Charter school’s union president fired after egg allergy incident

05/15/2014 4:59 PM |
The Riverhead Charter School is located on Route 25 in Calverton. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

The Riverhead Charter School is located on Route 25 in Calverton. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

The union president at the Riverhead Charter School — whose embattled principal has been facing allegations of union busting — was fired on Wednesday, the News-Review has learned.

That teacher, Kasey Wehrheim, is now publicly joining a growing chorus of detractors of the school’s principal and executive director, Ray Ankrum, saying she was targeted because of her work with the union.

Ms. Wehrheim, a school employee since 2008, says she will soon be filing a complaint against the school with the New York State Public Employment Relations Board. That would come on the heels of two other complaints filed with the board in February and March alleging union-busting-type practices at the school.

Those complaints will likely go to hearing in January or February, a lawyer for the school said.

As for Ms. Wehrheim, she said Mr. Ankrum gave her an ultimatum this week, saying she could either stay on through the school year and then resign, or be terminated this week in relation to an incident last month in which Ms. Wehrheim exposed one of her second-grade students who has an egg allergy to eggs during an in-class experiment.

“I had to choose termination because I needed to be able to file a grievance,” Ms. Wehrheim said. “And [by resigning] it would have also kind of said I was being negligent. I thought the egg allergy was from ingestion only; I didn’t know [effects of the allergy could be triggered] from just touching.”

“And if I was so dangerous, then why was I being offered to stay for the remainder of the year?” she added.

Lawyers for the school said Ms. Wehrheim’s actions put a child’s health and safety at risk and were unacceptable, and adamantly denied that her termination had anything to do with her status as union leader.

“She was terminated due to a gross breach of safety and health protocols,” said the attorney, Richard Zuckerman of Melville, who is also representing the school in the two pending complaints of “improper action” filed with the employment board. “When there are safety and health and other breaches of laws, rules and procedures, you should expect to be fired and not try to hide behind the fact that you happen to be a union member or a union officer.”

Ms. Wehrheim later admitted during a second interview, after being asked about any prior safety incidents involving her at the school, that at least one child — and possibly two, as it could not be determined for sure, she said — got sick after ingesting borax in October after an experiment in her classroom involving laundry detergent.

“Everything went fine with the experiment,” she said. “Then I had borax on a back table and another teacher had seen a little girl sticking her finger in it and licking it.”

She said a kindergarten student later said he felt sick and that it was from the borax, also known as sodium borate, which was in the form of a white powder.

Though, she said, no one saw the kindergartner ingest it.

“We wrote up an accident report,” she said. “I didn’t hear anything, and then in December, Mr. Ankrum sent me a letter saying that the issue was being investigated by the board. I wrote back, asking why is it, two and a half months later?

“‘If you’re investigating then speak to me since no one knows what happens,’” she said she told him, to which she said he replied: “There will be no need.”

She said there were no consequences for her.

Ms. Wehrheim was fired “effective immediately” in relation to the egg incident via an email from Mr. Ankrum Wednesday.

In that email, he said he had learned she had improperly contacted parents after she was given the choice of whether to resign later or be terminated.

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