Considering complaints alleging sexual harassment
Rider v Rondout Valley CSD, Comm. Ed. Decision 14238
The decision of the Commissioner of Education in the appeal filed by Carolyn Rider concerns the Rondout Valley Central School District’s investigation of Rider’s complaint of sexual harassment by a co-worker and the remedy provided by the district.
Rider, a secretary in the district’s middle school’s guidance office, filed charges that middle school guidance counselor, Carol Arnone-Ippolitti, had engaged in actions against her that constituted sexual harassment.
The superintendent of schools, David S. Giles, conducted an investigation of Rider’s allegations. In the course of the investigation, which lasted several months, Giles conducted more than 70 interviews, meeting with Rider, Arnone-Ippolitti, and other members of the staff.
Giles verified that a number of Rider’s allegations were true and as to those, he found that “Arnone-Ippolitti’s actions were offensive, insensitive, created a hostile work environment and rose to the level of sexual harassment.”
In his report to the board, Giles recommended that Arnone-Ippolitti:
1. Be given a “counseling letter,” a copy of which was to be placed in her personnel file;
2. Undergo counseling and sensitivity training;
3. Be assigned to another work location and her “behavior closely monitored by the building principal.”
In addition, Giles said that a copy of his report to the board should also be placed in Arnone-Ippolitti’s personnel file.
Rider appealed some of the superintendent’s findings to the board. After reviewing the entire record in executive session, the board concluded only three of the 21 incidents alleged by Rider “could be characterized as sexual in nature.” The board also determined that these three incidents were not sufficient to “form a basis for hostile work environment sexual harassment.”
However, the board also said that Arnone-Ippolitti “had engaged in distasteful, unprofessional, and unacceptable conduct.” Although the board initially directed that Arnone-Ippolitti “be returned” to her middle school position, it reversed itself after Rider asked it to “reconsider its decision.”*
Rider appealed, complaining that there were deficiencies in Giles’ investigation such as the individuals interviewed were not sworn to tell the truth. She also objected to Giles findings that did not support her allegations of misconduct on the part of Arnone-Ippolitti and to a number of elements in the board’s resolution of the matter.
Before reaching the merits of Rider’s appeal, the Commissioner pointed out that a necessary party, Arnone-Ippolitti, had neither been named in the appeal nor served with copies of Rider’s “notice and petition.” This was a fatal omission on Rider’s part and the Commissioner dismissed her appeal. The decision notes that if the Commissioner were “to decide any aspect of this appeal in [Rider’s] favor, Ms. Arnone-Ippolitti’s rights would unquestionably be affected.”
However, the Commissioner did take the opportunity to note that even if Rider’s appeal had not been dismissed on procedural grounds, it would have been dismissed on the merits.
The Commissioner noted the “extensive investigation” conducted by Giles, which resulted in Arnone-Ippolitti being given a counseling memorandum, sensitivity training and that her activities at work were being monitored in support of this conclusion.
The Commissioner noted that while the board disagreed with some of the superintendent’s findings -- i.e., the presence of a hostile work environment, it did not change his recommendations as to the personnel actions to be taken against Arnone-Ippolitti.
The rule a case such as this is that the Commissioner will not substitute his judgment for that of a school board unless it is demonstrated that board’s actions were arbitrary or capricious, constituted an abuse of discretion or failed to comply with law.
In contrast to finding any of these elements present in this case, the Commissioner said that after reviewing the record concerning the procedures following in investigating Rider’s complaints and the action taken by the board, there was “no basis for substituting” his judgment for that of the superintendent or the board.
* The board apparently adopted the recommendations of the superintendent concerning counseling and other remedial personnel actions resulting from his investigation of Arnone-Ippolitti’s conduct.