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Final Step in Wollkind Termination Hearing Complete; BOE Awaits Recommendation

With briefs and replies submitted, mediators have until the end of August to make a recommendation.

The mediators in the termination hearing of Dr. Robert “Doc” Wollkind received the trial briefs and replies prepared by the attorneys from both parties on June 20 and will now have 75 days to make a recommendation to the Board of Education (BOE) as to whether Wollkind should remain in his position, teaching math at Brookfield High School (BHS).

after making two inappropriate comments to students on November 18, the latest of in his 32-year tenure at BHS.

According to the briefs prepared by Wollkind’s legal team, led by attorney Randy DiBella, in order for the three-member panel to recommend the teacher’s termination, the school district must prove that Wollkind was “inefficient and incompetent… insubordinate against reasonable rules of the Board of Education… [or] should be dismissed for other due and sufficient cause.”

During four hearings over the course of seven weeks, school district attorney Patrick McHale as such grounds for dismissal.

DiBella, on the other hand, attempted to paint a picture of a beloved and effective teacher, often misunderstood due to the complications of Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism.

“All of the issues, incidents and episodes must, as a matter of reason, be viewed through the lens of what Asperger’s is and its effect on human interaction,” Wollkind’s attorneys write. “His condition affects Dr. Wollkind’s social functioning and can cause unfiltered speech and social awkwardness.”

“The manifestation of these traits, rather than malevolent, willful intent, explains a great deal,” the defense asserts.

“It would be expected that a modicum of assistance would have been forthcoming from the administration, at least since , the chief medical officer of Four Winds Hospital in Cross River, NY. “Nevertheless, despite Dr. Wollkind’s traits and actions being a virtual living textbook on Asperger’s, the administration overlays a strict liability standard over an inarticulable conduct standard and assigns a malevolent intent to his action when malice has not been proved.”

“Dr. Wollkind’s own therapist confirmed that Dr. Wollkind understood what was expected of him and the consequences of his failure to address his behavior,” the district counters in their reply brief.

“As discussed in Brookfield’s Brief, Dr. Wollkind admitted that he is aware of and understands the requirements of Brookfield’s rules governing teacher conduct towards students, including not using insults or sarcasm,” the reply states, adding later that “ is a prohibited practice under Brookfield’s rules.”

“Dr. Wollkind has relied on his diagnosis of Asperger’s Disorder by Dr. Bauman as the reason for his inappropriate behavior.”

According to the defense, recognition that Asperger’s is the root cause of miscommunication, not “malicious intent,” has helped both Wollkind and the students understand and cope with the teacher’s disorder.

“In the eight years immediately following Dr. Wollkind’s Asperger’s diagnosis up to November 2010, he has endeavored to inform his students of his condition and there has been no additional discipline,” Wollkind’s attorney’s write.

While there has been no formal discipline on Wollkind’s record since his diagnosis, math department head Ed Bednarik “has continually counseled Dr. Wollkind about his demeaning behavior towards students,” according to the district’s reply, which cites a meeting between department head and teacher in 2007 and a two-day meeting that also included BHS Principal Dr. Bryan Luizzi in 2009 “to address complaints.”

The reply brief also addresses the assertion that notifying the students of Wollkind’s disorder at the beginning of each semester will prevent any misunderstandings.

“While some students may have adapted to his inappropriate behavior, the record amply demonstrates that not all students have done so nor are they required to do so,” according to the school district’s policies and the Connecticut Code of Professional Responsibility for Education, the reply states.

DiBella and Wollkind’s attorneys argued that the incidents prior to the 2002 diagnosis were previously dealt with and should not weigh against the teacher.

“The administration seeks to take a situation that occurred in 2010 with Student 21 and use it as the hook to resurrect decades of stale matters to justify dispensing of a 68-year-old, 32-year teaching veteran afflicted with a diagnosed autism disorder,” the defense concludes at the end of their reply brief. “[Superintendent Anthony] Bivona has chosen to ignore any double punishment exposure by seeking the ultimate penalty for matters handled and disposed of long ago by other administrations.”

“Because of the similarity of these incidents,” the district concludes, “regardless of when they occurred, they should all be considered in determining whether Dr. Wollkind’s employment contract should be terminated.”

“Indeed, the record clearly establishes that Dr. Wollkind has continued to engage in this pattern of conduct toward students despite being counseled, reprimanded, placed on probationary status or suspended by at least 11 different school administrators.”

The impartial tribunal now has 75 days (August 29) to review the briefs, replies and exhibits, as well as their own memory of the testimony, and submit a recommendation to the BOE. Once they receive the panel’s determination, board members will review it and make their final decision on Wollkind’s future at BHS within 15 days.

