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$10 million lawsuit filed against Riverhead Charter School, principal

08/21/2015 12:27 PM |

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Thirteen current and former teachers at the Riverhead Charter School in Calverton are suing the school and its principal for $10 million in damages based on what they claim is a long pattern of discrimination and lewd behavior by its principal, Raymond Ankrum, the News-Review has learned. 

The suit, filed Aug. 7 in state Supreme Court by Garden City firm Dell & Dean, alleges that Mr. Ankrum unfairly targeted older Caucasian women in an attempt to oust them from the school and that he maintained prejudiced, offensive beliefs.

In a 50-page complaint, most of the plaintiffs allege he discriminated against them on the basis of race, gender, age, religion, disability or sexual orientation and that he sexually harassed women. Moreover, they allege, he threatened to fire any employees who opposed his “discriminatory agenda,” according to the suit.

“Mr. Ankrum is an African-American male, known to be intelligent, calculated, and perpetrating an ostensibly noble agenda of improving minority education at RCS,” the suit reads. “In reality, Mr. Ankrum’s agenda was the product of his racist, ageist, sexist, and other discriminatory beliefs. Mr. Ankrum illegally made these atrocious beliefs part of the terms of employment at [RCS].”

Eight of the 13 plaintiffs had their employment terminated during Mr. Ankrum’s ongoing tenure as principal, according to the complaint. One of the five other plaintiffs resigned, another was demoted to half-time teaching, one had a contract not renewed and two are still teaching.

In addition to monetary damages, the lawsuit seeks Mr. Ankrum’s termination and the reinstatement of the teachers who were removed under his oversight.

Mr. Ankrum declined to comment. Sharon Berlin, an attorney for the school, said the complaints were unfounded.

“The complaint reads like light summer reading rather than anything based in reality and the relevant law,” she said.

Twelve of the 13 plaintiffs are white women, and they are suing Mr. Ankrum for sexual harassment on the grounds that he gave preferential treatment to younger teachers whom he found to be attractive — and whose names he put on a “hot list” that was “widely known” about in the school, according to the suit.

“Plaintiffs were not the subject of his sexual attraction, and were made to feel of lesser importance and worth at the school because of it,” the suit reads.

In one anecdote recounted in the suit, a woman wore a skirt that extended beneath her knees and Mr. Ankrum allegedly chastised her for “dressing like a nun.”

They also claim Mr. Ankrum viewed them negatively because they are white and therefore ill-equipped to teach minority students. The suit claims he often told teachers, “If you are not black, you cannot connect with these children.”

In a move that echoes past complaints, the plaintiffs allege that Mr. Ankrum targeted certain employees either for their roles in the school’s teachers union or for defending those involved in the union.

This is not the first time Mr. Ankrum has faced accusations of “union-busting.” In February 2014, three former teachers filed two separate complaints with the state Public Employment Relations Board. Two of those teachers are involved in this latest lawsuit.

The complaints have been the source of substantial discussion: After news of the two PERB complaints emerged, more than a dozen teachers came out in support of Mr. Ankrum as a demanding but exceptional principal.

One of the plaintiffs is Kasey Wehrheim, who was the union’s president for several years. However, she was fired for an incident in which she exposed a child with egg allergies to eggs during an in-class experiment.

All faculty members are automatically members of the union, according to New York State law.

Only one of the plaintiffs is not a white female. An African-American male teacher claims he was fired unfairly for refusing to sign a document publicly supporting the principal and instead reiterating some criticism against him.

Three of the plaintiffs claim Mr. Ankrum discriminated against them based on their Jewish faith and made “numerous taunting and sarcastic comments” about their religion.

One woman claims she was fired soon after Mr. Ankrum forwarded a newspaper article to coworkers revealing that she was a lesbian. Another claims she was scolded by Mr. Ankrum for divorcing her husband because “it was important for students to be taught by members of nuclear families and that being divorced negatively affected her teaching ability,” the suit states.

The suit alleges that Mr. Ankrum hired his “longtime best friend and college roommate” for a teaching position despite the fact that his friend had no experience and no certification. Mr. Ankrum later allegedly promoted his friend to dean without allowing anyone else to apply for the position, according to the complaint.

Online records show a teacher by that name having three certificates effective in 2013.

One entry in the suit also alleges that Mr. Ankrum and his friend watched pornography in the dean’s office while a student was nearby. Another entry says a plaintiff asked to mentor a young teacher, but Mr. Ankrum declined and instead allowed his friend to mentor her — and that his friend then had sex with the young teacher.

Four plaintiffs allege in the suit that Mr. Ankrum discriminated against them because of disabilities they suffered. One claims she was ridiculed for her lisp and another said she was demoted to half-time after taking time off to recover from a traumatic brain injury.

Several pages of the lawsuit deal with a Twitter account, @RayQRubio, that Mr. Ankrum allegedly maintained. An attorney for the plaintiffs, Jon-Paul Gabriele, said it was common knowledge in the school that Mr. Ankrum was behind the tweets. The account was deleted sometime around 2014 after complaints were filed with the New York State Division of Human Rights, according to the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs cite tweets from that account as evidence of Mr. Ankrum’s “discriminatory and misogynistic” stances. Tweets listed in the suit include: “More male educators are needed. #theend”; “Insecurity is a women’s worst enemy”; and “White male privilege is really something in the good ole United States #livestrong.”

Last April, Peter Verdon, a regional staff director for New York State United Teachers — the organization that filed the two PERB complaints — told the News-Review that charter school teachers do not earn tenure and thus are not protected by the same state laws as public school teachers. However, under RCS’s collective bargaining agreement, teachers who have been employed for four years or more may appeal their dismissals with independent arbitrators.

Photo Caption: Principal Raymond Ankrum outside the Calverton school in April 2014. (Credit: Michael White, file)

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