When the Sewanhaka school district suspected a high school teacher had submitted a forged COVID-19 vaccination card in 2021, the district alerted law enforcement and began the state process seeking her dismissal.

But like with many teacher disciplinary cases across Long Island, the district didn't move forward with the termination case. Instead, the district negotiated a settlement in which Sewanhaka High School math teacher Tricia Manno didn't admit guilt but paid a $20,000 fine and returned to teaching.

Weeks later, a Nassau County grand jury indicted Manno on felony forgery charges. The school district had no further recourse — because the settlement agreement considered the case closed.

Manno, 48, admitted the vaccination card was fake when she pleaded guilty in August 2021 to a reduced misdemeanor charge, court records show.

"... did you, with knowledge that it was forged and with the intent to deceive or injure another, possess a forged Covid-19 vaccination card? THE DEFENDANT: Yes."Source: NY State Supreme Court records

In a first-ever wide-scale investigation into teacher discipline, Newsday spent three years reviewing more than 5,000 pages of school and state disciplinary records spanning more than a decade and found that districts overwhelmingly prefer using settlement agreements to discipline educators.

Education law attorneys said cases such as Manno’s illustrate the challenge districts face when seeking a tenured teacher's firing for misconduct: Without an admission of guilt or overwhelming proof, persuading a hearing officer who decides these cases to terminate the teacher can be difficult. 

“The bottom line is that the way the [state] statute is written, it heavily favors the employee,” said Frank Miller, a Syracuse-based education law attorney.

Districts often avoided the state’s official process for educator discipline — commonly referred to as “3020-a,” its section title in state law — because of associated legal fees and no guarantee of success, Newsday found.

The Process

3020-a: A public school district seeking to discipline or terminate a tenured teacher follows rules in state law commonly referred to as “3020-a,” its section title. First, districts confidentially file charges against the teacher with the state Department of Education. A hearing officer decides whether the district’s case meets the burden of proof, then determines the appropriate penalty.

Settlement Agreements: Often districts and the teacher negotiate discipline instead of going through a 3020-a proceeding. In these scenarios, school administrators and their lawyers meet with the teacher, their union representative and their attorney and reach an agreement on the discipline. The terms of these agreements typically are approved by boards of education. School districts are not required to detail the misconduct in the agreement.

A 3020-a hearing requires a district to confidentially file charges against the teacher. A state-appointed hearing officer decides whether the district’s case meets the burden of proof and the appropriate penalty, which could take years.

The settlement agreements obtained by Newsday show that school districts often detailed the agreed-upon penalties but omitted or redacted the misconduct allegations, and sometimes included confidentiality clauses.

In Manno's case, the February 2022 settlement papers provided only limited clues that the infraction was COVID-19 related.

The agreement said Manno “understands her obligations" and “will comply” with the rules of the state and protocols of the school district “concerning COVID-19 testing or as the case may be, in providing proof of vaccination.”

Superintendent James Grossane wrote in a reprimand letter attached to the settlement that Manno was “made aware of the requirement that every employee of the school district, including yourself, were required" to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or undergo weekly testing.

The grand jury's indictment a month later filled in the blanks: Nassau prosecutors said Manno submitted a vaccination card to Sewanhaka on Sept. 21, 2021, that appeared to be forged.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • To discipline or terminate a tenured educator, school districts must follow a process laid out in state law.

  • Most districts negotiate discipline, including resignations with the teacher and their union, to save money on legal fees and also because they don't have enough proof, experts said.

  • Superintendents are required to report teachers who commit an act of questionable moral character to the state Education Department to investigate. That process can take years, according to a Newsday analysis.

When Manno pleaded guilty in August to a misdemeanor charge as part of an arrangement with prosecutors, Nassau Supreme Court Judge Fran Ricigliano asked if the card was forged "with the intent to deceive."

"Yes," Manno said.

The judge sentenced her to 50 hours' community service and a $250 fine. She returned to the classroom in September teaching high school math.

"She gets to keep her job, and she gets to come back," said Lynette Battle, president of the Parent Teacher Student Association at Elmont Memorial High School, one of five schools in the Sewanhaka district. "It sends a message that lying is OK. She outright lied and there are no real repercussions."

