Policy for student sexual abuse continues to be a hot topic

Bay Shore BOE begins to point to answers


The Bay Shore School District’s response to Thomas Bernagozzi’s alleged sexual abuse of Bay Shore students is not going unnoticed, largely due to a group of concerned residents.

Bernagozzi, a retired Bay Shore third-grade teacher, was arrested in December for allegedly sexually abusing students under his care. Between the years of 1970 and 2000, the 76-year-old Babylon resident worked as a third-grade teacher at Gardiner Manor Elementary School and Mary G. Clarkson Elementary School. Under the Child Victims Act, 45 individual victims filed lawsuits against both the Bay Shore Union Free School District and Bernagozzi for Bernagozzi’s alleged sexual abuse.

Amy Llanos, Betsy Flanagan, Christina Tucker-Puccio, and Tonya Mancini-Wyss organized a candlelight vigil in February at the head of the Brightwaters Canal, in which members of the Bay Shore community stood in solidarity for the alleged sexual abuse victims. Recently, lawn signs were created by Flanagan, Tucker-Puccio, and Mancini-Wyss “to show solidarity with the survivors and victims, as well as demand transparency and justice from the district,” according to Tucker-Puccio and Mancini-Wyss.

During the public sessions of previous meetings Bay Shore Board of Education meeting, concerned residents have implored the board of education to share what policies are currently in place to protect students against sexual abuse by a staff member. The board seemed to hold firm against speaking on any topics that could be considered in relation to the ongoing litigation.

Immediately preceding the public hearing session of the April 17 board of education meeting, held at the Bay Shore High School Little Theater at 7 p.m., board of education president Jennifer Brownyard read a statement on behalf of the board and administration regarding a recent settlement.

“Recently, our insurance company settled one of the insured claims. This claim has been settled public to a confidentiality agreement, and will be paid directly by the insurance carrier,” shared Brownyard during the statement. “Though this particular case was covered by insurance and resolved with insurance funds, the majority of the other Child Victims Act cases against the district have no available insurance at this time.”

Bay Shore resident Melissa Keckler-Alex, who graduated in the Class of 1996, asked the board to share if there were any current policies regarding the sexual abuse of a child by a staff member and mandated reporting. Brownyard maintained that based on the current litigation, the board’s lawyers advised members against speaking on the topic.

“South Country is having a karaoke night tomorrow night for the fifth graders, first time dropping off students. You know what is going through my mind while filling out permission slips for my son? My mind is going, who is checking him in, who is taking attendance, who is taking my child to the bathroom, and who is taking him back?” admitted Keckler-Alex. “This is what is going through all of our minds. It is a horrible way to send your children to school every day.”

Following Keckler-Alex’s heartfelt demand for answers, Brownyard shared that Bay Shore does in fact have a current policy for child abuse in an educational setting— policy 9620—which can be found on the district website. 

Policy 9620, titled Child Abuse in an Educational Setting, is a 12-page policy adopted on May 27, 2015, detailing the requirements and expected lines of action of all staff members involved in reporting a case of child abuse by school personnel and volunteers. The policy states that in any case where a written or oral allegation of child abuse by an employee or volunteer in an educational setting is made to a required reporter, the required reporter shall promptly complete the required State Education Department report form and personally deliver it to the principal of the school in which the child abuse allegedly occurred.

The policy further states, “Upon receiving a written report, the principal shall determine whether there is reasonable suspicion to believe that an act of child abuse has occurred. In those circumstances where the superintendent receives the written report directly, he or she will be responsible for making the reasonable suspicion determination.”

Policy 9620 then goes on to state what next steps should be taken if reasonable suspicion is determined by the principal/superintendent, including sending the written report to the appropriate law enforcement authorities.

The district’s policy for record retention was another point of contention during the board meeting.

Policy 9620 states: “Any report of child abuse by an employee or volunteer that does not result in a criminal conviction shall be expunged from the records kept by the district with respect to the subject of the report after five years from the date the report was made.”

“I do not want to know that the files are going to maybe be there at your discretion. The files should remain in there whether it is founded or unfounded,” explained Keckler-Alex. “Because let’s say something comes up a year later? That file should be in there that that staff member was found or unfounded, but maybe there is a pattern. Everything should be kept in there.”

Tucker-Puccio, a spouse to a graduate from the Class of ‘98 and mother to students currently attending Bay Shore schools, was the last to speak during the meeting. She shared that she would be reading a statement that was given to her by an alleged survivor of Bernagozzi.

“Unless you’re going to identify the person who you are paraphrasing, then there is no need for you to be talking about this to us right now,” advised trustee Andrew Arcuri. “The people who talk to us here are supposed to be identifiable by us. They are supposed to be community members, talking to us about things that affect the whole community. We are not supposed to listen to quotations from unknown people or people who are not identified.”

Unable to read the prepared message, Tucker-Puccio went on to share her own thoughts toward the alleged victims living with lasting effects of abuse, and her desire to see that children are safer now than they were then.

“We just want to feel the trust in our district again,” she said.