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Sexual misconduct investigations cast shadow over Babylon school district

Barbara Maier, who graduated from Babylon in 2008,

Barbara Maier, who graduated from Babylon in 2008, said she was sexually harassed by a coach. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

A state investigation into alleged sexual misconduct in the Babylon school district likely will go beyond individual misconduct to examining possible institutional and systemic failures, legal experts said.

Attorney General Letitia James’ office on Nov. 23 announced it would conduct a civil investigation of the district after multiple women who attended Babylon Junior-Senior High School said they were sexually harassed, and in at least one case groomed for a sexual relationship, by teachers. Some of the allegations stretch back more than a decade.

What to know

Legal experts said the state probe is likely to be broader than the district’s investigation and more focused on potential systemic failures beyond individual misconduct.

Jeffrey Kenney, a science teacher at Babylon high school, agreed to resign and never seek re-employment in Babylon or any other school system in the country in a settlement with the district.

The Crime Victims Center has begun training for district staff, as well as students and parents, including sexual harassment prevention and mandated reporting of child abuse or maltreatment under state law.

The district placed five employees on paid administrative leave after the allegations became public.

James' probe could result in policy changes and lead to more scrutiny of the district. The school system already had authorized an independent investigation into the allegations, led by a former Suffolk County prosecutor. That probe could possibly lead to disciplinary action against staff, legal experts said.

"What a civil investigation is looking into is not just the perpetrator and the perpetrator’s actions but the failings of the institution," said Marci Hamilton, founder and CEO of Philadelphia-based CHILD USA. "It's a systemic inquiry as opposed to just an individual that they're focusing on."

The AG's office declined to comment on the case but said its probe is separate from the district’s investigation being handled by Chris Powers, an attorney with Hauppauge law firm Ingerman Smith LLP. Powers was hired by the school board last month.

Harassment allegations surfaced shortly after teacher Jeffrey Kenney was placed on paid administrative leave in late October. The allegations, made against other teachers, became public after the alleged victims posted accounts on social media and spoke before the school board on Nov. 15.

Because there are multiple allegations, a legal expert said one key question state investigators will try to answer is who knew what and when.

"It's not one person, one time, but it seems to be a series and a number of incidents coming out of the school district," said Barbara Barron, a Hofstra University law professor. "How did this happen? How did it go on for such a long time? And what did the school know? And why didn't the school act? … If the school didn't know, why didn't they know? How could they not know?"

Investigators also will search for witnesses and corroborating documentation that can help them evaluate the strength of the allegations, she said.

Resignation after 'disturbing allegations'

Kenney, who was placed on leave due to "disturbing allegations," resigned in early November after reaching a settlement agreement with the district. The agreement, which Newsday obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request, stipulates that he surrender his teaching licenses and never seek work in Babylon or any other school system in the United States.

The district declined to comment for this story beyond an emailed statement from the school board. "We are fully cooperating with the district attorney’s office and attorney general’s office, and we will provide all factual information requested to them directly," the statement read.

No charges have been filed against any of the accused, and the Suffolk County Police Department received one complaint, but it was past the statute of limitations for charges to be filed.

Powers, a former assistant district attorney for Suffolk County, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. His findings could possibly lead to disciplinary recommendations.

When asked about possible results of his investigation in a previous interview, Powers pointed to a disciplinary proceeding that allows a district to fire a tenured teacher for "just cause" under state Education Law 3020-a.

"I will look to see what evidence there is and whether there's evidence to support either referral to the police department, which has happened on some of these matters, or if there's enough evidence to support charges," Powers said in the Nov. 16 interview, referring to charges the district can bring against teachers in 3020-a proceedings.

Before the district reached a settlement with Kenney, Superintendent Linda Rozzi had presented the school board with disciplinary charges against him under 3020-a, and a meeting was scheduled for the board to vote on the charges.

