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Commack schools educator sues district, board of education for $80 million

After a Commack schools English director protested removal

After a Commack schools English director protested removal of the award-winning book "Persepolis," the board of education retaliated by abolishing his job, a lawsuit filed on behalf of the teacher alleges. Credit: Newsday/Nicholas Spangler

A Commack schools administrator has sued the district and its Board of Education for $80 million, alleging that district leaders abolished his job after he spoke against removing an award-winning book from the district's required reading list last summer.

A 37-page complaint filed last month on behalf of Charles Schulz says that amid public furor over the curriculum, Schulz’s bosses abolished his tenured position as director of Secondary English and transferred him to a nonunion job with no defined duties. That move was intended to "send a chilling message to other District administrators that constructive dialogue would not be permitted to stand in the way of political agendas and other non-pedagogical actions," the complaint argued. The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District in Central Islip.

The transfer followed a June administrators’ meeting where Schulz advocated keeping "Persepolis," a memoir of the Iranian Revolution that briefly depicts torture and other disturbing acts. That position was contrary to the decision district leaders had already taken to stop teaching the book in most classes, the complaint said.

Leaders of the 5,875-student district told Newsday last summer that after teaching the book for more than a decade they decided to remove it from mandatory reading because of what Jordan Cox, executive director of instructional services, called "graphic nature" of some passages. Schulz called it a valuable resource. Reaction at the district’s public meetings was polarized and sometimes angry. Some parents likened the book to pornography, while others — many of them recent alumni or female students of color — said it deserved to stay in a curriculum they described as dominated by texts written by Western white men.

The complaint also argues that district leadership "used Schulz as a shield against the public response and outcome of its politically motivated decision" when Cox told Newsday last summer that Schulz was consulted prior to the removal. That statement, the complaint argues, defamed Schulz as "responsible" for the removal of the book "based on political pressure" and was intended to ruin his employment prospects.

A district spokeswoman declined to comment. Howard Miller, a Garden City lawyer representing the district, said in an Oct. 27 letter to Judge Rachel Kovner that "none of [Schulz’s] claims has merit." Jason Gilbert, a Melville lawyer representing Schulz, said in an email that his client — a Commack graduate who has worked in the district as a teacher or administrator for 16 years — was "unlawfully, unilaterally and summarily stripped of his tenure, which he had earned."

Schulz, now listed on the district website as an associate principal, could not be reached.

The removal came at a time when school districts on Long Island and across the nation faced pressure from educators to offer culturally diverse learning experiences and resources and from some parents and conservative groups who argued those efforts had run amok.

Often they focused on matters of race and critical race theory, a body of graduate school-level thought that examines racism’s role in American institutions, which many K-12 educators, including those in Commack, have said they do not use.

Concerns over CRT helped drive attendance and animate the unruly June public forum on the district’s multiracial curriculum where district leaders announced the book’s removal. Contrary to Cox’s assertion that the district had made its decision independently, the complaint argues that "pressure from a cadre" of attendees who spoke at that meeting influenced district leaders.

The lawsuit

The claims: Violations to state tenure law, education law, Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution

The ask: $80 million

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