Middle school principal accused of sexual harassment Gender discrimination, retaliation also alleged

CALEDONIA – Since 2016, Caledonia-Mumford Middle School Principal Paul Estabrooks has been the subject of official complaints made by at least three teachers accusing him of creating a hostile work environment by engaging in acts of harassment, sexual harassment, gender discrimination and retaliation.

This reporting is based on a County News review of court and internal district records and interviews with four former Cal-Mum employees and three current Cal-Mum employees. Estabrooks did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

One of the teachers, who has since left the district, filed a federal lawsuit against Estabrooks, the district and Superintendent Robert Molisani in 2017 accusing Estabrooks of making inappropriate comments about her body and appearance, treating her differently because of her gender and then retaliating against her once she failed to respond favorably to his advances.

While the suit was dropped before a final determination was reached, an investigation into its central allegations conducted by New York’s Division of Human Rights concluded “probable cause” existed to believe Estabrooks and the district “had engaged in unlawful discriminatory practices,” court records show.

Two other teachers – one who has since left Cal-Mum and the other who remains employed by the district – had their claims against Estabrooks investigated by a labor relations coordinator with Genesee Valley BOCES. In both instances, the coordinator claimed she was unable to determine Estabrooks had engaged in any untoward conduct.

In addition to specific acts of harassment, sexual harassment and retaliation, current and former Cal-Mum teachers told the County News Estabrooks has engaged in a pattern of gender-based discrimination that favors male teachers.

Under Estabrooks’s leadership, teachers said male staff members have been more likely to be scheduled for lighter teaching loads, appointed to “team leader” positions that come with significant stipends and cleared to leave work early or otherwise take time off without having to tap into personal days.

These considerations are not regularly extended to female staff members, the teachers said.

“It’s not just gender in terms of males but also the young pretty females are given preferential treatment,” said one current Cal-Mum teacher who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals at work. “I feel bad because it is not their fault they’re given preferential treatment, but I’ve definitely seen it.”

Lawsuit claims

In the 2017 lawsuit, Estabrooks was accused of engaging in a months-long course of sexual harassment against a teacher during the 2015-16 school year and then giving her poor performance reviews when she did not respond to his advances.

Court records show the district denied the teacher’s claims. The teacher declined to comment for this article. The attorney who represented the teacher did not respond to a request for comment. The County News is withholding the teacher’s name to protect her privacy.

In October and November 2018, attorneys for the district wrote in letters to the judge handling the suit that both parties were in the process of finalizing a settlement agreement, court records show.

According to minutes from the district’s board of education’s Dec. 11, 2018 meeting, the board voted to approve “written agreements between the Superintendent of Schools of the Caledonia-Mumford Central School District and an employee of the District...” Four of the board members – Tim Anderson, John Bickford, Chris Richter and Joe Geer - voted to approve the settlement. The other three board members – Arnie Rychlicki, Bill VanAllen and Liz Doll - did not attend the meeting, minutes show.

The district’s six remaining board members – Tim Anderson died in April - either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment last month.

According to court records, a judge dismissed the suit in January 2019 with the consent of all parties. It’s not clear whether the parties agreed to an out of court settlement.

The Livingston County News filed a freedom of information request with the district May 21 seeking, among other things, records associated with the written agreement referenced in the board minutes. As of this writing, the district has not provided any records in response to the request.

According to the lawsuit, Estabrooks began harassing the teacher in fall 2015.

Cal-Mum district policy defines sexual harassment, in part, as unwelcome conduct either of a sexual nature or which is directed at an individual because of that individual’s gender when such conduct unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an “intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”

According to the district’s policy, sexual harassment also consists of any unwanted verbal advances made by someone “which are offensive or objectionable to the recipient, which cause the recipient discomfort or humiliation” or which “interfere with the recipient’s job performance.”

While specific provisions defining and prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace were added to Cal-Mum’s district policy in 2018, the district has had gender-based non-discrimination and anti-harassment policies on the books since 2014.

According to the suit, Estabrooks would call the teacher “charming” and “cute.” Other times, Estabrooks would make comments about the teacher’s appearance, clothing and how young she looked, the suit claims.

In addition to verbal statements, Estabrooks also engaged in unwanted physical contact with the teacher, the suit alleges.

