Two Springs Teachers Allege Harassment

A substitute teacher at the Springs School filed state claim against a school official. Durell Godfrey

Simmering tension in the Springs School community burst into public view at the last two public meetings of the district’s school board. Supporters of two teachers who have alleged harassment by school officials expressed extreme displeasure with the current administration at a Feb. 4 meeting that turned raucous. A week later, however, four Springs teachers praised the board and the district superintendent, Debra Winter, and cited positive accomplishments they say have been made at the school.

The most contentious exchanges came during public comment on Feb. 4. Four Springs School graduates who go to East Hampton High School took the microphone one by one to express support for Diane Mehrhoff, a Springs substitute teacher who filed a claim with the New York State Division of Human Rights in May of 2018 alleging that previous efforts to alert Ms. Winter to the behavior of Michael Henery, the school’s business administrator since mid-2017, were either ignored or prompted Ms. Winter to punish her. Ms. Mehrhoff started teaching at the school in 2004 and took on additional work as a part-time clerk-typist there starting in 2016. 

Ms. Mehrhoff’s student supporters were followed by Ruggero Garsetti, who described himself as a 25-year resident of the hamlet and called on Ms. Winter and the entire board to resign. Admonishing them to quit “wasting” taxpayer money, Mr. Garsetti decried the district’s mounting legal costs (which he put at six figures) to defend itself in the Mehrhoff case and in a second matter involving an unnamed female teacher who filed a complaint with East Hampton police after telling school officials that a male school board member (who remains on the board) inappropriately touched her at the school in February of 2018. 

Regina Cafarella of the Douglas A. Spencer legal firm investigated the latter case for the district. According to published reports, she told the board her investigation found the incident had occurred but that it did not rise to a violation of state or federal law.  She declined to comment when reached by phone on Monday. 

Ms. Mehrhoff alleged in her complaint to the state that Mr. Henery repeatedly made misogynistic statements, some of which were profane, about teachers and other school colleagues at various times in 2018. She alleged that as a result of one of her complaints, Mr. Henery, one of her supervisors, visited an office she was working in the next day and made additional remarks. She was eventually demoted from clerk-typist to hall monitor by the board after she complained about Mr. Henery, and then saw her hall monitor job eliminated. Ms. Mehrhoff also alleges that her substitute teaching at the school and access to the building were cut back.

Responding to a request for comment, Ms. Winter wrote an email Tuesday saying, “Unfortunately, I cannot speak about personnel matters. I can only say that I do not tolerate any forms of harassment or bullying. Every claim, even if it does not rise to actionable harassment, has been investigated and appropriate action taken. The substitute teacher is still employed as a substitute teacher.”

That fact did not stop dozens of Ms. Mehrhoff’s supporters from attending the Feb. 4 meeting.

Renny Murphy, the first of the four students who spoke on Ms. Mehrhoff’s behalf, was stopped in mid-sentence at the start of her remarks by Barbara Dayton, the school board president, after mentioning Ms. Winter and Mr. Henery by name. “Let her speak . . . . This is a cover-up,” members of the audience shouted. 

Banging her gavel three times, Ms. Dayton attempted to call the meeting to order. She calmly said that though the speakers were welcome to talk, “The public needs to understand there are certain regulations that happen in a public venue regarding employees at the school. Personnel items are not up for public discussion by the board.” 

A school attorney seconded Ms. Dayton’s explanation, and more grumbling ensued.

Ms. Murphy and the other students responded to Ms. Dayton’s instructions and, for the most part, stopped mentioning school officials by name. But Ms. Murphy, Hannah Hartsough, and Jessie Branche, the first three, were visibly upset and occasionally wiped away tears as they spoke with quavering voices about Ms. Mehrhoff’s positive influence and how the situation has dented their pride and affection for the Springs School.

Ms. Murphy said Ms. Mehrhoff “taught us how to treat people with respect. However, she was not given the same respect when she filed claims of harassment. I’m disappointed by the lack of regard for her claims.” Ms. Hartsough called Ms. Mehrhoff’s treatment “unjust and despicable.” Ms. Branche added, “Ms. Mehrhoff and others in the school have been harassed, and the administration has turned a blind eye.” 

Rory Murphy, Renny’s sister, was the last Springs graduate to speak. “I was always proud to be a Springs kid. Then I was astonished. Then I was devastated and disappointed,” she said. “The only thing you are teaching is men can victimize women, and anyone who is victimized should be silent.”

Ms. Dayton and the board ended the meeting without comment after each speaker finished to applause.

The tone was quite different when the school board convened on Feb. 11. Four current teachers praised the work of Ms. Winter and the board. Tracy Frazier, a Springs teacher who is married to Timothy Frazier, a school board member, offered a long list of recent administration accomplishments, from mold remediation to the ongoing expansion of the crowded building. Ryan Scala, a fifth-grade teacher, praised several programs the school has added. Two other speakers lauded the five-year contract recently reached with the teachers’ union.