Crude Riverhead teacher back in class
He's fined $35,000 for improper behavior but dodges a dismissal
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A Riverhead schools English teacher suspended for over three years for crass behavior in the classroom and around co-workers is back at work this fall -- even after the district recommended his firing and a hearing officer upheld 17 of 28 charges leveled by the district.
James Walter, 37, was fined $35,000 by the district for making comments at school that mocked the mannerisms of homosexuals and mentally retarded students and for routinely voicing vulgar remarks to female staffers, among other transgressions, according to the August ruling reviewed by the News-Review.
While he upheld a majority of the district's charges, state hearing officer David Gregory ruled that the middle school teacher should not be fired or suspended because Mr. Walter "is an excellent classroom teacher." The 11 other charges were dismissed and redacted from the released paperwork.
Mr. Walter was teaching English in the high school when he was suspended in May 2006. Though he did not return to the classroom until last month, the Flanders resident continued to collect a paycheck from the district, making more than $240,000 during his time away from the students, according to salary documents obtained by the News-Review.
In his Aug. 24 ruling, Mr. Gregory said the district had proved that Mr. Walter "made comments referencing another individual's 'ass' and 'nipples,'" "displayed to a female staff member an image on a computer screen of a man with a tattoo on his penis" and told a female staff member "that shirt makes your boobs look huge." During a meeting last month, the school board voted to accept the ruling. The three-year hearing process cost the district over $314,000 in legal and investigative fees, school officials said.
Mr. Walter, whose brother Sean is the Republican candidate for Riverhead Town supervisor, also "exchanged e-mails with pornographic images on his classroom computer" and attempted to intimidate a female staff member who had been interviewed by investigators about him, according to Mr. Gregory's ruling.
But the hearing officer also praised Mr. Walter for his excellence in front of the blackboard. "As a general principle, good teachers should be teaching," he said in the ruling.
Contacted by the News-Review, Mr. Walter ultimately decided not to comment on the ruling, other than to say, "I felt the long-term ramifications outweigh any short-term benefits of me talking."
Meanwhile, Sean Walter, who is an attorney, called the release of the ruling involving his younger brother a political ploy engineered by town Democrats.
"What this shows me is desperation on the part of the Democrats because they know they're going to lose in November and I think the voters are going to see through it," he said. "This is not a political issue. This is an issue between my brother and the Riverhead School District.
"And it is my legal opinion that this was not a FOIL-able file, and whoever released this personnel file should be suspended or fired from the school district," he added.
The Riverhead school board's president, Angela DeVito, is a member of the Riverhead Democratic Committee, while another board member, Kathy Berezny, is a Democratic candidate for Riverhead Town Council. Superintendent Diane Scricca noted that the charges against James Walter were made long before his brother or Ms. Berezny became candidates. She added that it was the school district's attorneys who decided what parts of the ruling should be released and what parts should be blacked out.
The allegations against Mr. Walter were brought by the district in June 2006 during the administration of then-Superintendent Paul Doyle, who, ironically, was also being investigated by the district and subsequently resigned in October 2006 amid accusations of inappropriate behavior with a district employee.
The district brought against Mr. Walter what is known as a 3020(a) proceeding, which refers to the section of state election law dealing with disciplinary hearings for teachers who have tenure.
Mr. Walter had been an English teacher in Riverhead High School since the 2000-01 school year and was tenured in 2003-04. He was removed from the classroom in early May 2006.
Mr. Gregory's report states that "for approximately one year after being removed from the classroom, the district did not assign work to [Mr. Walter]. For the past two years, however, [he] works on the grounds, assigned to an auxiliary building where he prepares curricular materials and book packets for various English courses."
Mr. Walter was paid his full salary -- $79,486 in 2006-07 and $82,218 in 2007-08 -- during his time away from the classroom, according to the district's salary records. (Salary figures for 2008-09 were not available.) He had no disciplinary record prior to this case, according to the state report.
Dr. Scricca said state law requires the district pay an employee his or her full salary during the course of a 3020(a) hearing.
The district maintained during the hearing that the charges it brought "encompass the conscious, deliberate and repetitive activity of [Mr. Walter] over a three-year period, in which he continually conducted himself inappropriately in the classroom setting, with behavior ranging from the frequent use of foul language in front of the class to inappropriate banter during classroom discussions."
The district said he "also acted in an inappropriate manner towards colleagues, with behavior ranging from the frequent participation in sexual conversation in the English Resource Room to the display of pornography to staff members."
According to Mr. Gregory, Mr. Walter responded during the hearing that "this entire proceeding is a transparent vicious vendetta of wholly baseless and ludicrous allegations, concocted in rage and frustration by certain agents of the district engaged in a futile effort to justify after the fact the district's gross intrusion into his private, personal life regarding his dating a former student of the district, which ultimately revealed nothing."
The teacher said "the working environment, especially the English Resource Room, was thoroughly sexualized before" he began working there, and that "most of his teaching colleagues used salty language on a daily basis, and initiated graphic sexual conversations."
While Mr. Walter "admits joining in such ribald banter on occasion, this is a case of egregious disparate treatment and selective prosecution, violating the most fundamental precepts of due process and progressive discipline," he said at the hearing
Mr. Gregory, in his report, wrote that several former students "testified unequivocally and very credibly that [Mr. Walter] was a demanding, knowledgeable teacher who set rigorous, high standards. For some students, [Mr. Walter] was their first teacher to inspire in them a love of reading¬."
Mr. Gregory wrote that "students who felt ostracized, marginalized or bullied apparently sensed that, in [Mr. Walter], they had an empathetic adult who would treat them with respect."
Additionally, Mr. Walter was a victim of "selective enforcement" by the district, and that the "coarse, vulgar ambiance of the English Department Resource Room" was not effectively controlled by the department head at the time, Mr. Gregory wrote.
Dr. Scricca, who was not in the district when the case against Mr. Walter began, said she cannot comment on a specific personnel issue, but she was critical of the 3020(a) process in general.
"It's too long and too expensive a process and too much of the burden of proof falls on the district," she said.
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