A teacher who claims he was coerced into resigning immediately after student allegations of inappropriate touching is suing Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in a federal lawsuit that went to trial Tuesday.
Jeffrey Leardini resigned as a sixth-grade teacher at Community House Middle School in April 2006 after seven students reportedly told school officials he touched their shoulders and thighs, put his hand up a girl's dress, popped girls' bra straps and lifted a student over his head.
Leardini, who now works for Petco corporate offices in San Diego, testified in federal court that he was an "interactive teacher" who rubbed students' shoulders, patted arms and once playfully lifted a female student off the ground, but never touched students sexually. He said he resigned because Kay Cunningham, who worked for CMS' employee relations department, led him to believe that any touching would get him fired and that instant resignation would avert an investigation.
CMS and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police investigated the reports; Leardini was charged with sexual battery and assault on a female in cases involving three students. He was acquitted on all charges.
Leardini said he lost his teaching career, his reputation and many friends: "When I resigned it made me look guilty in everybody's eyes."
Mason Alexander, a lawyer for CMS and Cunningham, told the jury Cunningham offered the option of resigning but "made it clear there would have to be an investigation." CMS can't be blamed for the criminal prosecution or media coverage, he said.
Leardini is suing the school board and Cunningham as an individual, seeking back pay, reinstatement as a teacher and punitive damages.
When the trial resumes today, school board Vice Chairwoman Mary McCray is expected to testify for Leardini. In 2006, she was a fellow teacher at Community House and represented the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators.
Leardini testified that McCray saw him immediately after he gave Cunningham his resignation and urged Leardini to rescind the resignation and insist that the district prove he had done something wrong.
McCray was elected to the school board in November. She said she consulted CMS general counsel George Battle III about the potential for conflict, but he cleared her to testify.
On Tuesday, Leardini testified that in eight years as a CMS teacher, including stints at Reid Park, Barringer and Endhaven Lane elementary schools, he got good job reviews and never faced complaints about physical contact with students until he went to Community House, a new middle school that opened in 2005-06.
Alexander said no one will dispute that Leardini was "a gifted teacher," but he said a style that worked in elementary school may have caused problems when he started "teaching children who were going through puberty."
Both sides agree that in fall 2005, two sixth-grade girls complained that Leardini made them uncomfortable when he touched their shoulders. Leardini said he apologized and kept his distance from them.
One of those girls began having academic difficulties in his class; she was moved to another teacher's class when her parents complained. After that, Leardini said, school administrators told him she continued to say Leardini made her uncomfortable, with issues ranging from "looking her up and down" to saying hello to other students but failing to greet her.
In early April, Leardini said the teacher who now had that student told him the girl said she was removed from Leardini's class because he touched her breasts. Leardini said he immediately went to then-Principal Gif Lockley and asked him to confront the student: "My fear was she's having this conversation with a teacher, what was she telling her friends?"
On April 27, Cunningham came to Community House and told Leardini five students had complained about him. Leardini testified that she asked him about the touching and about inappropriate emails and text messages.
He said he had a hard time believing administrators were taking the reports seriously when he was asked about popping a bra strap: "I hadn't heard the term 'popping a bra strap' since I was in fourth or fifth grade. I don't know any adult that goes around popping bra straps for fun or for satisfaction."
He said Cunningham would not tell him the names of his accusers and never showed him any of the allegedly inappropriate messages. He told the jury some students got copies of his emailed newsletter to parents, and he had once emailed a student with words of encouragement because she was "being too hard on herself" in class.
He said he believed students looked up his instant-messaging name - "Superfila," a play on the Fila sportswear he likes - but said he did not IM them.
Leardini said Cunningham told him CMS has a "no touch" policy and that she didn't think he could keep his job. He said she also mentioned the district's concerns over "negative publicity" it had gotten over the case of former CMS teacher Jimmie Grubbs, who had recently been indicted (and eventually convicted) on charges of taking indecent liberties with a student.
Leardini said he believed immediate resignation was the only way to avoid an investigation and to get paid through the end of the school year. He said a counselor who was taking notes at the meeting with Cunningham said, "You did the right thing, Jeff. It didn't look good."
But Leardini said after his conversation with McCray, he realized he was entitled to a hearing and asked Cunningham to switch his resignation to a suspension with pay. Cunningham refused, he said.
Leardini said it was only after he was served with criminal warrants in May that he realized the three girls pressing charges were "best friends" with the girl who had made the earlier complaints.