Rob Gianazza June 29, 2011 at 12:24 PM
Aaron, thank you for your thorough coverage of this issue. I would like to remind the community that the Brookfield Board of Education has not, and shall not comment on this issue until after the tribunal returns its' recommendation.
wen peterson of Brookfield June 29, 2011 at 03:02 PM
Things sure have changed since I was in the gifted program at BHS in the 70's. Teachers joked around about our zits, and we joked back about their crummy cars. No one had to worry about getting sued -- or worse. Such a litigious society we live in now...At least Doc has a good lawyer :)
Retired June 29, 2011 at 03:54 PM
In the spirit of transparency, will the BOE disclose how much in legal fees were spent on this case? If the recommendation is to retain Doc, will Bivona still pursue to terminate him despite the overwhelming support for him demonstrated by students and parents alike? Does the BOE know what really is Bivona's motive in pursuing this?
Steven DeVaux June 29, 2011 at 11:47 PM
Amen Wen. You know the kind man's fate is sealed when the Board of Education appointed Palumbo who testified (with a straight face) that he never used sarcasm, and never heard it used by another teacher or administrator. Either that is a lie, or he has no educational experiences. It's in the hearing transcript. Next you'll hear said he "misspoke" and an apology after Doc's demise. There are at least a dozen kids who plan to monitor administrators and teachers for sarcasm this coming year and report on it to parents. Should be an interesting year at Brookfield High School. Hope they don't tell jokes in the building. Retired, I am firmly convinced that due to Doc's superior intellect and his achievement of a doctorate as well as teaching at the college level that Bivona, who's only experience as a superintendent was 2 bad years in Region 6 (check out what happened there), is envious of Doc's accomplishments and the community of parents, students and other adults who appreciate all he's done for the community for 32 long years.
long time resident June 30, 2011 at 03:19 PM
It is going to be interesting when Doc sues the group who put him in the situation. The Principal, the vice-principal, the BOE, the vice-superintendent and the superintendent. Just think of how many lawyers are going to be needed for each of these groups. And you thought the Education Budget was high this year. It is going to be a multi-million dollar law suit. If it was me, I would sue for the $32M that was voted on.
Steven DeVaux June 30, 2011 at 08:38 PM
Quite true. And if it's a Civil Rights lawsuit he can sue each of the board of education members individually in federal court for denial of his rights under the ADA. I don't believe the boards insurance covers personal when it come to civil rights. Most don't. It's something insurance companies eschew simply because of the size of the awards and the fact that violations of civil rights are entirely preventable and there is a wide public knowledge not to (violate). Personally, I always worried more about the financial impact on individuals, rather than even the town. Remember, these were individual acts....and in a federal civil rights lawsuit, it trumps any state laws. This could be Randall DiBella's lottery ticket to retirement if he goes for it.
Matt Dewkett July 01, 2011 at 10:53 PM
Rob, a number of folks are wondering if the board is required to vote according to the tribunal's decision. What are the next steps for the board? Thanks!
Rob Gianazza July 02, 2011 at 12:23 AM
"Rob, a number of folks are wondering if the board is required to vote according to the tribunal's decision. What are the next steps for the board? Thanks!" Not quite sure why this wasn't posted, but I would like to respond to the question posed by Matt Dewkett. The Board of Education played no part in the decision to bring this action. We were intentionally excluded so that we could act as an impartial body to decide upon the findings. That being said, is the main reason why no Board of Education member has made a comment pro or con pertaining to this action. At the time that we are presented with the recommendations of the tribunal, we will be asked to make a decision based upon the data provided by the impartial tribunal. I know this sounds like a lot of "leagalize", but there is a reason for it. We, as an elected body, need to remain impartial, otherwise we will become inelligible to render a decision based upon the facts presented. So to answer you question, no, we are not required to vote based on the tribunal's decision. But, it is not the tribunal's duty to render a decision. It is their charge to present the facts as presented during the hearing.
BobCat July 02, 2011 at 01:01 PM
Will the BOE take the overwhelming support that the people of Brookfield (remember them?) have given Doc? Will that be considered when a final decision is made? And was is taking so long? This looks really, really bad at this point. Make a decision. Or is everyone waiting for everyone in town to be away on vacation to soften the backlash? Stop torturing this man make the annoucement, one way or the other..
Angela Quinn July 05, 2011 at 09:21 PM
ALL INVOLVED IN THIS COMPLAINT SHOUL LOOK AT THEMSELVES TEACHING IS A VERY STRESFUL JOB AND I CAN IMAGINE THEY ARE NOT WEE ANGELS THIS MAN IS TEACHING YOU CANT TELL ME THEY HAVENT MADE THE MOST OF HIS CONDITION WEN ITS SUITED THEM, HE SHOULD LET ALL KNOW ABOUT WHAT COMMENTS HES HAD TO ENDURE AS HE HAS BEEN UPFRONT EVERY TERM AND INFORMED THE PUPILS OF HIS DIAGNOSIS, HOPE NONE OF THESE YOUNGSTERS ARE GOING IN TO THE CARE FEILD AND PITY HELP THEM IF THEY HAVE CHILDREN WITH ANY TYPE OF DIAGNOSIS HOW WILL THEY UNDERSTAND OR WILL THAT BE THE ONLY TIME THEY CAN.THEY NEED TO STOP BEING SELF OBSESSED AND THINK OF HOW SOMETHNG IS AFFECTING SOMEONE ELSE AS ITS NOT ALL ABOUT HOW THEY FEEL.
Steven DeVaux August 02, 2011 at 07:07 PM
Well said Angela. We will know the care and understanding expressed in our community by the vote of the nine members of the Brookfield Board of Education this month. All eyes will be on them. Doc has been very open and transparent with everyone in the community. I hope our elected officials are no less.

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