During a conference day in October 2015, Estabrooks was passing out Post-It Notes to groups of teachers. When he came to the female teacher’s group, he reached over the teacher’s shoulder, placed a package of Post-It Notes on her lap and, in so doing, made physical contact with her upper, middle lap area. For the other groups of teachers, Estabrooks merely placed the Post-It Notes on the table, the suit alleges.

According to the suit, the teacher was “stunned and uncomfortable and felt the conduct was sexual in nature.”

The suit also accuses Estabrooks of giving the teacher negative performance evaluations once she did not respond favorably to Estabrooks’ alleged harassment and reported his behavior to her union representative.

According to the suit, Molisani told the teacher in April 2016 that based on these poor evaluations from Estabrooks, he would recommend she be fired at the board of education’s next meeting.

The teacher eventually reported the harassment to the district’s board of education the following month. According to the suit, an investigation was conducted into the teacher’s claims and they were found to be “without merit” despite two other female teachers coming forward to report that they too were subjected to “unwelcome conduct by Estabrooks because of their gender.”

According to the suit, the teacher decided to resign rather than be fired. As a result of the harassment and resignation, the teacher lost “a significant amount of weight, was unable to eat or sleep and was treated for anxiety issues,” the suit claims.

Molisani declined to be interviewed for this article. In a statement, he said the district conducts prompt and thorough investigations any time it’s made aware of concerns.

“No investigation substantiated that a violation of law had occurred,” said Molisani. “The district is an equal opportunity employer and maintains strict policies on anti-discrimination and anti-harassment. The district takes seriously its responsibility to provide a safe, comfortable environment for all.”

According to the government accountability website SeeThroughNY.net, Estabrooks made $121,571 in 2020.

Untenured teachers ‘completely unprotected’

Lisa D’Angelo taught at Cal-Mum for 18 years before taking early retirement in 2017 and is listed as a supporting witness in the teacher’s lawsuit. During interviews with the County News, D’Angelo corroborated many of the allegations in the teacher’s lawsuit. D’Angelo said she witnessed Estabrooks treat the teacher in a “harsh” and “retaliatory” manner and felt strongly that Estabrooks had an “agenda” against the teacher and wanted her to lose her job.

While initially hesitant to speak on the record about her experiences, D’Angelo said she feels strongly that the Cal-Mum community should be aware of the allegations against Estabrooks and what she characterized as “systemic problems” in the district’s and board of education’s procedures that allow credible claims of sexual harassment against an administrator to go without consequence.

“The things that are supposed to be keeping us in balance, BOCES coming in and investigating, the board looking at this information and making an objective decision about what to do – they’re out of whack,” she said. “An untenured teacher is completely unprotected from this sort of thing – especially in this case where you have a case of sexual harassment where now you have a female teacher in great peril who’s untenured having to bring allegations against her superior, the person who has preyed on her and then to find yourself completely unsupported by the superintendent, the board of education and the whole BOCES investigatory body.”

A few months before Molisani told the teacher in April 2016 that he’d recommend she be fired, Estabrooks appointed D’Angelo to be the teacher’s mentor.

“He (Estabrooks) put together a plan for me to focus on some things with her, kind of giving the impression that there were a couple things she needed to work on,” said D’Angelo. “...I was to work on a couple things with her, see how it went, whatever. I wasn’t terribly concerned about it, so I was actually starting to implement that in March.”

A short while into the mentorship, D’Angelo became aware of an incident – one which is also outlined in the lawsuit – that she characterized as a “red flag” while she was working with her mentee to prepare for an upcoming lesson that Estabrooks was going to observe and evaluate.

“I said… ‘What do you do in the opening of your lesson?’ That sort of thing because in her previous evaluation, that was one of the things he (Estabrooks) criticized her on,” said D’Angelo. “She said ‘Lisa, he didn’t even see the opening of my lesson. He didn’t come into my lesson until 10 or 15 minutes into the lesson. He didn’t even see the opening of my lesson, yet he put something in my evaluation about it being bad.’”

D’Angelo found the story troubling.

“So now I’m like ‘What is going on here?’” said D’Angelo. “Why is he putting false information into her evaluation?”

In late March or early April 2016, Estabrooks observed another of the teacher’s lessons, said D’Angelo. During the post-observation meeting, D’Angelo witnessed Estabrooks “berate and bully” her mentee to the point that, after the meeting, she was “if not in tears, close to tears.”