Grossane, the superintendent, declined to comment, citing "confidential personnel matters."

Manno did not return messages seeking comment. Her Mineola-based attorney, Scott Limmer, declined to comment.

Newsday obtained more than 200 settlement agreements for educators facing misconduct allegations in the past decade. 

Education law attorneys said they discourage districts from disclosing agreement details at public meetings because they involve personnel issues.

Experts question the lack of transparency. 

Withholding settlement details “leaves the community with a great deal of mistrust and uncertainty about the safety” of their children even if unwarranted, said Lee Adler, an employment law professor at Cornell University in Ithaca.

The following are agreements districts negotiated with educators. In each case, Newsday made multiple attempts to contact the educator and school for a response, or context, beyond what was included in the documents.

Editor's note

Newsday reporters Jim Baumbach and Joie Tyrrell filed hundreds of public records requests with Long Island school districts and the state Department of Education. They gathered and reviewed more than 5,000 pages of records on educators accused of misconduct and found more than 200 instances where confidential settlement agreements were used to discipline a teacher.

Ten cases are highlighted here in a first-of-its kind investigation on Long Island. Newsday found that Island districts persuaded at least 103 tenured educators accused of misconduct in the past decade to resign by continuing to pay their salaries for months and concealing the reasons for their departures.

Former Brentwood teacher Thomas Barton arrested

Suffolk County police arrested middle school physical education teacher Thomas Barton in January 2019 on charges he had sexual contact with a 16-year-old former student, and the Brentwood district responded by placing him on paid leave and banning him from school property. 

Two months later, the district reached a settlement.

According to the agreement, Barton already had formally applied to retire after that school year. The district barred him from returning to school but kept him on the payroll at his regular salary through his retirement date in July 2019 — so long as until then he was not “convicted of any criminal acts related to the subject matter of this settlement agreement.” 

"MR. BARTON shall be on administrative reassignment, with pay, from his teaching position through the date of his retirement ... MR. BARTON waives his contractual entitlement to the retirement incentive payment of $35,420.75."Source: Documents obtained from the Brentwood school district

The district also agreed to pay Barton $12,700 in unused sick time, and Barton waived “his contractual entitlement to the retirement incentive payment of $35,420.75.”  Barton retained his annual pension because state law does not include any forfeiture provisions for public school teachers, said Tim Mack, New York State Teachers' Retirement System spokesman.

Court records show he pleaded guilty to one count of felony rape in December 2019 and was sentenced to 10 years' probation. He registered as a sex offender with the state. His teaching certificate was revoked, state records show.

Brentwood Superintendent Richard Loeschner, speaking generally, said he prefers settlements with resignations instead of proceeding to a state disciplinary hearing because it saves time and money, and eliminates the possibility of a ruling against the school district.

Barton’s Bay Shore-based attorney, David Besso, said: “Tom Barton was a valued teacher in the Brentwood school district for over 32 years. As a result of his tenure, Tom was entitled to payouts for a variety of benefits. Both Tom, and the school district, decided that a settlement was in the best interest of both parties. As a result of the settlement, Tom received far less revenue from the district than had he litigated the matter,” referring to the retirement incentive payment Barton gave up as part of the settlement.

No one-on-one meetings for William Floyd teacher Jason Brodsky

In a letter attached to a settlement agreement, William Floyd Superintendent Kevin Coster said physical education teacher Jason Brodsky acted inappropriately with an eighth-grade female student in 2019, alleging that he:

  • Spoke privately in the gymnasium’s closet multiple times;
  • Exchanged text messages about nonschool issues;
  • Interrupted other teachers to speak with her;
  • Paid for her ticket to a wrestling team's dinner;
  • Bought coffee, doughnuts and other food and drinks for her multiple times;
  • Lent her small amounts of money more than once;
  • And allowed “her to jump on your back in a playful manner.”

In a 2019 reprimand letter, Coster wrote, “What is most troubling about this is that although concerns about establishing and maintaining appropriate personal boundaries with students have been previously discussed with you both formally and informally on multiple prior occasions, there is no evidence that [you] have modified your behavior to reduce the appearance of impropriety. Indeed, it appears that the situation has gotten worse.”

