Teacher files discrimination complaint with state following termination

  • Laurie White embraces a student as she packs up her classroom Wednesday afternoon. White was fired from her job as fourth-grade teacher at Sheffield Elementary School in May. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/TERRI CAPPUCCI

  • Laurie White's former fourth-grade classroom Wednesday. White said she purchased the books pictured. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/TERRI CAPPUCCI

  • Laurie White, right, stands with fourth-grade teachers Amy Caulkins, far left, and Amy Eichorn. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/TERRI CAPPUCCI

Staff Writer
Published: 7/11/2019 12:07:40 AM

TURNERS FALLS — As Laurie White, her wife, and two of her family members packed up her fourth-grade classroom at Sheffield Elementary Wednesday, a handful of former students and colleagues stopped by to offer hugs and words of encouragement.

White, 53, was terminated May 24 from her job as a fourth-grade teacher by Principal Melissa Pitrat. She’d started the position in August 2017.

Pitrat informed White she was being terminated on the same day as her evaluation.

“She didn’t have anything positive to say about anything I did,” White said. “At the end of that meeting, she gave me my papers saying that I was not coming back next year.”

In her two years at Sheffield, White has been fired by Pitrat once before. She was terminated in May 2018 after her first year on the job, though Gill-Montague Regional School District Superintendent Michael Sullivan later reversed the decision.

After White filed grievances with the principal, superintendent and the Gill-Montague Regional School Committee to no avail, on June 27 she filed a complaint with the state Commission Against Discrimination against the school district.

The complaint alleges the school discriminated against White on the basis of her sexual orientation. She identifies as a gay woman.

School administrators are required to submit a statement to White within 21 days of her complaint.

While she generally found most of her colleagues to be collegial, White said in the complaint that Pitrat consistently treated her “poorly.”

In an interview Wednesday, White said she felt singled-out by Pitrat, saying she didn’t notice the principal mistreating other staff members. She noted there is one other openly gay person working at the school.

According to the complaint, Pitrat’s behavior began in January 2018, shortly after White married her female partner, Terri Cappucci, 53, the complaint says. The two were married the month prior, on Christmas Eve in 2017.

White noted Pitrat did not say anything derogatory about her sexual orientation or her marriage to Cappucci. However, she said she realized upon reflection that Pitrat’s behavior changed after White was married to another woman.

Both Pitrat and Sullivan declined to comment after being approached in person by a reporter.

The state Department of Unemployment Assistance informed White that school administrators claimed she was fired because she did not have a state license and had already been given two waivers, she said, which she found to be untrue. She was required to earn a Massachusetts license because she was teaching in Alabama prior to taking the position at Sheffield. She later learned from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education the school district failed to issue her a waiver in her two years of teaching as they are required. White has applied for a license and is in the process of receiving this credential.

“A school district has never requested a hardship waiver on your behalf,” Donavin Bentley, waiver specialist in the Office of Educator Licensure, wrote to White on June 25.

White also noted that her class this year was more difficult than the previous one, and she received less help. A few students had behavioral issues, and she did not have a para-professional to assist, as she had in the previous year.

“We didn’t have enough staff to meet all the needs of our kids,” White said. “We weren’t in compliance. By February, they tried to get us in compliance.”

Before White approached the state, she submitted multiple formal grievances with the principal, superintendent and School Committee. All three parties denied her complaints.

White learned about the School Committee’s denial through Superintendent Sullivan, who told her this month in a two-sentence email that “the School Committee voted to deny” her grievance. She noted that the School Committee should be in charge of administrators, not the other way around.

At two School Committee meetings held May 28 and June 11, White’s wife and several former students gave testimonies in support of the teacher.

Sheffield’s teachers appear to be on White’s side: roughly 85 percent of the staff signed a petition to oppose White’s termination. The petition was cited by White in her complaint to the School Committee.

“We the staff of Sheffield Elementary School know our colleague Laurie White, to be a dynamic teacher,” the petition stated. “She is an integral member of our fourth grade team and valued member of our school community, who brings a depth of experience, understanding and compassion to her craft … It is our belief that administration treated her unfairly.”

A few months before she was terminated, in January, White approached Principal Pitrat with her union representative to address behavior she said breached the school’s code. She said Pitrat had shared her evaluation with other teachers, talking about the results in a derogatory manner.

“She shared it with other people and was kind of attacking me, in front of other people,” White said.

White noted that she left behind a steady job and sold her home in Alabama to teach at Sheffield. White worked as a teacher for Alabama’s Hoover City Schools District for 13 years. After some consideration, she and her wife chose to move to Turners Falls as Cappucci is from the area and they sought to live in a close-knit community.

Located in a low-income community, White said Sheffield Elementary often did not have enough money to support its teachers and students properly. Many times, she had to pay for her own teaching materials, buying piles of books and miscellaneous furniture to outfit her classroom.

“There’s no money for the staff that we need,” White said. “We have to write our own programs.”

White added that she tried to ensure her classroom was a “safe space” for students.

Asked about the future, White shrugged her shoulders. While losing a steady paycheck is difficult, she noted that it is most upsetting to leave her students behind.

“It’s the kids,” White said. “I’ll miss the kids.”


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