Teacher files legal complaint against East Williston school district over firing

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A former teacher has filed a legal complaint against the East Williston school district and two of its officials, claiming she was fired as a result of religious and age discrimination.

The complaint was filed in federal District Court in Brooklyn on Dec. 20 by Michelle Chalfen, 50, who spent the previous four years as a special education teacher at the Wheatley School in Old Westbury.  

The 41-page complaint stated that Chalfen, who is Jewish, “has dedicated her entire career to shaping and building the lives of some of Long Island, New York’s most vulnerable youth as a special education public school teacher.”

The district’s director of pupil personnel services, Lynn Mazza, and assistant superintendent for instruction and personnel, Danielle Gately, are the two individuals Chalfen targets in her complaint.

Chalfen’s legal complaint gave this account: 

She began working for the district as a special education teacher in the fall of 2015. At the time of her hiring, she was subject to a four-year probationary period, which would conclude with a vote on whether she would be granted tenure.

During the fall of 2015, Chalfen was observed once in October and November.  Her supervisors offered some suggestions in an “overwhelmingly positive” observational response. The next year Chalfen received two more critiques of her performance, praising her ability to make students feel “welcome and safe” in an environment that promoted a “respectful culture for learning.”

In Chalfen’s end-of-the-year evaluation issued around June 2017, she achieved all “effective” ratings, which are the highest available on the evaluation scale.  Chalfen noted that constructive criticism and suggestions were offered, but “at no point harshly criticized” her performance.

Mazza took over as Chalfen’s direct supervisor before the 2017-18 academic year and would remain in that role for the remainder of Chalfen’s employment at Wheatley.  

After three observations, Chalfen ended her third probationary period with a review from Mazza that rated her as “effective” in each category.  She was also recognized as an outstanding faculty member during the district’s annual “In Recognition of Excellence” Dinner.

During the fourth and final probationary year, Chalfen was presented with an assignment to teach an inclusion English course with another faculty member, Todd Henao. Mazza and the district offered minimal guidance on how to instruct the newly formed class.

In October 2018, Mazza informed Chalfen that a parent had complained about her performance.  Chalfen was shocked, and when she tried to inquire more about the nature and origin of the complaint, Mazza refused to provide her with the specifics.

Gately then observed one of Chalfen’s co-teaching classes with Henao.  Afterward, she presented Chalfen with the suggestion of observing another co-teaching class and to take a course to improve hers.  The next day, Mazza came into the classroom unannounced and spent roughly five minutes observing the class.

For the first time in almost four years, Chalfen received criticism and accusations of “not properly instructing her students.”  Chalfen, taken aback by the criticism, sought out her union representative, Pat Clarke, and informed him of what had transpired.  After meeting with Mazza, Clarke asked Chalfen to attend a co-teaching course, at Mazza’s suggestion.

After another formal observation conducted by Mazza, Chalfen was informed by her that she would not be recommended for tenure.  After she broke down crying in response to the news, Chalfen was given no explanation as to why she would not be receiving tenure.

District representatives continued to provide “misrepresentative and unfair” performance evaluations throughout the year, culminating in a school board meeting around June 2019.  During the meeting, the board voted 3-2 in favor of Chalfen’s termination after Superintendent Elaine Kanas also recommended not to grant Chalfen tenure.

Since the vote, the school district has replaced Chalfen with a younger, non-Jewish individual.

According to the complaint, “this is a civil action brought on behalf of the Plaintiff against Defendants for race discrimination, age discrimination, religious discrimination, and retaliation in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution.”

Mazza, Gately and the East Williston school district did not respond to requests for comment.

Chalfen is represented by Nesenoff & Miltenberg LLP of Manhattan. 

About the author

Robert Pelaez

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