Family threatens lawsuit, alleges 'pattern of harassment' at hands of Mercurio
A copy of a letter of complaint sent to Superintendent Philip Thornton from the law offices of Robinson & Clapham, provided to the Beacon, outlines a Warwick family’s readiness to file a lawsuit against the Warwick Public School Department as a result of what they allege has been a “pattern of harassment and retaliation that they have suffered at the hands of the principal of Cedar Hill Elementary School, Colleen Mercurio.”
The letter, dated Sept. 26, 2017, asserts that Dr. Mercurio “appears to have targeted [the family] from the moment that she took the position of principal at Cedar Hill in the school year 2013-2014.”
“Accordingly, construe this communication as a demand for full restitution for the severe damage Ms. Mercurio has already caused,” the letter concludes. “We furthermore demand that Ms. Mercurio be immediately restrained from any further retaliatory behavior. We also believe that this matter should be referred to your insurance carriers as soon as possible to discuss the damages incurred by the family.”
The incidents outlined in the following paragraphs are entirely unrelated to the incident which led Mercurio to be investigated and eventually arrested by Warwick Police on Nov. 10 for failing to report an incident of abuse on a student. The identity of any members of the family has been redacted from the letter to protect their privacy.
The letter alleges that Mercurio has demonstrated a pattern of harmful and unprofessional behavior towards a family and their autistic child over the course of multiple years which has resulted in severe emotional trauma to the child, who has since graduated from Cedar Hill, and that the unfair behavior has since been extended to that child’s younger siblings and the family’s mother.
The letter alleges that the incident in which Mercurio first singled out and behaved improperly towards the family occurred during the student’s first school year in 2013-14, when the student’s mother insisted her child be given a different 1:1 paraprofessional, as the one that the student had originally been assigned was not meshing well with the their needs.
“Somehow, Ms. Mercurio was made aware of this,” reads the letter. “When Ms. Mercurio was first introduced to [the student], she said in a hostile tone: ‘You had an aide removed.’ It was clear from this statement that for whatever reason, Ms. Mercurio did not like the fact that [the mother] had advocated for [her child] to ensure that [they] received appropriate special education services.”
The letter then alleges that Mercurio’s negative behavior towards the student “escalated” throughout the school year, including an attempt to have the student’s paraprofessional removed during a meeting of the student’s IEP Team. Once again, the mother stepped in and advocated for her child’s need for the paraprofessional, and “asked if she needed a lawyer.” The team agreed to keep the same paraprofessional for the student.
The letter follows to say that “Ms. Mercurio’s response to [the mother’s] advocacy appears to have been to leave [the child] at the mercy of every school bully, and to participate in the bullying herself.”
Among allegations of this behavior are assertions that Mercurio repeatedly tried to have the child and their siblings removed from Cedar Hill, that she attempted to discipline the child for social behaviors that were a direct result of their disabilities, that she violated confidentiality in regards to student records and that she purposefully kept the mother from participating in school events when she learned she wanted to be involved.
The family also alleges that Mercurio made disparaging remarks towards their child in response to incidents where the student was bullied due to their disability.
“Ms. Mercurio's responses included telling him to ‘deal with it,’ ‘get over it’ and to ‘get used to it.’ Ms. Mercurio also asked the mother whether or not she intended to follow the child around in junior high.”
After one particularly upsetting incident of bullying, the letter alleged that “Ms. Mercurio convened a closed-door meeting with [the child] and the students who had bullied [the child]. [The mother] arrived to see the bullies leaving Ms. Mercurio’s office laughing and talking...After they were gone, Ms. Mercurio loudly berated [the child] and threatened to expel him for the remainder of the year if he did not calm down.”
Negative comments allegedly extended to the mother as well, as one incident was reported in the letter where Mercurio told another parent that she felt sorry for the disabled student for “‘Having a mother like that,’ and that [the child] would have no friends because of [the child]’s mother,” and that the mother was the “ringleader” of a group of parents who were trying to get Mercurio fired.
That comment relates to a petition which was started by a group of parents of current and former students from Cedar Hill which called for the removal of Dr. Mercurio for similar allegations of unprofessional and damaging behavior.
The petition has received over 200 signatures in its online version, and cited specific allegations from multiple parents related to Mercurio mishandling issues, which included interracial bullying, a failure to alert parents when a student had an attached tick removed by a school employee, sexual cyber bullying and student-on-student sexual abuse which Mercurio did not properly report.
As a result of these incidents, there have been multiple complaints filed with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), three of which reportedly have been accepted and remain under investigation. The investigation of another of these incidents, conducted by the Warwick Police over multiple months, resulted in Mercurio being arrested for a misdemeanor, for which she will appear in court on Dec. 11.
“Despite this mounting pile of evidence of Ms. Mercurio’s unfitness to serve as [an] educator, the administration and the School Committee have failed to take any effective action to curb her,” the letter states. “Instead, she has been given a three-year contract. This means that the City and Ms. Mercurio’s superiors are potentially liable as well.”
The letter alleges that the school administration and Warwick School Committee has been aware of these allegations of misbehavior for multiple years, but have done nothing to curb the incident. Mercurio was only placed on paid administrative leave at the end of October, well after this letter of complaint was sent to Thornton. Former Cedar Hill principal Stephen Kirby has assumed the role of interim principal.
“We believe the action taken to place Mercurio on administrative leave was not due to the School Department’s concerns for the well-being of our children, but was rather the result of this demand notice and any ensuing communications from the Department’s insurance carrier,” Corey Smith, spokesman for the petition to remove Mercurio, said in a statement.
Mercurio has hired legal representation and is intending to fight the misdemeanor charge against her, as evidenced by the following statement released by her attorney Jeffrey Sowa on the afternoon of Wednesday, Nov. 15:
“Dr. Mercurio is in her thirteenth (13th) year as an administrator in the Warwick School District. Her outstanding performance in that capacity was recently rewarded by the district in the form of a new three (3) year contract. Dr. Mercurio has consistently and faithfully followed all district protocols regarding student safety during her tenure and has always contacted DCYF when the law requires. Please remember that due process takes place in the courts and not through social media. Dr. Mercurio looks forward to addressing this misdemeanor charge and clearing her name in court.”
Attorneys representing the family who may potentially file the lawsuit said that in years of conducting legal cases involving schools, they still found the allegations against Mercurio to be especially egregious.
“We think the way her children have been treated is unprofessional and shocking,” said attorney Stephen Robinson.
“We've been doing this kind of law for a long time on the school side and administration side and I've seen administrators not get renewed [contracts] for much less,” said associate attorney Vicki Bejma.
Superintendent Thornton declined to comment on this story as it relates to a school personnel matter. Attorneys representing Mercurio were in court and did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The incidents in this letter are allegations, and have not been proven in a court of law. Mercurio has only been charged with a misdemeanor offense, and has not yet been given a fair trial to surmise her guilt or innocence, and therefore shall be considered innocent until proven guilty.