Van Buren teachers sue district over cheating claims

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Four Van Buren Public Schools teachers are suing the district over claims their rights were violated when they were suspended amid allegations of cheating on a new state standardized test.

According to the lawsuit filed Friday in U.S. District Court, the longtime teachers in the Belleville-based system say they have not been formally charged with wrongdoing yet were denied a chance to refute the accusations.

“Prior to being suspended Plaintiffs were entitled to process commensurate with the seriousness of the allegations and the potential discipline, sanctions, and repercussions they were facing,” the court filing read. “Here, the allegations were of the utmost seriousness, having career-ending ramifications.”

In January, staffers were placed on paid administrative leave after an investigation found indications of cheating on the 2015 Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress. The district self-reported the scores for the mostly online exam, which state pupils took for the first time last year.

Van Buren officials contacted the Michigan Department of Education’s Office of Standards and Assessment about “unusually high” marks for Savage Elementary.

A law firm the district asked to investigate wrote a report that found “two staff members admitted to some level of assistance during the test” and students suggested they were walked through problems.

The district acknowledged inappropriate training, use of prohibited coaching techniques and other issues surrounding the exam.

State officials invalidated the results and were set to monitor the 2016 M-STEP. The district also agreed to assign monitors, among other measures.

However, in the suit filed Friday, the attorney for four of the suspended Savage teachers argues the legal firm’s findings were “based on interviews with unnamed third- and fourth-grade Savage Elementary students, who were questioned seven months after the M-STEP was conducted.”

The filing claimed the district hasn’t proved the interviews occurred. It argues the teachers were never “given notice of any violation of any rule giving rise to the basis of the suspensions. ... In fact, there are no allegations, much less any factual findings, that have ever been provided to Plaintiffs or to the public.”

Brent Mikulski, the Board of Education’s president, did not return a phone call Friday night.

Martha Toth, board vice president, referred questions to the district’s attorneys, who did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday night.

The four teachers — Pamela Bradley, Michelle Komaromi, Brent Held, and Rebecca Tennis — remain on paid leave, said their lawyer, Deborah Gordon of Bloomfield Hills.

The lawsuit claimed district officials offered them a voluntary settlement agreement demanding the teachers “release all possible legal claims.” The four listed as plaintiffs in the suit initially refused to sign but a fifth suspended employee did once a disciplinary counseling requirement was dropped.

The rest have been barred from district property and attending board or union meetings, according to the court filing. The fifth teacher was allowed to return to work in April.

“It’s really unfortunate that it came to this that the four wonderful teachers with unblemished records had to file lawsuit in order to be allowed to go back and teach,” said Gordon. “It’s one of the most bizarre situations I’ve ever seen.”

The lawsuit claims the teachers’ constitutional rights, including due process, were violated and seeks their reinstatement as well as punitive damages.

It also alleged the push to penalize them stemmed from issues with former Superintendent Michael Van Tassel. The school board in February approved a separation agreement that allowed him to remain a consultant.

Van Tassel did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday night.