A middle school teacher's immediate resignation after being accused of improperly touching students in 2006 wasn't coerced, the former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools staffer who took his resignation testified Thursday.
But Kay Cunningham, who was an employee relations specialist at the time, said she did tell Jeffrey Leardini that rubbing students' shoulders and lifting a student off the ground would likely lead to his firing, and told him that "we must never put our hands on children."
Leardini, who resigned from Community House Middle School after eight years teaching with CMS, is suing Cunningham and CMS in federal court, claiming that false promises about what would happen if he resigned ended up costing him his career.
The case, which goes to the jury today, provides a rare public glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes when students accuse a teacher of violating the CMS ban on "unwelcome or inappropriate physical contact."
By all accounts, Leardini was a highly regarded and successful teacher during his first seven years teaching elementary school in CMS. But in 2005-06, when he moved up to sixth grade at the new Community House school, seven students raised complaints about the way he touched them. Three pressed criminal charges, which Leardini was acquitted of.
The first two students complained about his touching their shoulders in October 2005. Leardini testified that when the principal raised the issue, he apologized to the two girls and kept his distance from them. However, he said he kept squeezing shoulders and patting arms as part of an interactive style designed to encourage and engage students.
Leardini contends the complaints that led to his resignation are all connected to one of those girls, who was moved out of his class after conflict over low grades. He testified that the girls who pressed charges were close friends of that girl.
In early April 2006, Leardini testified, he heard from another teacher that the girl was saying she had been removed from Leardini's class because he touched her breasts. He said he went to then-Principal Gif Lockley and asked Lockley to confront the student.
On April 27, Cunningham came to Community House in response to complaints from five more students. Leardini was summoned to the office, where Cunningham confronted him with the complaints, which included touching students' shoulders and thighs, popping girls' bra straps and lifting a student over his head.
Leardini and Cunningham both testified that he admitted touching shoulders and playfully lifting a female student off the ground in a hallway, and denied other accusations. The girl he lifted was not one of the five who complained; that report apparently came from a teacher who saw it.
The suit claims Cunningham misled Leardini by saying that if he resigned immediately, he would be paid through the end of the school year, avoid an investigation and avoid having a dismissal on his record. He testified that she told him that based on what he had admitted to, he had little chance of keeping his job.
Cunningham testified that she told Leardini she could suspend him with pay pending an investigation or that he could "resign in lieu of an investigation." She said that Leardini raised the question of being paid through June, and said she never told him he had to resign immediately to be eligible for that pay. He signed a resignation form that day, giving his reason as job dissatisfaction, and dated it June 14.
Cunningham denied Leardini's claim that just minutes afterward, before Cunningham left the school, Leardini asked to rescind his resignation. She also said she never talked about "negative publicity" CMS was getting because of sex-abuse charges against Jimmie Grubbs, a former middle school teacher.
Cunningham said she never told Leardini he had violated a CMS "no touch" policy, as he had claimed. But she said she did tell him at least once that "we must never put our hands on children." And when he asked about his chances of keeping his job if CMS did the investigation, she said she told him "based on my best guess that would probably end in his dismissal."
Janet Hamilton, the CMS official in charge of employee relations, testified that the CMS policy would clearly ban physical harm and sexual contact, and added that there can be problems with any physical contact if "any person on the receiving end says it's unwelcome."
"Horseplay would also be included," Hamilton said.
Although Leardini's resignation did avert a personnel investigation, Cunningham immediately notified the CMS police about the complaints, noting that Leardini had resigned and was no longer in the school. CMS is required to notify the Department of Social Services about such allegations, and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police eventually investigated and filed charges.
Documents introduced Thursday show that Leardini's departure was originally coded as "resignation in lieu of dismissal." When CMS shifted to a new computerized record-keeping system, it was logged as "termination -- do not hire."
Luke Largess, one of Leardini's lawyers, asked Hamilton whether she could be sure Leardini would have been dismissed, given that CMS never did the personnel investigation. She said she could not.
Leardini testified that he has been unable to get work as a teacher since his resignation. He currently works for Petco corporate offices in San Diego.
A retired Appalachian State University professor on Wednesday estimated the loss of salary and benefits over the course of Leardini's likely career at more than $500,000.
Testimony concluded Thursday. After the jury had left, Judge Graham Mullen told the lawyers that "the real issue in this case is whether his resignation is voluntary or not."
The legal presumption is that a resignation is voluntary, he said, but that presumption can be overcome by "coercion or by telling him stuff that isn't true."