In stinging lawsuit, longtime SBRSD dean alleges ‘workplace retaliation’ for son’s advocacy
Sheffield — Considering that it’s the state’s first K-12 regional school district and also its smallest, it is perhaps ironic that the Southern Berkshire Regional School District has always been an exceptionally busy place. And for the school committee and its administration, it’s about to get even busier.
The Edge has learned that former Mount Everett Dean of Students Kurt DeGrenier, who is still employed by the district, has initiated a lawsuit and a whistleblower complaint in Berkshire Superior Court alleging workplace retaliation and breach of contract after he drafted a complaint that his son, a student in the district, was not receiving the services he was entitled to.
Named in the suit is the district, its school committee members, the superintendent and the students services director — all individually. The suit seeks unspecified compensatory damages “in an amount to be proven at trial, plus triple damages, attorneys’ fees, interest and costs.”
DeGrenier also seeks reinstatement as dean, the restoration of his full fringe benefits and seniority rights, and “payment by SBRSD of … reasonable costs and attorneys’ fees.”
DeGrenier, who is 48 and lives in North Adams, has worked in the district for 15 years and, before his demotion, had been dean of students since 2007. Until recently, he had been head coach of the highly successful Mount Everett girls softball team. DeGrenier and his wife Gina have choiced five of their six children in to Southern Berkshire, necessitating an 80-minute drive each way.
According to the complaint (click here to read the full text), DeGrenier had voiced concerns that his son Hunter, now in 10th grade at Mount Everett, was not receiving the services and accommodations set forth in his individualized educational program, a plan developed to ensure that a child with an identified disability receives specialized instruction and related services.
In addition, in his capacity as dean of students, DeGrenier learned that many other families had similar concerns. Based on anecdotal evidence, he estimated that “more than half of the SBRSD students with IEPs were not receiving all of the accommodations and services set forth in their IEPs,” the complaint said.
DeGrenier first brought his concerns about Hunter’s IEP to director of student services Sandra L. Hubbard. When she did not adequately address his concerns, he brought the complaints to Superintendent Beth L. Regulbuto. “Despite repeated efforts to try and resolve the issues, the problems continued and were not resolved,” the lawsuit says.
DeGrenier was also concerned that the sending districts in the public school choice program were being charged under Chapter 70 for special education services that some of the sending districts’ students were not receiving. It was at that point in 2018 that DeGrenier says that the two administrators began retaliating against him.
“They began a systematic effort to wrongfully undermine him at Mount Everett, disparage him in the community, take away his supervisor and effectively demote him by eliminating his key duties and responsibilities,” the complaint says.
The ostensible reason for the retaliation is that a former district employee had filed a Title IX complaint against DeGrenier, but an internal investigation into the complaint later found that it had no merit. Title IX is a federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination at educational institutions that receive federal funding.
“The instances regarding Mr. DeGrenier’s supervisor and duties were in response to a Title IX complaint that Ms. Regulbuto fraudulently used as a mechanism to retaliate against Mr. DeGrenier,” the complaint states. “When an investigation revealed that Mr. DeGrenier committed ‘no Title IX violation’ Ms. Regulbuto still took away Mr. DeGrenier’s supervisor and his primary duties.”
At the beginning of the 2018 school year, DeGrenier was nowhere to be found. Asked by The Edge at that time whether DeGrenier had been suspended, Regulbuto replied in part: “The District is in receipt of a complaint brought by a former Southern Berkshire Regional School District employee against one of our staff members. The District promptly investigated the complaint, in accordance with its policies and legal obligations.”
“As a result of these retaliatory actions by Ms. Regulbuto and Ms. Hubbard, they caused substantial harm to Mr. DeGrenier’s reputation,” the complaint said.
The complaint further alleges that the “limited information that Ms. Regulbuto disclosed at the time was designed to leave the community with the impression that Mr. DeGrenier has done something egregious.”
Questions from parents at a school committee meeting included, the complaint said, whether DeGrenier was “under investigation for embezzlement,” whether he was suspected of “sexual behavior with any adults in the building” and whether he had “engaged in inappropriate behavior with a softball player.”
“None of those things happened, yet Ms. Regulbuto’s acts, omissions and conduct created the impression in the community that Mr. DeGrenier engaged in such conduct,” the complaint says.
In October of that year, DeGrenier notified the district that he intended to file a formal complaint with the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education to ensure that Hunter was getting the services he was entitled to, to stop the retaliation, to restore DeGrenier’s reputation, and to compensate DeGrenier and his son for damages.
After presenting the district with a draft of the OCR complaint, DeGrenier was asked to refrain from filing it “while the parties sought to resolve the matter.” After months of negotiation, the complaint says, the district entered into a settlement agreement concerning the issues DeGrenier had identified in the draft OCR complaint.
The pact included a new three-year employment contract, ending in June 2021, and an agreement to comply with all legal requirements in Hunter’s IEP and not to retaliate against DeGrenier or his son. The complaint acknowledges that “for the remainder of the 2018-2019 school year, Defendants followed the terms of the Settlement Agreement and Employment Contract.”
But after the conclusion of that school year, when longtime Mount Everett Principal Glenn Devoti retired and was replaced by Jesse Carpenter, the district began to “breach the contract” and commenced “efforts to recharacterize Hunter as not-disabled, so as to avoid complying with his IEP,” according to the complaint.
Without “good cause,” the complaint says, “Defendants also stripped Mr. DeGrenier of the duties and responsibilities referenced in the Employment Contract and changed his job title from Student Support Coordinator to Student Support Room Coordinator, effectively demoting him by eliminating his key duties and responsibilities.”
“When notified about his demotion, Mr. DeGrenier was told that ‘if we don’t get you out of the main office, the Superintendent [Defendant Regulbuto] will go through the roof,'” the complaint continued.
The second part of the lawsuit is the so-called whistleblower complaint, which DeGrenier says is a violation of Massachusetts General Law Chapter 149 Section 185 prohibiting “retaliation against employees reporting violations of law or risks to public health, safety or environment.”
And there is a related breach-of-contract portion of the lawsuit that alleges the district breached the aforementioned settlement pact and employment contract that had been negotiated as part of the agreement not to file the OCR complaint.
The Edge reached out to both Regulbuto and Jane Burke, who chairs the school committee. Regulbuto sent the following statement:
“In general, the District does not comment on pending litigation or personnel matters due to the privacy rights of all involved. The District denies the allegations contained in this complaint and intends to vigorously defend against these baseless claims. The central mission of the Southern Berkshire Regional School District is to serve the educational needs of all of our students, and we will continue to do so.”
DeGrenier’s attorney, Kevin Kinne of Cohen Kinne Valicenti & Cook, told The Edge DeGrenier has devoted his entire career to Mount Everett, but “feels strongly that he needs to stand up for his son, his family and the families of other students at the school.”
“We intend to pursue these claims aggressively and thoroughly through the court process,” Kinne said. “We will take multiple depositions, search for key documents and information to support our claims and we will be looking for witnesses who have experienced similar issues with the District.”