“He proceeded to criticize her, point out these miniscule things I’ve never even heard of being addressed in post observations,” D’Angelo said. “...it didn’t look like any post-observation that I’d ever had or that I’ve ever heard other teachers talk about… it was totally foreign behavior to me.”

At one point during the mentorship, D’Angelo asked her mentee about the tension she’d been sensing between her and Estabrooks and the hostility Estabrooks was exhibiting in correspondence and during in-person interactions.

“And she just sat back in her chair and she basically told me ‘He sexually harassed me,’” said D’Angelo.

D’Angelo told her mentee that she’d stand by her if she decided to file a complaint against Estabrooks, which she ultimately did.

Investigations yield different conclusions

D’Angelo said she was interviewed “at length” for two investigations stemming from her mentee’s complaints. The first, said D’Angelo, was conducted by Vanessa Hanks, a labor relations coordinator with Genesee Valley BOCES. D’Angelo said Hanks determined her mentee’s claims were unfounded.

Hanks declined to comment for this article. The Livingston County News submitted a freedom of information request to BOCES seeking records associated with any investigations into allegations of unprofessional conduct against Estabrooks. BOCES denied the request. The County News appealed, but BOCES upheld the denial earlier this month.

After the BOCES investigation, D’Angelo said her mentee filed a complaint with New York’s Division of Human Rights, which has the authority to investigate claims of gender discrimination in the workplace. D’Angelo said she was again interviewed as part of the division’s investigation into her mentee’s claims.

Court records obtained by the County News show the teacher filed two complaints with the Division of Human Rights in May and July 2016. The division investigated her claims and found that “probable cause” existed to believe Estabrooks and the district “had engaged in unlawful discriminatory practices.”

Records show Estabrooks and the district objected to the probable cause finding.

The complaint was dismissed at the teacher’s request in July 2017 so she could pursue a lawsuit in federal court, records show.

Performance reviews questioned

The poor performance reviews D’Angelo’s mentee received from Estabrooks during the 2015-16 school year stand at odds with the positive reviews she received while working for the district during the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years.

Speaking in May, former High School Principal Merritt Holly confirmed he had observed the teacher during this time when she was working in the high school in a part time capacity and had a positive impression of her teaching ability.

“No issues at all at that time when I was with her,” said Holly, who’s now superintendent of the Le Roy Central School District.

After speaking with the County News about the teacher at the end of May, Holly claimed in a June 11 email that he did not have authorization to speak on the matter and declined to answer follow up questions. He directed further inquiries to Cal-Mum.

D’Angelo also considers her former mentee “a very good teacher.”

After her mentee resigned, D’Angelo returned to Cal-Mum for the 2016-17 school year. She had hoped to make it to her 20th year of teaching at the district, but after the situation with her mentee, the BOCES and Division of Human Rights investigations and the tension with her colleagues that the ordeal created, D’Angelo no longer felt safe at work. She struggled with anxiety, lost weight and was in “a constant state of flight or fight.”

She retired from Cal-Mum at the end of the 2017 school year, two years shy of her 20-year mark. The decision was personally and financially devastating. By retiring early, D’Angelo gave up thousands of dollars annually in pension payments.

“At that time I was 56, 57 years old, I wasn’t going to go to another district and start over – not after the trauma of this,” she said. “I had no trust and I just needed to take some time and recover and figure out how I was going to deal with my life.”

‘Fear of retaliation’

In addition to D’Angelo’s mentee, another Cal-Mum teacher submitted a complaint against Estabrooks in spring 2016 accusing him of engaging in harassing, discriminatory and retaliatory behavior. This teacher, who remains employed by the district and spoke to the Livingston County News on the condition of anonymity, said Estabrooks’s actions created a hostile work environment.

“I’m always looking over my shoulder which is a really uncomfortable place to be,” said the teacher during an interview last month. “...I just feel like I’m constantly in this mode of defense. Whenever there is something happening I always feel like I have to take notes. There’s always this ‘I have to cover my butt’ because there’s this fear of retaliation.”

Hanks investigated the teacher’s claims and claimed she was unable to uncover any conduct on the part of Estabrooks that could be considered discriminatory or harassing, Molisani wrote in a letter explaining the findings in summer 2016.

Hanks was also unable to conclude that a specific violation of district policies had occurred, Molisani wrote.

