Thomas Bernagozzi, 75, of Babylon, faces 45 lawsuits from former students alleging he sexually abused them when he was a third-grade teacher in Bay Shore.  Credit: Newsday/James Carbone

Suffolk County police Thursday arrested a retired Bay Shore third-grade teacher on charges he sexually abused students decades ago. 

Police charged Thomas Bernagozzi, 75, of Babylon, with sexual conduct against a child and sodomy. Both are felonies that carry maximum sentence of 25 years in prison.

Suffolk police launched an investigation after two former students reported Bernagozzi sexually abused them between the late 1980s and early 2000s. Police said the alleged victims attended Bay Shore's Gardiner Manor Elementary School and Mary G. Clarkson Elementary School at the time of the abuse.

Bernagozzi pleaded not guilty during an arraignment before District Court Judge Edward Hennessey, who released Bernagozzi without bail under GPS monitoring. Prosecutors had requested $1 million cash bail.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Retired Bay Shore elementary school teacher Thomas Bernagozzi was criminally charged with sexually abusing students between 1980 and 2000.
  • Forty-five former Bay Shore students already were suing the school district, saying they were sexually abused by Bernagozzi and that the district did not do enough to protect them.
  • Bay Shore Superintendent Steven Maloney said the district is cooperating with police.

Eric Besso, Bernagozzi's court-appointed defense attorney, said his client “vehemently” denied the allegations.

“These are over 25 years old, these allegations,” Besso, of Sayville, told the judge in requesting his client's release from custody. Besso declined to comment further as he left court.

Newsday reported last month that 45 of Bernagozzi's former students said in separate lawsuits he sexually abused them as youngsters in his class and accused the Bay Shore district of failing to protect them. The lawsuits were filed under the Child Victims Act, which opened a temporary window beginning in 2019 for anyone who suffered sexual abuse as a child to file claims. That window closed in August 2021.

Assistant Suffolk County District Attorney Dana Castaldo said in court that the investigation into Bernagozzi’s “systematic abuse” of “scores of children” included interviews with more than 20 alleged victims and witnesses. She said changes in the law under the Child Victims Act made the criminal charges possible.

Castaldo said the charges relate to the alleged abuse of two Bay Shore students, one dating back to 1989 and the other to 1997.

In both incidents, the child was not a student in Bernagozzi’s class, Castaldo said.

The 1989 student was a 4-year-old enrolled in pre-K, whose brother was a third-grade student of Bernagozzi. The child from 1997 was in a different third-grade class, but spent extracurricular time with Bernagozzi, the prosecutor said.

Thomas Bernagozzi, a former third-grade teacher at Bay Shore's Gardiner...

Thomas Bernagozzi, a former third-grade teacher at Bay Shore's Gardiner Manor Elementary School accused of sexual abuse in 45 lawsuits, shown in 1995. Credit: Courtesy of the Islip Bulletin

Both youths are alleged to have also spent time outside of school for a period of several years with Bernagzzi, who Castaldo said took children from the school to beaches, public pools and Broadway plays.

Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney described as “complicated” changes to the statute of limitations leading to Bernagozzi facing criminal charges after more than 25 years.

 He said he didn't want anyone who may have suffered abuse to be discouraged from coming forward to report the incidents.

“I don't want to confuse victims,” Tierney told reporters outside the courtroom. “What I would say is if you are a victim of abuse, please report it.”

Tierney said also no one else is being charged in connection with the alleged abuse.

“School teachers and school administrators are mandatory reporters under the law,” the district attorney said. “So if they have knowledge of abuse, they need to come forward with that. And a failure to do so is a violation of the law.”

Superintendent Steven Maloney and school board president Jennifer Brownyard promised to cooperate with police.

 “This former employee has not been affiliated with the District since 2000,” Maloney said in an email to the community. “At this time we have no further information regarding the matter.”

Bernagozzi repeatedly exposed himself and molested students from ages 5 to 13, the lawsuits state. The allegations span three decades, according to the lawsuits filed in Suffolk Supreme Court.

Bernagozzi, who retired in 2000, denied the allegations in court papers and there was no answer when reporters knocked on the door of his Babylon residence on Nov. 8. He didn't return messages seeking comment.

In all 45 cases, the Bay Shore district filed a counter suit against Bernagozzi, arguing he should be held responsible instead of the district. The district’s court papers said if a jury rules in favor of a former student, “It will be by the virtue of the actions, omissions, recklessness, carelessness, and negligence” of Bernagozzi.

The lawsuits, filed between July 2020 and August 2021, accused the district of condoning Bernagozzi’s behavior.

Attorney Jeff Herman, who is representing 43 former students suing the Bay Shore district alleging abuse by Bernagozzi, said his clients are relieved by his arrest.

“It's a long time coming, and they're very happy that this many years later the authorities are hearing them,” he said. “It's one piece of seeking justice for these clients.”

Attorney Josh Silber, who is representing two of Bernagozzi's former students, described the arrest of the once-decorated teacher as “welcome news to survivors who have been coping with the long term effects of Bernagozzi’s abuse for decades.”

“While this is certainly a start on the path to justice, it reminds us of the Bay Shore School District’s decadeslong attempt to protect the abuser rather than the students in their care,” Silber said. “A school’s primary mission is the safety of the children placed in its care, and Bay Shore completely ignored this responsibility.”

District employees warned students in the early 1980s to avoid being alone with Bernagozzi, and administrators allowed the teacher to continue a male-only after-school program after a parent reported sexual abuse of a child in the mid-80s, according to the lawsuits.

The district declined to comment about the lawsuits, citing ongoing litigation. 

More than 200 lawsuits have been filed against Long Island public school districts under the Child Victims Act, according to court records reviewed by Newsday. 

Twenty-five school districts, led by Cold Spring Harbor and Harborfields, have paid a combined $29.2 million to settle 38 lawsuits by former students who say teachers, administrators and fellow students sexually abused them, Newsday found.

Another 150 cases, including the 45 lawsuits against Bay Shore accusing Bernagozzi of sexual abuse, are ongoing.

LIRR COVID fraud suspensions … Trump trial: Day 8 … Islanders preview Credit: Newsday

Updated 40 minutes ago Gilgo Manorville search ... Southold hotel pause ... Home sales ... What's up on Long Island

LIRR COVID fraud suspensions … Trump trial: Day 8 … Islanders preview Credit: Newsday

Updated 40 minutes ago Gilgo Manorville search ... Southold hotel pause ... Home sales ... What's up on Long Island

Latest videos

Newsday LogoSUBSCRIBEUnlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months
ACT NOWSALE ENDS SOON | CANCEL ANYTIME