Inquiry finds Manhasset schools chief violated sexual harassment rules

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Students staged a walkout at Manhasset Secondary School last week. (Photo courtesy of Manhasset School District)
Students staged a walkout at Manhasset Secondary School last week. (Photo courtesy of Manhasset School District)

An investigation has found that Vincent Butera, the Manhasset schools superintendent, violated the district’s rules on sexual harassment after a teacher complained about his conduct.

Butera acknowledged the finding by an independent counsel last week while saying he was disheartened that the complainant had construed his actions as troublesome.

The school board, which had not disclosed that an investigation of Butera was underway, said it was following the independent counsel’s recommendations, without specifying what they were.

Some parents, however, called for Butera to resign, and about 200 seniors at Manhasset Secondary School walked out in protest last Friday. The students chanted “Hey hey, ho ho, Vincent Butera has to go,” and many, including some teachers, wore black in protest.

According to NBC News, an unnamed former teacher at Shelter Rock Elementary School  complained last fall that the three-year superintendent had made her feel uncomfortable when he hugged her twice in school, and visited her classroom often to “just stand in the back and stare,” describing both as “creepy.”

Butera said at the May 6 Board of Education meeting that it had been “extremely disheartening to learn that my actions were construed by even one person as anything other than completely professional.” He then discussed the incidents in detail from his point of view.

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“At a retirement party with over 100 people in attendance, and a DJ playing music loudly, I came in close proximity to the complainant and had a work-related conversation,” Butera said. “After a courageous fight, a teacher had tragically passed away. And so many had become overwhelmed with emotion. And I hugged the complainant, in an effort to console her, as I did with others that day.”

The second hug, he said, was one of several “congratulatory” hugs that the complainant received from administrators and a Board of Education member after reaching a “significant professional milestone.”

He then discussed the classroom visits.

“I routinely visit classrooms throughout the district to observe classes to spend time with students and staff, and to monitor and oversee district initiatives,” Butera said. “The complainant states that I came into the classroom, frequently. I had taken pictures in a video at a basketball fundraising event to share via a district Twitter account. During halftime, the complainant’s child was spotlighted and I offered to share the files with the complainant. The videos and pictures were indeed too large to go over the district’s email system, and I offered to send them through a different email.”

“Despite my intent, the independent counsel did find that my attention was perceived by the complainant as unwelcome, and therefore, a violation of district policy,” Butera said. “My actions and behavior have always been intended to mirror the values and high standards that so many of us hold, to convey care and concern. And the thought that even one person perceived that differently brings me profound regret and sadness, and for that I have reflected deeply.

“It became clear that the district needed to make it easier for employees to report complaints so that corrective measures can be taken immediately. Our policies have been updated to provide employees very accessible and confidential reporting mechanisms. As difficult and as challenging as this year has been, my focus has and will always remain on doing what is best for us students and school community.”

At a League of Women Voters candidate forum on May 5, board Vice President Carlo Prinzo discussed the scope of the case, noting that he and the board could not legally disclose some of the details.

“The board did receive a sexual harassment allegation from an individual and as soon as we received it, following our own policy, we immediately involved an outside counsel to do an investigation,” Prinzo said. “The outside counsel was from upstate. We consciously decided not to hire a firm from Long Island, and any, any, and this all happened in the months ago. And when all of this came back to us all the information came back to us the board proceeded to do the recommendations and follow the recommendations that were given to given to us by this independent counsel, and our own district attorneys, and our own attorney group.”

Board President Pat Aitken addressed transparency concerns at the meeting.

“We hope the community understands why the board has been trusted to keep private matters confidential,” Aitken said. “That is not the same as a lack of transparency. The board determined that these circumstances warranted confidentiality. We have a case, and will continue to maintain such confidentiality … However, we will not be issuing any further statement except to reaffirm the appropriate steps we’re taking consistent with the recommendations of the independent counsel.”

School board candidate Frank Bua said at the forum that he and the community wanted a better understanding of the investigation’s conclusions.

“My general understanding is that an independent investigation was conducted and the conclusions were not disclosed,” Bua said. “But these are very serious allegations, you know, before we even discuss contract extensions we need to have an understanding of really what those conclusions were of that investigation.

“People are very deeply concerned, they’re fearful of sending their children to school and you know it’s just really a very unfortunate situation that we’re all in … because this is not something that’s representative of our community. But the bottom line is the community needs a clear understanding of the conclusions of the investigation so they can make an informed judgment. Above all, our students and our staff need to feel safe when they’re in our schools.”

Bua’s sentiment was echoed by many parents at the board meeting. District parent Stacey Kelly said that she reacted in “horror and disgust” to news of the investigation.

“Is Manhasset a zero-tolerance district when it comes to sexual harassment by students, staff, faculty and most especially the superintendent of the district?” Kelly said. “If the answer is no, then you as a board owe an explanation to the community as to why not. If the answer is yes, as it should be, then why does Dr. Butera still have a job? Why has he not been terminated?

“Manhasset cannot be a community that gives a nod and wink to sexual harassment. We must be a zero tolerance district, and Dr. Butera must resign for the good of the community. and if he won’t, then the board must act to terminate him.

“He has lost the trust of the community, and I absolutely 100 percent agree that not firing Dr. Butera for this egregious offense of violating our school’s sexual harassment policy sends the absolute opposite message that we want to send to our youth. It tells the boys that there is no accountability, and it tells the girls that even if they make an allegation that is essentially proven, nothing will happen. It is not right, it is unfair and this is not the community that we are. This cannot stand.”

Efforts to reach the district for further comment were unavailing.

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