Coleytown Middle focus of federal investigations into racial and sexual discrimination

WESTPORT — Coleytown Middle School is the subject of two federal investigations that allege a failure by the school to properly address rampant bullying, according to documents provided by the Westport school district.

The information comes from over 1,500 heavily redacted pages of correspondence pertaining to the two investigations obtained by the Westport News through a Freedom of Information Act request.

In March, the Westport News reported the existence of the investigations based on confidential sources, but where the investigations were focused was not confirmed. The newly obtained documents show Coleytown Middle School is the focus of the investigations and the actions of a guidance counselor and principal there are at the center of the inquiry.

The investigations were opened by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights into the Westport Board of Education on Nov. 9 in response to two claims, one alleging racial and sexual discrimination and the other, sexual discrimination.

Both complaints point to bullying in the school as a serious issue, inadequately addressed by its leadership.

One complaint describes the alleged discriminatory act as being among “hundreds of bullying incidents.” It also states the Westport superintendent of schools — it does not specify who the superintendent was at the time — retaliated against the family.

“Further, the school superintendent cut off all communication with the family as a result of filing complaints. Finally, the school does not follow state/federal law re complaints,” the complaint reads. Additionally, it alleges the superintendent prevented any member of the school district from speaking with the family.

A Nov. 9 letter from the civil rights office alerting the Board of Education to the federal inquiries claims a principal and a guidance counselor at Coleytown Middle School grabbed and shook a student complaining of harassment:

“Specifically, (the complainant) alleged that the Board retaliated against the Student as follows: the principal and guidance counselor grabbed the Student and shook him during a conversation about his complaints of harassment; the Board issued a two-day in school suspension to the student; the Board issued a two-day out of school suspension to the Student; the Board prohibited (the complainant) from communicating directly with the Board regarding the Student; and the Board proposed to send the Student to a different school based on the Board’s suggestion that the student has a disability.”

School officials, including Coleytown Middle School Principal Kris Szabo, separately issued the same statement when asked to comment on the investigation.

“The Westport Public Schools must adhere to the confidentiality of student matters as protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act,” the statement read. “For this reason, the school district cannot discuss matters related to individual students. Please be assured that the Westport Public Schools remains committed to the well-being of our students.”

Coleytown Middle School vice principals Micah Lawrence and Lauren Pitocco, along with Coleytown guidance counselor Ellen Redgate, Coleytown nurse Maureen Kiernan, Director of Human Resources John Bayers and Director of Pupil Services Michael Rizzo all responded with the above statement. Palmer did not respond to an email and phone call request for comment.

Many details, including when the incidents occurred, are redacted. But a letter addressing a Freedom of Information Act request by Michael Iacurci — an attorney representing two Westport families who are considering a civil lawsuit against the school district — appears on former Westport Superintendent Elliott Landon’s letterhead and is signed by Lisa Marriott, his assistant at the time. Its precise date is redacted.

The letter is copied to the attention of Landon, Szabo and Lawrence.

The former superintendent’s name comes up again in a February email from Melika Forbes. Writing to the civil rights office attorney, Forbes, an attorney for the school board, notes that Landon retired from the school district in June 2016.

The OCR discrimination complaint — alleging both sexual and racial discrimination — also states there is an audio recording, pertaining specifically to racial discrimination, which the school did not investigate.

A second OCR discrimination complaint — alleging sexual discrimination — also cites an inability to speak to school officials, “(Redacted)…when I could not speak to the school’s administrators, I went to the police department to find out about bullying …”

Asserting certain discriminatory acts weren’t properly investigated, the complaint states, “The Coleytown Middle School did not properly address incidents that were reported regarding (redacted) ...” and claims there was retaliation by the school district.

It goes on to ask the school to take “proper action” regarding bullying and retaliation and “follow the law and teach age-appropriate issues about bullying and its consequences.”

Correspondence between three school officials seems to suggest “the behavior” took place in the art, physical education and orchestra classrooms.

In an April 4, 2016, email to Rizzo and then-Superintendent Landon, Szabo asks about the possibility of putting another adult in the art, physical education and orchestra rooms because “all reports indicate this is where the behavior occurs.”