Civil Rights Hearing Update
Up Next: Queen Of The Douche Bags,
Regional District 10 Supt. Paula Schwartz
She's Not A Ph.D.,
But Schwartz Sure Knows
How To Doctor Students' Personal Files
Defense points to document discrepancies
First Public Acknowledgement
That Write-In Vote Was Suppressed;
Avery Doninger Actually Won By Plurality
By JACQUELINE MANNING
The Bristol Press
NEW HAVEN - Lewis Mills High School Principal Karissa Niehoff's seemingly contradictory responses during cross-examination in U.S District Court Friday provoked accusations of falsifying, altering and destroying documents.
Niehoff, a defendant in the Avery Doninger civil rights case, is also accused of violating Doninger's First Amendment rights by banning her from running for Class of 2008 secretary.
Doninger's attorney, John Schoenhorn, is seeking a temporary injunction to overturn the results of May 25 class officer election, which Doninger won by write-in vote.
After Schoenhorn rested his case on Friday, Defense Attorney Thomas Gerarde, who is also defending Region 10 Superintendent Paula Schwartz over the alleged First Amendment violations, called Niehoff to the stand.
Under direct examination, Niehoff testified at length to her entire schedule on the morning of the April 24, including the exact times of when she was supposed to attend various meetings, evaluations and functions. The bulk of testimony surrounded how her day was entirely disrupted when parents and taxpayers began calling the school's central office in response to a mass e-mail that the students, including Doninger, had sent from the school's computer lab to parents asking for their support of Jamfest.
However, Niehoff's exactness as to dates, times and time frames faltered under cross-examination by Schoenhorn.
Schoenhorn displayed a student-log entry for Avery Doninger dated April 24, that stated Niehoff wrote her up for misuse of a school computer and spoke to her about the responsibilities and role of a class officer. According to Niehoff, the student log entries are like "a school diary" and it "rolls over" at the beginning of each school year. When asked what the log would show for Doninger if it were accessed now, Niehoff replied, "It would show nothing."
Schoenhorn noted that there were entries on the log dating back to 2005 and asked Niehoff to explain that. She said she could not.
Schoenhorn noted the date on the bottom corner of the log "06/05." He asked Niehoff why she printed it on that date and instructed guidance secretary Sandra Bilodeau to place it Doninger's file. Niehoff responded that Doninger's mother, Lauren, called to say she wanted to see her daughter's cumulative records. She testified that she knew she wasn't going to be in the building that day and called Schwartz for advice. Schwartz contacted school board attorney Christine Chinni, according to Niehoff's testimony, and received legal advice to put the student log in Doninger's guidance records.
Bilodeau testified on Thursday that never in her seven years as guidance secretary had she been asked to put a student log in a guidance file.
"It's not a common practice," Bilodeau testified.
When Schoenhorn asked Niehoff if it was common practice to seek counsel's advice when giving a student log to a parent, Niehoff responded, "No." She added they were proceeding with caution.
Chinni's billing records show two phone calls to Schwartz on June 5, the first lasting 48 minutes and the second lasting 12 minutes.
Schoenhorn asked if the other three students involved in the e-mail had the same entry logs. Niehoff said yes and that she had told Assistant Principal Peter Bogan to enter the log for all four students, sometime with the days following the 24th. Schoenhorn then asked about why the date was marked the 24th. Niehoff said it was the date of the incident not the date it was recorded. Schoenhorn rebutted that Niehoff had not met with two of the students until the following morning, April 25.
"So then you instructed Mr. Bogan to put erroneous information in the student logs?" the defense attorney asked.
"Yes," Niehoff responded.
Schoenhorn then asked Niehoff if she'd asked Bogan to alter Doninger's student log. Niehoff testified that on June 5 she instructed Bogan to change the type to use.
Schoenhorn then asked Niehoff if she remembered speaking to a television news reporter between May 17, the day she allegedly removed Doninger as junior class secretary and forbid her to run for senior class secretary, and May 25 the day of elections.
"I don't remember talking to any reporters," Niehoff said.
"You don't remember speaking with a television news reporter?" Schoenhorn asked again.
"I didn't see the broadcast," Niehoff said.
Shoenhorn then asked Niehoff if she remembered saying in a television news interview, "When kids are in a position of privilege, there are certain standards of behavior we expect them to uphold. Our position stands for respect. We're just hoping kids appreciate the seriousness of any communication over the Internet."
Niehoff said she recalled the statement.
Schoenhorn returned to the student log entries, asking when the logs were erased. Two weeks ago, she replied. Schoenhorn fired back this was well after they knew one of the allegations was backdating the record and it could be material evidence in a federal case.
"I didn't make that decision," Niehoff said.
Schoenhorn asked again if information from the past could be retrieved from the student log. Niehoff said she supposed it could be done if one had administrative access. Schoenhorn then asked if Niehoff was aware that a computer expert could determine when the four student-log entries were created.
Gerarde objected and U.S. District Judge Mark Kravitz asked where Schoenhorn's line of questioning was going.
Schoenhorn said he'd come right out with it and accused Niehoff of creating the student log entries on June 5. Niehoff adamantly denied the accusation.
Schoenhorn also asked who counted the May 25 election ballots. Niehoff said she did. Schoenhorn asked if Doninger's name was on the ballot. Students wrote her name on the ballot, Niehoff said.
"And didn't Avery win the plurality vote?" He asked.
Niehoff didn't understand the question and Kravitz asked her if Avery won the election with the most votes.
Niehoff responded, "Yes."
"So, if those votes were counted, Avery would be the class secretary right now?" Schoenhorn asked Niehoff.
"Yes," she said.
Testimony is scheduled to resume on Friday at 1 p.m. in U.S. District Court in New Haven.
Gerarde is expected to call one or possibly two more witnesses.
Schoenhorn said he may be calling a rebuttal witness.
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