It took the Manhasset Board of Education 44 minutes to address the elephant in the room during a public school budget hearing on Thursday night, May 6. The board allowed Manhasset Superintendent of Schools Dr. Vincent Butera to address, for the first time, the allegations of sexual harassment by a former Shelter Rock Elementary School teacher and the violation of the district’s sexual harassment policy after an investigation by independent counsel in the fall of 2020.
“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 during the public hearing held over Zoom and broadcasted on Youtube. “My actions and behavior have always been intended to mirror the values and high standards that so many of us and I hold dear and 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.”
The sexual harassment allegations and violation were brought to light after an article was published in the Manhasset Press detailing the former teacher’s letter to the board of education in September and the letter to the former teacher from independent counsel Elizabeth Ledkovsky.
The Manhasset Press has confirmed the identity of the former teacher but has not been able to reach her. She currently works in another school district after departing the Manhasset School District at the end of the 2019-20 school year.
Butera addressed the allegations by the former teacher one-by-one in his statement, stating “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. After a courageous fight, a teacher tragically passed away and so many had become overwhelmed with emotion. I hugged the complainant in an effort to console her, as I did with others that day. I routinely visit classrooms throughout the district to observe classes, to spend time with students and staff and to monitor and oversee district initiatives. The complainant states that I came into her classroom frequently.
“I had taken pictures and a video at a basketball fundraising event to share via our 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. Upon reaching a significant professional milestone, the building principal called several teachers to the library, where I, along with other administrators and a board member offered a congratulatory hug after this significant achievement.”
The board of education did not allow those in attendance to ask questions to the board or to Butera. However, Board of Education President Patricia Aitken and trustee Christine Monterosso did address the situation, but did not say whether Butera had been disciplined when the investigation concluded in November.
“We want to state emphatically that the board takes matters of this nature very seriously,” Aitken said. “Like you, the five of us are Manhasset residents, as well as parents and as board members, we have the additional responsibilities as fiduciaries. One of those responsibilities is to maintain confidentiality and to respect the privacy of all members of the school community. Even in difficult circumstances, when the board became aware of allegations last September, in accordance with board policies, we immediately retained services of an independent counsel to conduct a thorough investigation of the allegations. After council completed its investigation, the board took the appropriate steps, consistent with its policy, procedures and the recommendations of the independent counsel.”
“We could not disclose details given district policy as well as to protect the privacy of the complainant, but I can assure you that we took the allegations incredibly seriously and spent an enormous amount of time discussing the different paths we could take,” Monterosso said. “You may disagree with the one that we took, but our only goal was to do what we believed to be the right thing. Having our characters attacked under these circumstances, saddens and disappoints us all greatly.”
Despite the main purpose of the hearing being the $102.3 million proposed school budget, the public asked only questions about the sexual harassment allegations and violation found by independent counsel.
“This week was probably one of the most difficult times, not only for the board of education members that stated that they had a difficult time, but also for teachers,” Lauren Kearon, a Manhasset teacher for the past 14 years, said during the public comment of the meeting. “To think that we are teaching our young girls, that if they make accusations that are even found guilty against somebody who is essentially preying upon them, that even if that’s found guilty, there’s nothing that’s going to be done. To me, that’s upsetting. To me, it’s upsetting that we’re teaching our young boys in the school that they can get away with stuff like this and that there is no real consequences to their action. I cannot believe that this district has chosen this path and I’m supremely disappointed.”
While the board did not answer questions, Manhasset parent Stacey Kelly identified matters that she believes the board should answer at some point.
“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 the board owe the community an explanation as to why not. And if the answer is yes, as it should be, then why does Dr. Butera still have a job? Why has he not been terminated? 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.”