At Long Last: Vindication
Jeff Leardini’s tortuous journey to regain his good name.
In some ways, this is yet another episode of a great teacher brought down by baseless allegations of physical contact with students. But this one has an unusually happy ending.
In an interview with NEA Today, Leardini described his ordeal. It began on April 27, 2006, when, as a sixth-grade language arts teacher employed by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS), Leardini was called into his principal’s office. He was met there by Kay Cunningham, a CMS employment relations specialist.
Without disclosing the names of his accusers or the details of their allegations, Cunningham told Leardini that several students claimed he had “touched” them—not in a sexual way—just “touched” them. And, according to Cunningham, CMS had a “no- touch” policy.
She then used various misleading statements to manipulate him to resign. “I was completely naïve,” recalled Leardini, a member of the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) and NEA. “I thought she was on my side, there to help me. She said that, if I resigned, ‘the matter would be closed,’ and I’d be able to apply for other teaching jobs. The school district would help. If not, I would be terminated, and my name would be ‘Mudd.’ ” Little did he know.
So he signed the resignation letter. Ten minutes later, he ran into his NCAE building representative, who told him to rescind the letter. He returned immediately to Cunningham but was rebuffed. CMS also rejected subsequent efforts to rescind the letter.
The local district attorney charged him with misdemeanor assault. A judge acquitted him of two charges in August 2006, and a jury acquitted him of the other two charges in July 2007.
Despite the not guilty verdicts, Leardini’s teaching career was over. In the next few years, he sent out more than 100 applications but was never hired. Even though as a fourth-grade teacher his students had led the state in writing scores four years in a row, no one would hire him to teach.
So Leardini filed a federal lawsuit against CMS for violation of his due process rights: Cunningham’s false statements coerced him into “resigning” under duress and without a hearing. He also sued Cunningham.
Last February, the case went to trial. Leardini testified about what it was like to be homebound for six years for fear of running into students or their parents, and what it was like to be recognized by a UPS driver as “that teacher.” After a four-day trial, an eight-person jury ruled in Leardini’s favor and ordered CMS to pay him $1,121,560 for the loss of his career. Cunningham was ordered to pay an additional $52,156. In May, a federal judge denied the school district’s motion to have the verdict thrown out. Leardini’s lawyers recently filed a petition seeking more than $200,000 in attorneys’ fees from CMS.
The case is now on appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, so settlement discussions are likely.
Leardini and his wife moved to San Diego, where he works in the headquarters of a major corporation. “I’m really happy with my job,” Leardini said. “I’m treated with value now, not the way I was treated by CMS.”
—Michael D. Simpson, NEA Office of General Counsel
It’s been a great ride, and I have a few final thoughts.
I’m a very lucky dog. Confucius once said: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” That perfectly describes my tenure at NEA. I’ve always loved learning, and I learned something new every day I came to work.
But there’s another reason why my work here has been so fulfilling: I come from a family of teachers. My mother was a teacher, as were both my aunts. My grandmother was a teacher and so was her sister. And if you ever find yourself in Statesboro, Georgia, stop by the Sallie Zetterower Elementary School. It’s named for my great aunt Sallie. My mother was always so proud that I worked for NEA, a pride I share.
And when you feel discouraged or stressed about your job, try to remember these wonderful words penned by educator Forest E. Witcraft: “A hundred years from now, it will not matter what my bank account was, the type of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove. But the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.”