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Teacher seeks to overturn dismissal

Teacher seeks to overturn dismissal

A Middleburgh high school teacher suspended with pay in 2007 after allegations she offered to perfor

A Middleburgh high school teacher suspended with pay in 2007 after allegations she offered to perform a sex act on an 11th-grade student is asking state Supreme Court to overturn a recent arbitration decision that dismissed her.

Colleen Benton, of Cobleskill, was charged by the Middleburgh Central School District’s Board of Education with “conduct unbecoming a teacher” and “immoral character” in June 2007. That information only became public following a petition her attorney filed on Feb. 5 in state Supreme Court, Schoharie County. That petition requests that she be suspended with pay pending court review.

School Board President Donald Wood Friday night confirmed that Benton had been fired by unanimous vote of the board Feb. 11 after an executive session.

Benton’s attorney, Michael Breen, declined to comment on the case Friday, as did Benton when reached by telephone.

According to the documents, Benton has been on paid suspension pending the arbitrator’s decision, which came on Jan. 31.

The arbitrator, Thomas Rinaldo, held four hearings on the matter between December 2007 and June 2008.

The petition states that Benton received a decision on Jan. 31, 2009, in which the arbitrator “made credibility findings against [Benton]” and found that she had indeed offered to perform a sex act.

The unidentified student, according to the petition, rejected the offer when it was made on May 11, 2007.

According to the petition, the arbitrator’s decision expressed concern about the “possible long-lasting effects” of Benton’s action, which he characterized as “predatory behavior.”

In the petition, the arbitrator’s decision is assailed as irrational, against public policy and “imperfect” because the arbitrator is supposed to consider other factors when determining a sanction.

Citing state Education Law, the petition says the arbitrator has to examine whether the accused made any efforts to correct the behavior, and also examine alternate sanctions including counseling and medical treatment.

The lesser sanction of suspension or a combination of the alternatives also have to be considered, according to the petition.

In the petition, Breen writes that the arbitrator’s decision rested on the assumption that the alleged action would result in “long lasting harm to the student whose very faith in humanity seemed to have been shattered by this breach of trust and the predatory nature of the offending offer.”

“On the contrary, anyone with knowledge of 17-year-old boys would assume that most would accept the offer with alacrity and those who, from fear or embarrassment, refused the offer would soon and for the rest of their lives regret not having taken advantage of it,” Breen wrote in the petition.

The petition suggests the arbitrator should have gotten some expert opinion regarding any psychological harm to the boy “arising from a woman whose sole apparent purpose was to give him pleasure.”

“The arbitrator’s decision is entirely arbitrary in this regard, especially when one considers that it deprives [Benton] of a career and a means of support for one minor indiscretion in an otherwise unblemished career,” the petition states.

The petition suggests therapy should have been considered together with a fine or suspension before the ultimate sanction, termination, was meted out.

The petition calls for the arbitrator’s decision to be vacated and asks that Benton be restored to employment. It also requests Benton’s pay be continued while the matter is reviewed by the state Supreme Court.

According to the Web site of the state Education Department, Benton holds two teaching certifications, one is an English 7-12 permanent certificate and the other is a biology and general science 7-12 permanent certificate.

The petition states that Benton started teaching in 1989 and was employed at the Middleburgh Central School District starting in 1991.

Middleburgh School Superintendent Michele R. Weaver could not be reached for comment Friday.story>

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