The superintendent also wrote: "You expressed remorse for your actions and accepted responsibility for your inappropriate conduct ... you apologized for your actions."

The district fined Brodsky $11,096, transferred him to a different school and barred him from contacting the female student, as well as conducting one-on-one meetings with any students, “specifically with Asian, female students in particular.”

"You are hereby directed to refrain from conducting private one-on-one meetings with any students, and specifically with Asian, female students in particular."Source: Documents obtained from the William Floyd school district

District spokesman James Montalto said the district interviewed Brodsky, his colleagues, the student and her family and did not pursue a state disciplinary case because the evidence “certainly would not be sufficient for a termination.” 

The district transferred Brodsky from the middle school to its alternative education elementary school, Montalto said. The district also reported him to the state Education Department for having committed an act of questionable moral character, Montalto said. Records show he still has his teaching license.

Coster added that Brodsky is “under close supervision” and “ceased the behavior referenced” in the settlement agreement and has “acted properly since these disciplinary actions” occurred.

Brodsky did not return messages seeking comment. 

Manhasset teacher Brandon Cruz admits moonlighting

Manhasset high school math teacher Brandon Cruz admitted in a 2019 settlement agreement that he lied about the reason he took 40 days off over five school years. Cruz said at the time that he needed the days off “due to personal or family illness, or legal/confidential matters.” But Cruz admitted he really was moonlighting as an NCAA basketball referee.

Cruz acknowledged in the agreement that “it is serious misconduct to perform work of any kind for another employer while working, on sick leave or family leave.”

The district required Cruz to “make restitution to the district for compensation paid [to] him for such absences,” representing $23,112. 

"Respondent admits that on the dates referred to ... he was paid his full teacher's salary ... Respondent was actually employed as a basketball referee for one or more entities, including the National Collegiate Athletic Association."Source: Documents obtained from the Manhasset school district

Superintendent Gaurav Passi declined to comment, said Deirdre Gilligan, a spokeswoman for the district's public relations agency, Syntax. 

Cruz did not return messages seeking comment.

Commack investigated teacher Vincent Cericola twice

The Commack district reached settlement agreements with high school science teacher Vincent Cericola twice in less than three years, and he resigned last summer.

The district investigated him in 2019 for “potential inappropriate communications with one or more female students, abuse of sick time, notifying a student that she would be marked present on a date she was absent, and allowing students to have food delivered during class time,” according to his first settlement agreement.

Cericola admitted to the allegations in the agreement, including exchanging messages "outside the scope of appropriate teacher-student interactions."

Per the agreement, the district suspended him without pay for the final eight months of the 2019-20 school year. 

In March 2022, “The district began investigating whether Cericola had been [once again] messaging students,” school district attorney Alyson Mathews wrote her colleagues in an email, which Newsday obtained from the district via a public records request. 

"... he has made numerous attempts to access porn while at work and sometimes during his classes."Source: Documents obtained from the Commack school district

The district began its investigation by checking his use of district Wi-Fi, which Mathews said led them to a new discovery: "He has made numerous attempts to access porn while at work and sometimes during his classes. All attempts have been blocked by the District's firewall," according to her March 18, 2022, email.

Days later, Cericola agreed to resign as part of a settlement agreement that said only that the school investigated "the use of the district's Wi-Fi, during the months of January through March 2022, in a manner that would be inconsistent with district policy." 

The school board approved the settlement agreement that called for his resignation without providing any details.

The Commack Board of Education approves a settlement agreement in April 2022 that called for the resignation of tenured high school science teacher Vincent Cericola following an investigation into his use of the district's Wi-Fi. Credit: Commack school district

Superintendent Jordan Cox said in a statement that he is "unable to comment on the details related to personnel matters." He added that the district "is committed to taking appropriate action to ensure that individuals are held accountable for their actions, and we do not tolerate any behavior that undermines the safety and well-being of our students and community.”

Cericola did not return messages seeking comment.

'Disturbing' allegations against Babylon teacher Jeffrey Kenney

The Babylon district placed high school science teacher Jeffrey Kenney on administrative leave in October 2021 following what it termed as “disturbing allegations.” Former students accused Kenney and about a dozen other current and former teachers of misconduct, then blamed the district for mishandling the accusations during a contentious board meeting.

