Op-Ed: Smith calls her reassignment 'punitive'

Shelton High Headmaster Beth Smith, left, unfurls a Chinese painting, a gift from Jian Ping High School, Shelton's sister school in Shanghai, China, during a visit by students from the school to Shelton, Conn. on Tuesday, January 29, 2019.

Shelton High Headmaster Beth Smith, left, unfurls a Chinese painting, a gift from Jian Ping High School, Shelton's sister school in Shanghai, China, during a visit by students from the school to Shelton, Conn. on Tuesday, January 29, 2019.

Brian A. Pounds / Hearst Connecticut Media

This statement was read at a three-panel grievance hearing on Tuesday, Oct. 8, and submitted to The Shelton Herald for publication.

Dear Board of Education Committee Members:

I began my career with the Shelton public schools in 1986, serving the district as a special education teacher, department chairperson, coach and advisor. In 1999, I was selected the district’s teacher of the year. After receiving administrative experience in two other districts, I returned to the Shelton public schools to serve in the capacity of high school headmaster for 11 years. I’ve done so proudly and successfully.

During my tenure as high school principal, the three-year Next Generation Accountability Indexes went from 73 in 2015-2016 to 75.7 in 2016-2017 to 79.1 for 2017-2018, a steady increase over three years. Last year’s SAT scores in both ELA (534) and math (528) remained consistent with the year before and above the state average. NWEA math fall to spring scores at or above the 50th percentile mean RIT scores went from 70.72% to 74.71% in 2017, 72.14% to 74.33% in 2018 and 70.95% to 72.22% in 2019, demonstrating improvement each year. Reading Inventory results for those students at or above proficiency from fall to spring went from 79.24% to 82.11% in 2017, 77.69% to 82.08% in 2018 and 77.25% to 81.42%; again, improvements each year. Finally, the four-year graduation rate cohort data from the past three years was 96.1% in 2015, 94.3% in 2016 and 94.6% in 2017, all above the state average. The six-year graduation rate high needs students cohort data was 83.2% in 2014, 88.1% in 2015 and 93.8% in 2015, indicating the focus on the high needs subgroups of English Language Learners, economically disadvantaged and students with disabilities of my school improvement plans has been effective.

During the past few years, since Superintendent Clouet’s arrival to the district, some of my accomplishments include updating graduation requirements; working with UCLA and the Office of Teaching and Learning to implement Project ExcEL at the high school; securing a grant and adding a SHS Ambassadors program; updating course offerings; working with the Technology Center to add and continue to update technology, including Chromebook carts and technology labs; working with the superintendent on the China Sister School program; and implementing the Shelton High School Extended Learning Program, which includes Capstone, community service, the Diploma with Distinction, Experiential Learning Program, Independent Studies, Internships and the Seal of Biliteracy. In addition I worked with the University of Bridgeport to secure articulation agreements to offer dual course enrollment and with Housatonic Community College to increase course offerings in their College Career Pathways Associate Degree Program.

I point to my history and achievements not to boast, but because I think it is important that you know what kind of employee I have been and still am. I am committed to SPS and am very proud of what I have helped to accomplish for SHS.

Throughout my career, I have never had disciplinary action taken against me. There is no discipline documented in my personnel file. Additionally, there is nothing stated in any of my evaluations to indicate any performance issues. I have never had to file a grievance and regret that I have had to do so in this matter.

But this past spring, my professional world imploded when a complaint of alleged sexual misconduct/possible assault between two students was brought to my attention as principal of SHS. I acted immediately, in partnership with my assistant principal (John Skerritt), as this was a serious matter of student safety. As we began to address the matter, DCF immediately became involved, I made sure to notify the SRO, and I also texted the superintendent - specifically informing him that I was investigating an alleged sexual misconduct among students and that DCF was involved. Dr. Clouet acknowledged my message with a simple “OK.” As Mr. Skerritt and I proceeded, every action we took was to ensure the safety of the students involved and to comply with what we believed were the district’s legal and professional obligations. The SRO and the Shelton police youth officer became aware that we questioned the student who we were informed was the victim. Indeed, I later learned that they were present in the kitchen around the corner from Mr. Skerritt’s office, while he and I were speaking with that student. They waited until we finished and the student left the office before coming in to speak with us. During our conversation, the youth officer accused us of ruining the police investigation - and I responded that we felt we had an obligation to investigate since the acts were alleged to have occurred in school. He also asked for an update as to what we had learned and I reported that the alleged victim had told us that the incident was mutual. Although angry, he made remarks indicating that that there was nothing for him to look into based on what we had discovered and he left. He did not tell us not to take any further action and he was well aware that we intended to continue reviewing the matter. The police later told the superintendent that I threw the youth officer out of the school, which could not have been farther from the truth. I believe the youth officer later retracted that statement and agreed that he left under his own volition. Mr. Skerritt and I continued with what we believed were necessary steps to ensure the safety of the students involved and assess whether it was a potential disciplinary situation.

In a phone conversation the same day with the superintendent, after both students were questioned and the police had been at the high school, I provided Dr. Clouet with a detailed update of the actions Mr. Skerritt and I had taken, including about the interaction with the youth officer. During that conversation the Superintendent told me that I had every right to speak with the students. I continued to provide the SRO and the superintendent with updates on my actions that day and the next. I was never told by Dr. Clouet or by the SRO or the police, not to investigate this incident or to stop investigating it until a few days later (after the superintendent spoke with the state prosecutor and was told, falsely, that I had thrown the youth officer out of the school the day before and I was interfering with a police investigation). As soon as I was told to stop and not take any further act to investigate, I followed that directive. When Dr. Clouet further told me that the state was claiming I had interfered with a police investigation - I asked to speak with the district’s attorney. When I did then speak with Attorney Chinni, I explained what had happened in detail and she commented, “that is bull sh** You did nothing wrong.”

