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Federal discrimination case against Riverhead School District dismissed

A $20 million federal lawsuit claiming that the Riverhead School District discriminated against an African-American elementary school teacher by firing him after he was arrested for driving while intoxicated in 2012 has been dismissed.

Joe Johnson II, who had been a tenured fourth-grade teacher at Phillips Avenue Elementary School, was arrested by Southampton Village police in April 2012 and initially charged with criminal possession of a weapon and DWI. 

Police said at the time that a fully loaded .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol was found in Mr. Johnson’s glove compartment. 

Mr. Johnson pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of driving while ability impaired in January 2014. The weapons charge was later dismissed because the district attorney’s office ruled it was discovered during an illegal search. 

After eight months of disciplinary hearings with the school district, Mr. Johnson was fired in August 2014.

His federal lawsuit, filed in 2014, claims that other district officials who had DWI charges or had engaged in conduct related to the consumption of alcohol were not punished accordingly. These officials included former high school principal David Zimbler, who had been arrested in 2008. 

Mr. Zimbler pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of driving while ability impaired and received a 90-day suspension of his license. His tenure was delayed a year by the school board as a result of the incident and he was required to participate in an employee assistance program and in community service.

District Court Judge LaShann DeArcy Hall, who is also African-American, ruled this month that the cases cited by Mr. Johnson “fatally undermine” his case. 

For instance, she wrote, two of the employees he said were not disciplined by the district were also African-American. 

“Their membership in the same protected class as [Mr. Johnson] undermines any claim that the district’s conduct was motivated by racism,” Judge Hall wrote. 

The judge also disagreed with Mr. Johnson’s claim that some of the individuals he cited were not punished. A music teacher who presented wine to volunteers who helped her with a concert was required to go to counseling, and a high school teacher who had a sexual relationship with a student he later married received a “significant fine,” the judge wrote.

And despite the fact that the gun charge was dismissed in court, it was a factor in the judge’s ruling. 

Judge Hall said that other examples cited by Mr. Johnson “were involved in conduct that only related to the consumption of alcohol or driving under the influence. None of these individuals was found to have been driving the influence of alcohol or drugs while in the possession of a loaded firearm for which he or she did not have a license.”

Neither Harriet Gilliam, Mr. Johnson’s attorney, nor Riverhead School District officials could immediately be reached for comment. 

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