Arlington faulted in dismissal

By Christina Pazzanese
Globe Correspondent / October 29, 2009

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An arbitrator presiding over a long-running legal dispute between an Arlington middle school teacher and the school district says its former superintendent displayed “credibility problems’’ during the case and concludes the district violated its own complaint policies by pursuing an investigation.

The decision, which found that Charles E. Coughlin’s August 2007 dismissal was “not justified’’ under state law, undermines the justifications school officials used to look into racy e-mail exchanges between Coughlin and former principal Stavroula Bouris on school computers.

It’s been a divisive, polarizing case that has rocked the town for two years. Coughlin was awarded his job back this week. Bouris is fighting to get her job back as well, and her case is still pending.

In the 61-page decision obtained by the Globe, arbitrator Richard G. Boulanger said former Arlington superintendent Nathan Levenson gave several pieces of testimony during the arbitration proceeding that he deemed “not credible’’ when recounting the timeline of Coughlin’s termination.

The arbitrator described the situation as a “saga of anonymous information.’’ School Committee policies prohibit investigations of employees started on anonymous complaints.

Tracy Buck, a school technology specialist, testified she initially ignored and discarded a note stating that Coughlin and Bouris were having an affair and that proof could be found in e-mails between the two. But after hearing gossip among co-workers in the hallway, Buck said, she decided to look into the matter, gaining access to 50 pages of e-mails and delivering them to Levenson on June 6, 2007.

A few days later, on June 10, Levenson, then the superintendent, instructed the lawyer for the school district to investigate whether the e-mails constituted conduct unbecoming a teacher, a fireable offense.

Levenson said that on June 11, a second batch of e-mails in an unmarked manila envelope that included two e-mails taken from Coughlin’s and Bouris’s private e-mail accounts was left on his office chair by an unknown person, according to the arbitrator’s report. Levenson could not produce the envelope, telling Boulanger he searched for the envelope but could not find it.

Boulanger said Levenson “falsely accused’’ Buck of gaining access to those private e-mails in a log entry. There were also conflicting accounts of when Levenson knew about the anonymous note.

The town contended that Coughlin’s e-mails violated school policy and represented conduct “unbecoming’’ a teacher. In Coughlin’s dismissal notice, Levenson said Coughlin engaged in “a pattern of flirtation and sexually suggestible language toward your supervisor and unacceptable in a school setting.’’

The town also contended it had an obligation to investigate the nature of his relationship with Bouris because of the possibility of a sexual harassment lawsuit. But the arbitrator found “no evidence’’ that either Coughlin or Bouris were engaging in sexual harassment or creating a hostile work environment.

Coughlin was awarded the right to resume his teaching position and to be paid back wages and benefits with interest. Coughlin’s personnel file must also be scrubbed of all references to his dismissal.