‘Disgusting and creepy’ comments

For former Cal-Mum special education teacher Jamie Smith, the first troubling comment from Estabrooks came during a job interview, before she was even hired.

“Paul actually said to me ‘Wow, your perfume smells great. We’re not used to that here,’” recalled Smith during an interview in May. “...I thought ‘Wow, that’s a weird thing to say,’ but I didn’t really think much about it. I went home and told my husband and he’s like ‘That’s kind of creepy, but whatever.’”

It was not uncommon for Estabrooks to comment on Smith’s body and how much she worked out.

One time in August 2015, Smith, who was at the middle school as part of her modified soccer coaching duties, went to the main office to grab a pen and found Estabrooks there.

Smith, who stands about five feet, four inches tall, stood on her toes to reach over a tall, secretary’s desk and grab a pen. As she did so, the gym shorts she was wearing rode up higher on her legs.

“He made a comment about standing up on my tip toes and looking at my leg muscles,” said Smith. “And then he repeated it to a custodian. He was like ‘You should see her up on her tip toes.’ It was just really creepy.”

A former male Cal-Mum teacher who spoke on the condition of anonymity recalled a conversation with Estabrooks in which Estabrooks made similar comments about a newly-hired female teacher’s body and how long her legs were.

“I remember thinking ‘Why are we talking like this? You’re my boss, you’re not the guy I hang out with,’” said the former teacher. “That was a little bit uncomfortable for me.”

Smith said such comments made her “extremely uncomfortable,” though she went along with them and didn’t put up too much of a fuss during her first few years at Cal-Mum.

“I would just ignore his comments even though I thought they were disgusting and creepy,” she said. “This sounds bad, but I wasn’t tenured yet and I wanted to stay in his good graces.”

At some point during the 2015-16 school year, around the same time the other Cal-Mum teacher’s allegations against Estabrooks were starting to come to light among middle school staff, Smith said the way Estabrooks treated her started to change. She suspects it’s because she started eating lunch with D’Angelo and other women who Smith knew had spoken out about negative experiences with Estabrooks.

“Once I started eating lunch with Lisa and... all the other women who had voiced against Paul is when he started being not so nice,” Smith said.

Estabrooks would make rude or condescending comments, said Smith. He could be demeaning during committee on special education meetings where Smith, a special education teacher, and Estabrooks, Cal-Mum’s CSE director, would meet with parents of special needs students to discuss their education plans.

The strain and stress of working with Estabrooks wore on Smith. Eventually, it became too much.

“Every day I saw him my stomach would hurt, I would get this feeling of - I would start sweating if I had to deal with him in a professional manner,” said Smith. “...I realized the stress of this job is going to kill me if I continue to work there because I was constantly stressing out.”

Smith ultimately decided it was time to leave Cal-Mum and began “constantly looking for jobs.” She found a special education opening at another district and resigned from Cal-Mum in August 2020, around the same time Gov. Andrew Cuomo was withholding hundreds of millions of dollars in state aid from school districts in the face of a sharp decline in state revenues as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I left a tenured position in the middle of COVID – that speaks volumes,” said Smith. “Especially with uncertain budgets in August – think of how uncertain schools were. We had no idea if we were going to our get funding.”

After resigning, Smith sent a letter to Molisani and each of the seven members of the district’s board of education outlining her allegations of harassment and gender discrimination against Estabrooks.

“I do not speak alone when I voice these concerns,” Smith wrote. “I am just able to now without fear of retaliation.”

After receiving the email, Smith said Molisani reached out to her and said he was passing it on to BOCES for investigation because of the nature of the allegations she’d made against Estabrooks.

Smith said she was interviewed by Hanks – the labor relations coordinator with BOCES - in September 2020. In a letter to Smith dated April 21, 2021, Molisani wrote Hanks had been “unable to determine that you were subjected to discrimination, harassment and/or retaliation, in violation of federal, state, or local law or board policy.”

Smith questioned the integrity of the investigation and suggested Hanks found in Estabrooks’ favor because BOCES draws a portion of its budget from Cal-Mum.

Smith said she misses Cal-Mum and the friends she made there. If Estabrooks had been fired in 2016 after sexual harassment allegations against him had come to light as Smith believes he should have been, she said she’d probably still be working at the district.

“I miss the family. I made some really good relationships – I’m actually friends with a ton of them on Facebook,” she said. “I miss my co-workers dearly – some of those women are my best friends.”

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