Whistleblower trial pits former Pittsfield teacher vs. principal, city

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PITTSFIELD — When teacher Melissa Fawcett suggested technical staff ask the principal about two missing iPads, it began a series of events that she says cost her her position at Capeless Elementary School and prevented her from getting a new job elsewhere in the county.

That was the gist of opening arguments Tuesday in a civil suit filed by Fawcett under the whistleblower statute.

Fawcett is suing the city and Principal Candy Jezewski, alleging she was retaliated against.

But attorney Jeffrey J. Trapani, representing Jezewski, told jurors the whistleblower statute does not apply in this case because there was no accusation of theft or violation of the law, and that they were being asked to ignore other key events in the full narrative, which he expected would come out during trial.

Alleging retaliation and defamation, Fawcett filed the suit in Berkshire Superior Court in June 2016. She names the city of Pittsfield and Jezewski as defendants in the suit, which seeks damages including back pay, court costs and interest. She is represented by attorneys Mary Courtney and Michael Hinkley.

Fawcett was a fourth grade math and science teacher at Capeless, and she also served as the school's "innovation teacher" since she had additional tech training and responsibilities regarding the school's computer equipment.

That equipment included 22 iPad mini tablets that were provided to the school via a grant.

Ten each went to two second-grade classrooms and, according to testimony Tuesday, and Jezewski said the remaining two were allocated for staff use.

According to the suit, it was "common knowledge" among the Capeless staff that Jezewski had taken the two tablets home for personal use.

In June 2014, an inventory of the school's computer equipment revealed that two tablets were not in the building.

When Fawcett was asked by technical staffers about the missing tablets, she said they should ask Jezewski. The principal allegedly left the building and returned with the tablets, according to the suit, which says it is a violation of district police to remove the equipment from school property.

After Jezewski returned to the building with the equipment, the suit says, she angrily confronted Fawcett in her classroom in front of her students, accusing her of reporting her for taking the tablets home.

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Fawcett reportedly contacted Jezewski via email and explained she only said the person conducting the inventory should check with her regarding the tablets.

Jezewski responded in part, "It is fine ... I guess some people like to throw others under the bus, that's all."

A month later, according to the suit, Fawcett received a call from Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless informing her that she was being transferred to Egremont Elementary School.

Fawcett, who said she had received no prior negative evaluations or disciplinary action, says she was told the transfer was the result of her exchange with Jezewski.

She chose to resign rather than accept the transfer, because it would result in a reduction in salary and require her to teach a curriculum with which she was not familiar at that time, she said.

According to the suit, Fawcett spent the next several weeks applying for teaching jobs within Berkshire County for which she was qualified, but was rejected after those potential employers contacted Jezewski and other references.

Fawcett herself was expected to testify Wednesday, but technical issues with the courtroom's recording system delayed the start of testimony and pushed back her appearance until at least Thursday.

Two witnesses were called Wednesday, including Anne Whitney, a former co-worker of Fawcett's who testified she was shocked when she learned of the transfer. She described Fawcett as an excellent teacher with no prior disciplinary action.

Whitney also testified that sometime in the new school year following Fawcett's resignation, she had a conversation with Jezewski in which the principal referred to a "cancer" having been removed from the school.

Whitney testified that Jezewski never used Fawcett's name in that conversation but she believed Jezewski was referring to Fawcett.Under cross-examination, Whitney acknowledged there were other people who left Capeless Elementary around the same time Fawcett resigned, but said she didn't believe any of them would have been referred to in that manner.

Testimony is expected to resume Thursday and the trial will likely continue into next week.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@berkshireeagle.com, at @BobDunn413 on Twitter and 413-496-6249.


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