The first hour of the Springs School Board meeting on Monday, February 4, was routine. The highpoint was the announcement by board president Barbara Dayton that a new five-year contract had been ratified by the school’s teachers union. However, routine went out the window during the public session, when Renny Murphy, the first of four East Hampton High School students to speak, took to the podium.
The four young women gave a unified message in support of Diane Mehrhoff, a longtime substitute teacher at the school, who has charged that her complaints of harassment in the workplace were ignored by the board and the district’s superintendent, Debra Winter. The students, all of whom read from prepared statements, were emotional as they spoke, expressing disappointment in the board and the superintendent.
When Murphy began to speak, she named both Michael Henery, the supervisor Mehrhoff alleges used misogynistic words and phrases in the workplace, and Superintendent Winter. Dayton interrupted her to say, “When you start referencing multiple people and their work records, those are personnel matters, and we do not discuss those in public.”
“Let her speak!” cried out several of the approximately 50 people in the audience. One voice called what was going on a “cover up.” From that point on, the student speakers avoided using names, referring instead to Winter and Henery as a “particular person” or “particular administrator.” All four women described Mehrhoff as an inspirational teacher.
Hannah Hartsough told the board that the legal battle against Mehrhoff was “both unjust and despicable.” Jessie Branche said, “For the first time in 16 years, I am ashamed to be a Springs kid. Somebody needs to do something about it.” Branche added that, in one legal investigation launched by Winter which ultimately led nowhere, the school spent $40,000 in legal fees; the equivalent, Branche pointed out, of two years’ college tuition for a student.
When a fourth student, Rory Murphy, said she heard about the allegations made by New York State that the Springs School administration had retaliated against Mehrhoff by cutting her work hours after she complained, she said, “I was astonished. I was devastated.” She added, “You are blaming the victim, when the blame should be on you . . . you have failed Ms. Merhoff, your teachers, your students, and your graduates.”
Ruggero Garsetti, a Springs resident who is married to a teacher at the school, also spoke. He called on the entire board and the superintendent to resign. He said that the school has run up over $150,000 in legal fees in less than two years. One of the cases money was spent on, Garsetti said, involved a male board member “groping” a female teacher.
In a document obtained by The Independent, the law firm involved in that investigation confirmed that the man had “inappropriately touched” the female teacher, yet, Garsetti said, that man remains on the five-member board. Ultimately, he said, Springs taxpayers will pay for the board’s ignoring the harassment allegations brought by Mehrhoff, with the only question remaining as to how much the bill will be.