Kenney resigned in November as part of a settlement agreement that required him to surrender his teaching license and never seek work in a school setting nationwide. The school redacted the reason for the settlement agreement, citing “unproven allegations.” 

"The Employee shall ... surrender to the New York State Education Department any and all teaching and/or administrative licenses and/or certifications ... and hereby agrees not to seek a teaching and/or administrative license or work in any school system ... ."Source: Documents obtained from the Babylon school district

Babylon school board president Carol Dell'Erba said: "While we cannot comment on specifics, in this case, we took immediate action and were able to negotiate an agreement that removed this individual from our schools and ensured this individual could never be in a teaching position again."

Efforts to reach Kenney for comment this week were unsuccessful. Kenney declined to comment in December 2021 beyond saying the situation “destroyed” his family.

Mineola teacher Michael Mildon agrees to retire — in three years

The Mineola district disciplined science teacher Michael Mildon three times through settlements dating to 2013.

The school suspended Mildon 10 days without pay in 2013 because he "made physical contact with a middle school student as a method of disciplining her," district documents said. He acted “in a manner insubordinate to prior directives to refrain from acts of physical and verbal aggression towards students,” the documents Newsday obtained said.

A reprimand letter warned Mildon that “any future acts of misconduct by you or failure to follow directives and act in a professional and responsible manner will subject you to more severe disciplinary action, including the possibility of your termination.”

Five years later, the district suspended Mildon 20 days without pay in a 2018 settlement agreement. The district redacted the details of the incident and the additional penalties, citing privacy.

Noting Mildon’s history of discipline, Superintendent Michael Nagler wrote in documents obtained by Newsday, “Despite these numerous and varied prior directives, interventions and disciplinary actions designed to help you remediate your behavior, you have persisted in engaging in subsequent acts of misconduct.” 

"Mr. Mildon, I continue to be at a loss for words adequate to describe my frustration, disappointment and concern about your persistent misconduct, maladaptive behavior and insubordination."Source: Redacted documents obtained from the Mineola school district

Nagler’s letter directed Mildon to reread the district’s Code of Conduct “relating to employee conduct, including but not limited to sexual harassment.”

In December 2019, the district disciplined Mildon again, suspending him 30 days without pay. Mildon also agreed to retire in 2023 — more than three years later. He resigned in February, per his agreement.  

Nagler wrote in a reprimand letter attached to the agreement that the district disciplined Mildon for leaving his classroom unattended to bring flowers to three teachers, which the letter said made the teachers feel "uncomfortable." 

“You had been specifically cautioned and directed regarding the impropriety of your behavior towards those very colleagues in a past settlement agreement,” Nagler wrote, adding, “I continue to be at a loss for words adequate to describe my frustration, disappointment and concern about your persistent misconduct, maladaptive behavior and insubordination.” 

Nagler declined to discuss Mildon's settlements. Mildon declined to comment.

East Williston math teacher Lisa Minerva fined $80,000

The East Williston district fined math teacher Lisa Minerva $80,000 and suspended her without pay for two months as part of a 2019 settlement agreement after she admitted using money from a teachers fund for personal use over three school years, according to a reprimand letter by Danielle Gately, then the district’s assistant superintendent for instruction and personnel.

The letter cited five checks totaling $2,800, including one for $1,089 that said “Bermuda trip.” 

"During our meeting, you admitted to taking money from the Sunshine Club fund for your own personal use."Source: Documents obtained from the East Williston school district

According to the letter Newsday obtained, Gately said Minerva took the money through her role as treasurer of a teacher-run group that existed to “provide gifts to and recognition of staff members for various life events ... holiday party and retirements.”

Gately also wrote, “You explained that there could be other checks you issued with Sunshine Club funds for your own personal use. You had no records of the Sunshine Club’s financials or the money you stole.” The letter quoted Minerva saying she “lost track of how much money was taken,” and noted that she had tried to pay the money back in small amounts over time.

Gately, now the superintendent, said she "cannot comment on personnel matters."

