Principal Sues Manchester Superintendent, Officials For Discrimination

Superintendent John Berenato (Photo courtesy Manchester Schools)

  MANCHESTER – Whiting Elementary School Principal Evelyn Swift has filed a lawsuit against the Board of Education, Manchester School Superintendent John Berenato and other administrators alleging age, gender and racial discrimination.

  Swift claims in the lawsuit filed on October 9 in Ocean County Superior Court that Berenato harassed her for over a year and tried to get her to quit her position.

  The suit also accuses Berenato of making multiple remarks in reference to her race, and retaliated when she filed a grievance over her performance evaluation.

  Also named in Swift’s lawsuit are district administrators Lori Burns, Bridget Antonucci, Linda Saraceno, and Alex George. The suit alleges that they assisted or took no action regarding her complaints about Berenato’s behavior.

  “The Manchester Township School District cannot provide any comment or information regarding pending litigation,” the school district The Manchester Times following an inquiry for this article.

  Swift is alleging that Berenato harassed her repeatedly in an attempt to remove her as principal and made remarks about her age and recommended she retire.

  Burns serves as the district’s director of early childhood education, Antonucci is the director of special services, Saraceno is the district’s supervisor of instruction, and George serves as the district’s affirmative action officer

  Swift began working for the school district in 1999 as a middle school teacher. She was promoted to the principal at Whiting Elementary in July 2012.

  Berenato replaced David Trethaway who retired at the end of January, 2022. Berenato took over in February. According to the lawsuit, Burns was hired in late 2022.

  Swift is the only African American female administrator in the school district. She said the harassment started in August 2022 when the superintendent allegedly asked her to move to Manchester Elementary to be the principal there. She declined because of the relationships she had built with staff and families over the years at Whiting Elementary School.

  The suit states, “Defendant Berenato added that MTES ‘needs an overhaul due to changes across town.’” Swift said this was reference to an increase of Hispanic families in a “predominantly Caucasian school.”

  It was also alleged that Berenato told the Plaintiff, “Our district is growing, it’s a different population, and you’re great with people.”

  Berenato continued to insist Swift should transfer to Manchester Elementary, and repeatedly cited the “different population” as a reason, according to Swift who felt the implication was that as an African American, she belonged with other minorities.

  Swift maintains that her refusal to transfer led to persistent criticisms from Berenato and culminated in a negative mid-year performance appraisal. She said it is the first negative review she has received in her years as principal.

  The suit states that the negative review included a criticism by Berenato of her attendance because she was out on vacation time in October that he had approved, and missed a school event. “Plaintiff was entitled to take 25 vacation days per year, and Plaintiff never exceeded her allotment,” the lawsuit says.

  Swift, who is 54, contested the negative review, and during a follow-up meeting alleges Berenato asked her when she would be 55, and whether she had considered retirement.

  The suit also added that Berenato provided unsolicited advice to her about alternative streams of income and also alleges that Berenato and Burns made several “racially charged comments, illustrating they viewed her not as an accomplished principal, but rather, as a less-than capable African American female.”

  Swift also alleges that they needed to “conduct an audit of preschool books because there needs to be better diversity. There need to be books in those classrooms that are representative of…of people who look like you” Berenato stated. She alleges the superintendent showed her a list of books available, and said there were more books about animals than there were books about African Americans.

  After a second follow-up meeting, Swift alleges she was contacted by Cheryl Mackenzie, Berenato’s assistant who told her Berenato directed her to convince Swift to not file a grievance over her evaluation, and Swift alleges Mackenzie said Berenato openly discussed wanting her out as principal, as he felt she was more suited for a vice principal position.

  “Additionally, Mackenzie disclosed that Defendant Berenato had asked her how long it had been since Swift’s son had died, implying she had taken too much time off work to mourn her son’s death.

  Mackenzie further relayed that Defendant Berenato said he was sure “it impacted [Plaintiff’s] performance.”

  Swift filed a grievance through the administrator’s union in March and alleges she was told by Saraceno and George that it would be her word against Berenato’s and tried to convince her to drop the matter.

  Berenato, Burns and Antonucci began a pattern of retaliatory accusations, according to Swift. In the lawsuit she said this included claims that her staff had incorrectly filled out 504 paperwork, claims that she was not reprimanding staff members who missed a day of work, taking away her office to make it a room for special needs students who are struggling with sensory overload, and making scheduling changes at her school that Swift says would have a negative effect on her students.

  The 504 complaints occurred after the paperwork had been accepted and approved by Antonucci, the district’s special services director, according to Swift who said she was not notified there was an issue.

  Antonucci dealt directly with the staffer at the Whiting school according to the lawsuit. Swift said the staff member who filled out the paperwork had been trained by staffers at other elementary schools in the district whose paperwork was certified as being completed properly.

  The lawsuit states that Swift had filed a discrimination complaint with the district’s Board of Education that was investigated by an outside firm. She was informed that her complaint was unfounded.

  The lawsuit was filed because “As of the present date, Manchester BOE Defendants have still failed to remediate Plaintiff’s hostile work environment. Suffice to say, the seemingly endless perpetuation of retaliation stemming from the foregoing instances of harassment and discrimination has caused Plaintiff significant emotional distress.”

  Compensation in the form of an unspecified monetary amount, along with requirements for all of the defendants to undergo training to address age, gender, and racial bias, and to address their retaliation are being sought by Swift in the lawsuit.