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Between the Lines: Bad Times for A Good Teacher

Still mourning the death of Phoebe Prince, Debra Caldieri is now fighting for her own life.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2014
Tom Vannah photo

Debra Caldieri looked across at me with sadness in her intelligent eyes and mustered a warm smile.

Appearing frail and exhausted in her wheelchair, nervously pushing at her hair to cover a noticeable bald patch, she looked almost defeated.

Sitting in her modest but tastefully decorated apartment on Bridge Street in Northampton, I began a 90-minute interview by asking Caldieri to describe what she’d been through in the last four and a half years. Instead of telling me about her predicament, she immediately began talking about Phoebe Prince and the day they met.

“She came hopping in that first day [of school in 2009], bright and shining,” Caldieri said, her speech noticeably slow and slurred. “She was somebody you have to love. She sat in the front row, all prepared to learn.”

For those who’ve forgotten, Caldieri was Phoebe Prince’s Latin teacher. When the 15-year-old South Hadley High School student hanged herself in January 2010 after what authorities said was a period of intense bullying at school, Caldieri was identified in local, national and even international press reports as one of the few members of the community who’d stood by Prince when she was alive and continued to defend her memory after her death.

Despite Caldieri’s reputation as a devoted and compassionate teacher who’d tried to help a troubled student, she became a pariah within the closed ranks of South Hadley High, where Phoebe Prince was frequently portrayed as, to borrow a line from Kevin Cullen, who wrote about retaliation against Caldieri in a June 12, 2011 Boston Globe column, “the outsider, the clueless blow-in from overseas who brought all her troubles on herself.” (Prince had emigrated to the U.S. from Ireland in 2009 with her mother and four siblings.) In the year following Prince’s suicide, Caldieri found herself under intense scrutiny by South Hadley High administrators, many of whom were under intense scrutiny themselves for their questionable handling of the bullying that, by most accounts, played a significant role in the teenager’s suicide.

Caldieri, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and depression several years prior to Phoebe Prince’s death, said her symptoms grew worse as she mourned for Phoebe and came under mounting pressure from Dan Smith, then the principal of South Hadley High, and Gus Sayer, the school district’s superintendent at the time. She began to receive written communications from administrators, questioning her ability to maintain order and discipline in her classroom.

“We have had [conversations] throughout the year about the need for students to be actively and productively engaged throughout the class,” Assistant Principal Ted McCarthy wrote Caldieri on Dec. 3, 2010. “Based on my informal observations walking by and stopping in your class, we discussed how currently, this is not happening at the expected level.” McCarthy went on to instruct Caldieri to “stand or sit near the students while they are working so you can better manage their behavior and keep track of their progress... These strategies have been proven to work if consistently used.”

Caldieri, who’d been critical of the administration’s failure to protect Phoebe Prince, said she saw such letters as retaliatory. As her health continued to deteriorate, she went on unpaid medical leave in January 2011, hoping to get well enough to return to teaching; in July 2011, saying he could no longer wait to see if her condition improved, Gus Sayer fired Caldieri.

For the last three years, Caldieri, with an attorney appointed by her union, has attempted to navigate the state retirement system, pursuing an accidental disability claim that requires her to prove that her pre-existing illnesses were made worse due to job-related stress.

After a May 30, 2014 hearing in Cambridge, the Massachusetts Teachers’ Retirement Board denied her claim, ignoring a finding by its own medical panel that her condition likely deteriorated due to the ordeal she’s suffered following Prince’s death.

At the May 30 hearing, the MTRB took testimony from Sayer, Smith, and Foreign Language Department Chair Tiesa Graf, accompanied by South Hadley Town Counsel Ed Ryan. According to Caldieri’s psychotherapist, Davina Miller of Northampton, who told me she’d been prepared to speak on Caldieri’s behalf, Caldieri was left to speak for herself.

“The setup seemed somewhat unbalanced,” Miller said. “And I was surprised that her former colleagues went out of their way to say she had a pre-existing condition. I suppose it was to protect themselves and deflect from what had happened.”

While Caldieri has a right to appeal, which she plans to do, she finds herself without a lawyer: shortly following the MTRB decision, Caldieri received a letter from her union-appointed attorney, Stephen Allard, an associate at Boston-based Shaevel & Krems.

“After reviewing the matter with the Massachusetts Teachers’ Association General Counsel, the determination has been made that the MTA and the law firm of Shaevel & Krems, LLP will not be representing you in your pending appeal,” Allard wrote.

When I reached Allard to ask why he and the MTA decided to cut Caldieri loose, he said his “firm doesn’t feel it is appropriate to comment at this time.” A spokesperson for the MTA, meanwhile, told me the union won’t discuss legal matters involving its members. He said that Caldieri received an explanation and could share it with me if she so chose. Caldieri said she’s received no explanation from the MTA or Allard.

Regardless of her own difficulties, in last week’s interview, Caldieri still seemed to be struggling with Phoebe Prince’s suicide. She told me that she believes some of Prince’s problems at South Hadley High had a lot to do with the administration’s decision to mix older students into classes intended primarily for younger students.

One of a handful of freshmen in a first-year Latin class that many seniors took to beef up their college resumes, Prince had demonstrated a keen intellect and a true passion for the study of languages. But Prince was new to South Hadley High, and, Caldieri said she soon saw Prince struggling as she learned that academic achievement was not socially acceptable with some of her fellow students. Caldieri said that Prince began intentionally failing tests rather than incur the taunts of several of the older kids in class, then retaking the tests privately (something Caldieri said she allowed and encouraged students to do) and acing them.

Caldieri said she repeatedly warned school administrators that having freshmen in the same class as upperclassmen made it hard on the younger students. Alas, no one saw fit to heed her warning.

“Had it been just a freshman class,” Caldieri said, “Phoebe would be alive today.”•

 

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