Notwithstanding that I partnered with another administrator, or that DCF, the SRO and then the Shelton police were all aware of my actions, which the Superintendent had “OK’ed” - and the fact that the superintendent told me he would support me when the police said they would investigate my actions as interference and/or that even the district’s counsel told me I didn’t do anything wrong - I became the main scapegoat in this situation.

On March 29 - I was put out on an administrative leave pending investigation. Shelton police launched an investigation - for which I had to secure my own criminal legal counsel. While cooperating with this investigation I was questioned by the Shelton Police Department and I learned then that there had been a “Minimal Facts Discoverers Training” or “First Discoverer Training” but that the district had failed to provide me with this training. While I was out on leave, an all district administrator meeting was called and Milford Rape Crisis Center and the Shelton Police Department again trained all administrators - but again I was left out.

The police investigation ended with the state prosecutor deciding not to pursue any charges against me. I was kept out of my school and on administrative leave for two full months during that investigation. The letter placing me on leave said there was also a DCF investigation and in the press on March 30 Dr. Clouet commented that I was being investigated by “multiple agencies” - but that was wrong, no DCF investigation ever occurred.

In late May, the district received the police report and knew that there were no charges that would be brought. It then finally began its own investigation surrounding my and Mr. Skerritt’s actions during the investigation of the student incident. The union and I also received a copy of the police report at this time - I was shocked to see in the report that on March 28 Dr. Clouet had expressly told the police that my and Mr. Skerritt’s interviewing of the students was “in direct conflict with the policies of the Shelton school board as to the response of school personnel to alleged sex assaults that are reported to have occurred on school property.” Not only do I believe this statement to be factually incorrect, but since the district had supposedly not yet done its own investigation I was shocked to read that the superintendent had reached such a negative conclusion two months earlier.

When I was returned from leave on May 29, I was “reassigned” to central office - and was told I could not participate in any end of year activities/functions at the High School. I was initially told that the reassignment was to avoid disrupting SHS so near the end of the school year and pending the district’s investigation, but was not supposed to be “punitive”. In a Shelton Herald article the same day as my return to the district, the superintendent stated, “Once the internal investigation is complete a final decision will be made on the placement of Smith and Skerritt.”

On or about June 1, I was given my annual salary agreement for the 19/20 school year - which noted my SHS principal salary in accordance with the union contract. The superintendent signed the salary agreement on May 28, 2019 and I signed and returned it to human resources on June 1, 2019. In the meantime, I worked in central office as directed.

Then, on July 1, 2019, I received an assignment letter for the 19/20 school year which was my first notification from the district that I would not be returning as principal of SHS. The same day, Mr. Skerritt was notified of his reassignment - also moving him out of the high school. My assignment letter stated that I “will serve in the position of supervisor of special education, reporting to the supervisor of special education and support services.” It further states “you will be paid the exact salary you received during the 2018-2019 school year until the salary applicable to your new position equals or exceeds this salary.” At that time, the Supervisor of Special Education position was not a vacant position. Mrs. Simonetti, who was then serving in the position, was notified of a potential transfer to the high school the day after I was notified of my reassignment. She was subsequently permitted to refuse her transfer and opted to instead retire as of Oct. 1. In the interim, both she and I served in the same position.

Theoretically, the District’s investigation had not been concluded as of July 1st. In fact, it was not until July 25 when I (and Mr. Skerritt) were each informed that the district had concluded its investigation.

During that meeting, I was told that the investigation included interviewing both Mr. Skerritt and I, speaking with the police, and securing the police report. To this day, I remain unclear how the investigation was a complete investigation; however, the conclusion of the investigation, contrary to the superintendent’s comments to the police in March - which were repeated in a July 11 Shelton Herald article - that our actions “were in direct conflict with the policies of the Shelton School Board,” was that I did follow board policies and procedures and that there would be no disciplinary action taken against me. On Aug. 8, I was issued a letter signed by the superintendent closing out the investigation and stating that “there is no cause for disciplinary action.”

Contrary to that stated conclusion, my reassignment is absolutely a demotion - for which there is absolutely no cause. My current position is a lower classification under our bargaining agreement, with less authority, no supervisory or building responsibilities, less salary, fewer/limited bumping rights, and a far different/lesser level of discretion and independence and in which I now report to another bargaining unit member. There are also significant costs in terms of prestige and reputation. This is not just a simple transfer as has been claimed in the denial of my grievance. And when viewed in context of the surrounding events - it is most definitely punitive. But since I was not disciplined for my actions in connection with the student incident investigation - this punishment disguised as a reassignment should not be permitted to stand.

As an added insult, in this reassignment I am not being paid in accordance with the union contract. Instead, I have effectively been denied the raise that I was due to receive as of July 1. Notably, Mr. Skerritt is being paid at the correct 19/20 salary rate and was not held to his prior 18/19 salary rate when he was reassigned. This is just another indication of how this reassignment is punitive and a demotion.

I have never had to file a grievance and regret that I have had to do so in this matter - but I hope the board will review the situation in its entirety and remedy the harms that have been imposed on me in violation of the union contract.