Federal judge allows discrimination suit against Malverne School District to move forward

From left, teachers Kenneth Smith of South Hempstead; From left, teachers Kenneth Smith of South Hempstead; Sherwyn Besson of Rockville Centre, and Betsy Benedith, of Brooklyn, are pictured on Dec. 15, 2011. Photo Credit: Chris Ware

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A federal judge has let charges of racial discrimination by the Malverne School District go forward, but granted the district's request for separate trials for the three accusers, who are black.

Betsy Benedith, 44, of Brooklyn, was an assistant principal denied tenure and fired because of race, she said in court papers. Sherwyn Besson, 45, of Lakeview, a business teacher, and Kenneth Smith, 48, of South Hempstead, a math teacher, alleged denial of promotion and opportunities for extra pay because of racial discrimination. They were not fired, but Besson said he was reduced to part-time work with no medical benefits and quit.

The individual defendants in the suit against the district include the superintendent, a principal, two assistant principals and a department chair.

Benedith will be allowed to continue with the current suit, while Besson and Smith have until Sept. 15 to file their own actions, U.S. District Court Judge Arthur Spatt in Central Islip said in his decision dated Aug. 15.

Of one administrator, who the suit said is black, Spatt wrote there is "evidence" that he used a racial slur against Benedith. Spatt added: "The fact that the source of this racial slur was black as well does not alter this Court's determination that a reasonable jury could find that the working environment was objectively hostile."

Brian Sokoloff, the Carle Place lawyer for the district who had sought summary dismissal of all the charges, had alternately sought the separate trials.

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He said the cases going to trial would bring out the truth, and he called the separate trials "a victory for fairness." The original case began in December 2011.

Steven Morelli, the Garden City lawyer who said he would remain as counsel in all three plaintiffs' cases, called the ruling "a big win."

No date has been set for Benedith's trial to begin, and new papers have not yet been filed for the other two.

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