“Although Plaintiff answered her students’ questions about the Pledge of Allegiance, she never instructed or encouraged her students to kneel during the Pledge of Allegiance,” the suit states, adding, “The school administration did not inform plaintiff prior to March 2020 that there were any concerns about her kneeling during the Pledge of Allegiance; nor did they direct her to say the Pledge or stop kneeling.”

‘A CONSTRUCTIVE DISCHARGE’

The complaint also alleges that in regard to non-renewal of her contract, Van Wie was informed that “if she wanted to avoid having a non-renewal-of-contract on her teaching record, she would have to resign her teaching position and not tell anyone about the meeting … Plaintiff resigned, effective the end of the 2019-2020 school year, solely to avoid having a nonrenewal-of-contract placed on her record.”{/span}

The complaint adds, “The school administration’s actions forced plaintiff’s resignation. But for those actions, plaintiff would not have resigned. Accordingly, her resignation was a constructive discharge.”

Referring to Van Wie’s final job performance evaluation in March 2020, the suit states that the evaluation “made vague, subjective attacks on her character, offered without any factual support, including labeling her as ‘self-serving’ and claiming that, while plaintiff met with her colleagues, ‘her professional practice is below standards.’”

The suit contends that the final evaluation was unlike her prior evaluations at Molly Stark.

The suit also contends that other teachers “similarly situated to plaintiff, but who were not black or multiracial, have made statements indicating their view on matters of national political significance, but they have not faced similar criticism or negative employment consequences … Upon information and belief, other teachers who were similarly situated to plaintiff, but who were not black or multiracial, have similarly advocated for the well-being of their students, but they have not faced similar criticism or negative employment consequences.” Van Wie’s mother is Black, and her father is white.

The suit states that during that period at Molly Stark there were other teachers present who expressed political views at school, such as advocacy for the presidency of Donald Trump, strident support for the Pledge of Allegiance, and support of the federal military and Vermont National Guard. These teachers were white, and none was penalized for the expression of political views.”

In addition, “an Indian American long-term substitute teacher, who had received a very favorable teaching evaluation, was not offered a permanent teaching position anywhere in the supervisory district. It is extremely unusual for a well-reviewed, long-term substitute teacher not to receive any offers for any position with a supervisory district following the completion of the substitute assignment.”

Attempts Wednesday to reach Culkeen and chairpersons of the two school district boards named were unsuccessful.

Town Manager Stuart Hurd, who supervises the Police Department, said in an email Wednesday morning that he had not yet seen the complaint. He did not respond further as of press time.

Select Board Chairwoman Jeannie Jenkins and Doucette could not be reached via email.

Jim Therrien writes for Vermont News and Media, including the Bennington Banner, Manchester Journal and Brattleboro Reformer. Email jtherrien@benningtonbanner.com

Reporter/editor

Jim Therrien reports for the three Vermont News and Media newspapers in Southern Vermont. He previously worked as a reporter and editor at the Berkshire Eagle, the Bennington Banner, the Springfield Republican, and the former North Adams Transcript.


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