Malverne lawsuit set for trial

Claims racial discrimination in school employment


After several delays, but with the discovery process winding down, the federal lawsuit brought by several Malverne Union Free School District employees against the district, its superintendent and several other employees will be coming to trial in the Eastern District courthouse in Islip in the next few months.

The case, alleging racial discrimination, was filed in 2011. The plaintiffs, all African-Americans, are Betsy Benedith, Sherwyn Besson and Kenneth Smith.

Benedith, a former Malverne High School assistant principal whom the district let go in June 2011 despite student protests, has accused Principal James Brown, who is black, of treating white employees more favorably in order to avoid the appearance of impropriety that favoring blacks might create.

Besson, once a full-time business teacher at the high school, claims he was subjected to increasing discrimination, resulting in the loss of his position. Besson further alleges that his two children, who were students in the district, were subjected to retaliation for his complaints of discrimination.

Smith, who taught math at the high school for five years, claims that the district discriminated against him in his course assignments and access to professional development, classroom equipment and economic opportunities. The final act of discrimination, he said, was his transfer from the high school to the Howard T. Herber Middle School.

“We think that we have a meritorious claim,” the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Steven Morelli, told the Herald when the lawsuit was filed. “We feel that these individuals have been singled out based upon their race in an adverse way. It’s a situation where there seems to be something going on in Malverne when it comes to minority teachers.”

The suit names as defendants the school district, Superintendent James Hunderfund, Brown and two high school administrators, Assistant Principal Vincent Romano and math department Chairwoman Rosalinda Ricca. It lists alleged disparities in Brown’s treatment of his assistant principals, including giving more responsibility and opportunity to Romano while excluding Benedith from memos and, thus, important decisions.

It describes alleged retaliation for Besson’s vocal criticisms of Hunderfund, including threats to shut down the entire business department, and recounts Ricca’s alleged preferential treatment of white teachers over Smith and the “discriminatory and retaliatory efforts of the administration” to remove him from the high school. According to the complaint, administrators transferred Smith to the middle school because of his students’ poor performance on one Regents exam question.

The defendants “created a hostile work environment, subjected [the plaintiffs] to an atmosphere for adverse acts and treated them disparately because of their race and good-faith opposition to discriminatory practices,” the suit reads.

“We hope to send a message,” Morelli said. “We hope that the school district will take notice and do something about this.”

Malverne school district officials would not comment on the ongoing case.

In a March 1 letter to U.S. Magistrate Gary Brown, Melissa Holtzer, an attorney for the Malverne schools, wrote, “The parties have been working hard to complete discovery within the time frame that the court provided.” Holtzer pointed out, however, that although almost all of the district’s depositions, including that of Hunderfund, would be completed by mid-March, Brown could not be deposed until later in the month.

Discovery is the pre-trial phase of a lawsuit, during which the opposing parties request and obtain evidence from each other. Steven Morelli, the attorney for the plaintiffs, told the Herald that now that discovery was nearly completed, a trial would probably begin in late spring.