Kenney, 53, a longtime science teacher at the high school, agreed to resign a week later, on Nov. 8. Some information in the settlement agreement was redacted, including the basis for the charges, due to privacy. He remains eligible for retirement benefits.

Kenney declined to comment Thursday, other than saying this has "destroyed" his family.

2011 graduate first to publicly speak

Brittany Rohl, 28, was the first woman to publicly come forward with a letter she sent to the school board. The 2011 Babylon graduate said a coach at the school groomed her, beginning when she was 16, for a sexual relationship.

Two other women, Darcy Orlando Bennet, 30, who graduated from Babylon in 2009, and Barbara Maier, 31, who graduated a year prior, said they were sexually harassed by another coach. Bennet said the coach tried to kiss her when she was in ninth grade and initiated lewd physical contact with girls under the guise of helping their athletic form.

Corinne Samon, a 1987 graduate, was the one who filed a complaint with Suffolk police on Nov. 14, alleging a former high school teacher made a lewd comment and smacked her on her behind when she was alone with him in 1982 in shop class.

Samon said she confronted the man a few days later but did not report it or tell her family until decades later.

"I was just feeling this shame and rage that I couldn't tell anyone because I was so embarrassed," Samon said. "There's no shame now at 52. I know that 12-year-old did nothing wrong. It wasn't shame on me. It's shame on them for not protecting us as children."

Police advised her the statute of limitations had passed, but Samon said she filed the report out of principle so her voice can be heard.

"The culture of silence and having everyone siloed and all that veiled secrecy because of privacy laws and whatever else, the community is so disadvantaged because we're told as parents even if you were to report, you're the first parent that ever came," said Samon, a mother of two boys who attend the high school.

More people are expected to speak at the school board meeting on Monday.

Victims Center: More speaking up

Laura Ahearn, executive director of the Ronkonkoma-based Crime Victims Center, said her organization has received "many" reports of inappropriate behaviors in the district in recent weeks. She declined to specify the number.

"Some are reporting a handful of teachers whose inappropriate behavior, which goes back up to four decades ago, would have risen to a level of sexual harassment, endangering the welfare of a child, sexual abuse and even a sexual assault," Ahearn said, noting the accused teachers are former Babylon district employees.

None of the three accused former teachers could be reached for comment. Their names have not been disclosed publicly.

Ahearn said her organization began offering training this week and will continue to educate staff, students and parents in the coming weeks. Staff training will include sexual harassment prevention and mandated reporting of child abuse or maltreatment under state law.

Robert Visbal, whose LinkedIn profile said he was the high school principal from 2002 to 2011 and the assistant principal from 1994 to 2002, declined to comment on some of the alleged incidents.

"I've been watching what's going on in the news and I'm appalled by it," Visbal said, when reached by phone. "I think it's a disgrace what's taken place. They are allegations. I don't know if they are true or not. I can only state from a distance that if they are true, it's disgraceful. That's all I can say."

The New York State United Teachers and its local union Babylon Teachers’ Association declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.

Depending on the findings, David Bloomfield, education law professor at Brooklyn College and The CUNY Graduate Center, said the district could be required to implement policy changes and face ongoing monitoring by the state.

The district also could face civil litigation and political blowback, Bloomfield said.

"This is a political process, as well as a legal process," he said. "[The public] can vote down the school budget … for squandering their hard-earned tax money. So, the political outcomes could be more wide-ranging and unpredictable."

The process is still in the fact-finding stage, and experts cautioned against jumping to conclusions.

"An investigation is really only the beginning," said Bennett Gershman, a former state prosecutor and a law professor at Pace University. "Anything's possible here without really knowing what the facts are."

Gershman said the attorney general’s investigation is to establish the facts, which could lead to accountability if called for.

"They could drop the whole thing and say there's no basis for any further investigation," he said. "Or they could say the district behaved unprofessionally and irresponsibly, they engaged in a cover-up and they could then impose sanctions."

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