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SCCC board faults outgoing chairwoman over confidentiality breach

Suffolk County Community College trustee Dafny Irizarry stepped

Suffolk County Community College trustee Dafny Irizarry stepped aside as board chairwoman June 18, 2015, after a year of tumult and put forward the name of Theresa Sanders, who was elected unanimously to succeed her. Credit: Johnny Milano

Trustees of Suffolk County Community College last month waxed poetic about the contributions of board chairwoman Dafny Irizarry when she decided not to seek another term after four years at the helm.

But in a highly unusual executive session from which Irizarry was excluded, the board only minutes earlier approved a series of resolutions that found "reasonable cause" that Irizarry violated the "confidentiality provision" of the college's sexual harassment policy.

The board, in its vote, also expressed its "strongest disapproval" that a "policy making leader of the college community" would improperly disclose "information concerning a complaint of sex harassment."

The resolutions only came to light last week after Newsday filed for documents under the state Freedom of Information Law. It provided the first but only fragmentary details of what the college for the last year has described as a "breach of confidentiality" probe, complete with private investigators and an outside ethics attorney.

The scant details indicate that a female student in May 2014 made a complaint that she had been sexually harassed by a college employee -- whom school officials say was faculty member. On June 4, the student complained to the college that Irizarry had given information about her complaint to a third party, a person the resolutions say had "no legitimate need to know" and was "not reasonably necessary" for the investigation. School officials say the sexual harassment complaint itself has been successfully handled, but gave no details.

To be fair, the resolutions also state Irizarry in a written response and an appearance before her fellow board members "denied any breach . . . of confidentiality" and filed her own complaint that the college's deputy counsel, Alicia O'Connor, improperly disseminated information about the sex harassment complaint "by leaving unattended a legal pad containing note of an interview related" to the allegations. The board, in separate resolutions, cleared O'Connor and counsel Louis Petrizzo of any blame.

Reached late last week, Irizarry, a high school language teacher, said she "vehemently disagrees with the conclusion of the trustees," but as a board member whose term lasts until 2018, she added, "I look forward to what matters most and that's our students' success."

In their resolution, the trustees conceded they were powerless to impose any sanction because there are no rules in place to deal with such issues involving the board.

The resolution states it will make a priority of creating a "clear and comprehensive" ethics code for all college officers and employees, particularly "procedures for investigation . . . of misconduct by a trustee" and sanctions should misconduct occur. The board also will ask the Suffolk County Legislature to broaden the role of the county board of ethics so it can assist the college on such issues.

Despite the board's action, Theresa Sanders, the new board chairwoman, praised Irizarry's "great work" as a student advocate and hoped her action "was just a blip" that won't be repeated.

She also emphasized that the pending initiatives are not aimed at Irizarry. "We can't go retroactively and apply a statute that was not in place. We're doing this for the future," she said. "This is new for us . . . Sometimes you don't know you need something until something happens."

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