Minerva did not respond to requests seeking comment after initially inquiring how Newsday obtained the information and the purpose of the story. Her attorney, Douglas Spencer, declined to comment.

Teacher Christopher Romero had three settlements in five years

The Patchogue-Medford and Hampton Bays districts reached settlement agreements with social studies teacher Christopher Romero three times over five years.

Hampton Bays ordered Romero to take a training program “to improve his interaction and communication skills with students” as part of a 2017 settlement after he admitted he “interacted with two female students by tapping them on the leg on at least one occasion and pulling another by an article of clothing which caused them both to feel uncomfortable.”

"consideration has been given by the Superintendent of Schools to preferring disciplinary charges against the Employee, based on incidents occurring during the 2017-2018 school year concerning the Employee's interactions with students ... ."Source: Documents obtained from the Hampton Bays school district

Additional "interactions with students" led the district to seek Romero’s resignation, according to a second settlement agreement with Hampton Bays in December 2018. In this new agreement, Romero left the classroom but remained on the payroll through June 2019 on “paid administrative leave” and was banned from contacting his students over social media. 

Patchogue-Medford hired Romero to start in September 2019, records show.

That district then considered terminating his employment in 2021 “for allegations related to misconduct and/or incompetence” regarding incidents on July 10 and Aug. 14 of that year, according to a settlement agreement with Patchogue-Medford, which provided no further details.

The district removed Romero as middle school dean, forfeiting a stipend of $5,826, and made him a virtual social studies teacher for the 2021-22 school year. The district also ordered him to attend counseling.

Hampton Bays Superintendent Lars Clemensen declined to comment. “The district does not discuss specific matters regarding personnel,” he said.

Patchogue-Medford Superintendent Donna Jones also declined to comment. “We don’t comment on personnel issues,” Jones said. 

Romero did not return messages seeking comment.

Amityville teacher Melissa Asbell appointed to barred job

The Amityville Board of Education appointed kindergarten teacher Melissa Asbell as its high school drama club adviser last summer, even though a 2019 settlement barred her from holding that position.

Asbell admitted in the settlement agreement that she did not “safeguard” more than $5,000 in club revenue from the sale of tickets, advertising, concession and shirts. 

"Asbell admits that, during the 2016-2017 and/or 2017-2018 school years; she: ... caused the student treasurer of the Memorial High School Drama Club to sign one or more deposit forms that were blank ... did not safeguard and deposit in excess of $5,000 of the Club's money ... ."Source: Documents obtained from the Amityville school district

Amityville fined her $10,000 “to compensate the district for some of the club’s losses due to your conduct.” The district also barred her specifically from becoming the drama club adviser again, or advising any other club in the district.

Superintendent Edward Fale called Asbell’s appointment as drama club adviser a “procedural oversight” and said Asbell days later submitted a resignation letter to the board of education from that extracurricular position.

Asbell did not return a message seeking comment.

With Dandan Zou

Credits

Reporters: Jim Baumbach, Joie Tyrrell

Additional reporting: Dandan Zou, Michael Ebert and Arielle Martinez

Editors: Don Hudson, Keith Herbert

Photo editor: John Keating

Video editor: Jeffrey Basinger

Videographers and photographers: Jeffrey Basinger, Thomas A. Ferrara, Alejandra Villa Loarca, Drew Singh, Steve Pfost, Howie Schnapp, Chris Ware

Video producers: Artie Mochi, Jim Baumbach, Jeffrey Basinger, Robert Cassidy, John Keating 

Multimedia Journalist: Ken Buffa

Copy editing: Mark Tyrrell, Estelle Lander, Doug Dutton

Additional research: Caroline Curtin, Laura Mann, Judy Weinberg

Project manager: Tara Conry

Digital design: James Stewart

Social media: Priscilla Korb

Quality Assurance : Daryl Becker

Print design: Jessica Asbury

NewsdayTV's Elisa DiStefano and Newsday food writer Marie Elena Martinez take a look at the hottest places to dine on Long Island this summer.  Credit: Randee Daddona; Newsday / A.J. Singh

A taste of summer on Long Island NewsdayTV's Elisa DiStefano and Newsday food writer Marie Elena Martinez take a look at the hottest places to dine on Long Island this summer. 

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