A supervisor is getting $237,000 after she filed a whistleblower lawsuit alleging school district officials retaliated against her for bringing to light problems with the city’s special education program.
School board members agreed to settle Yelena Gould’s lawsuit on Dec. 5. She had accused the district of moving students to higher grades in violation of their individual education plans (IEPs) at their “detriment,” graduating students in violation of their IEPs to render them ineligible for mandated services, and failure to evaluate and classify students placed in early childhood programs in the 2014-15 school year.
Gould alleged children were being classified without a disability report as required by law. There was “massive failures” in the district in timely finalizing IEPs, says her lawsuit filed in 2015.
Gould was employed as a superior in the district’s special education department. She had been employed in the district since 2002, says the lawsuit. She reported the law violations to her supervisor. She alleges the supervisor became “increasingly abusive,’ used foul language, and told her to stop reporting special education problems.
Instead of addressing the problems, district officials wanted to fire her from her job for “poor performance” at the end of the 2014-15 school year. She says in her lawsuit she had been rated proficient in every category of her evaluation.
Gould’s lawyer Patrick English deposed a number of district officials, including former state-appointed superintendent Donnie Evans. In Nov. 2017, Evans was unaware of some of the violations Gould’s brought to the attention of her supervisor.
For example, students in high school and middle school were still classified as preschool handicap.
“Is that a code violation?” asked English.
“If they’re not in preschool, yes,” replied Evans. He said no one in the district made him aware of the problems Gould had reported to her supervisors and mentioned at a hearing.
Gould contested the district’s move to non-renew her for the 2015-16 school year. Her lawsuit states she mentioned the special education problems she reported to her supervisors at the hearing.
District attorney Carol Smeltzer was present at Gould’s hearing. She was deposed.
English asked what was the practice in the district when someone made allegations of code violations in the special education department.
“I would have run to the superintendent of schools, and I would have advised him of what the allegations were, and I would have asked him for the opportunity to investigate,” answered Smeltzer.
“Did you investigate any aspect of the special ed. during your tenure at the Paterson School District?” asked English.
“I don’t feel comfortable answering that,” she replied.
English pressed her on the issue. At one point, he asked her about special education students being promoted with less than requisite credits.
She said she did not recall if that issue was brought up by Gould at her non-renewal hearing. She took notes at the hearing and had reviewed them days earlier to the deposition.
“You reviewed the notes on Friday,” remarked English.
“I know,” she replied.
“You can’t remember what was in the notes from Friday?”
“No, I can’t, and I’m going to start crying.”
English deposed other high-ranking district officials like former chief district attorney Lisa Pollak and then-labor relations and affirmative action officer Luis Rojas. He appeared ready to try the case.
Some of the problems Gould raised in her lawsuits continue to haunt the district. Multiple investigations conducted by the New Jersey Department of Education at the request of the Education Law Center uncovered general failure in the district’s special education program.
Students were not provided thousands of hours of speech therapy sessions in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years. The district continues to struggle with addressing the backlog.
Superintendent Eileen Shafer has said in public statements students are receiving mandated services in the 2018-19 school year.
Gould is listed as a teacher at Eastside High School. She teaches students with learning disability, according to district records.
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