THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Kevin Cullen

Cruel lesson for a teacher

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / August 2, 2011

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The persecution and humiliation of Deb Caldieri, the teacher who responded to the suicide of Phoebe Prince with a compassion so utterly lacking elsewhere in South Hadley High School, is complete. She was fired last week.

Gus Sayer, the school district’s superintendent, sent a letter to Caldieri - who went on unpaid medical leave in December because of her multiple sclerosis - saying he couldn’t wait around any longer to see whether the symptoms would subside enough for her to return to work. Those symptoms got worse after Caldieri was punished for speaking out about Phoebe Prince’s treatment at the high school.

Sayer said he hadn’t heard from Caldieri in months, so he had to go hire a new Latin teacher before classes start in September.

“I called Gus Sayer on Friday and asked him why he couldn’t have called me about this and he said my phone was out of service,’’ Deb Caldieri said. “My house phone is out,’’ she said, “because they haven’t been paying me all year and I can’t afford it. But I still have my cellphone. When I asked him why he couldn’t have just called me on my cellphone, he said he didn’t have the number. But the school called me on that number all the time.’’

That’s not what Sayer told me.

“The only number we had for her was her house,’’ he said.

Why not just go to her house and tell her face to face?

“I didn’t know if she was living at home,’’ he said.

But then, that’s the address that the termination letter was sent to, so maybe we’re beating a dead horse here.

In the end, Caldieri’s termination was handled the same way as her slow and torturous exit from South Hadley High: with a cold detachment that made the deterioration of her health inevitable.

The day after Prince, 15, hanged herself in January 2010, after months of bullying at the hands of other students, Caldieri responded with compassion, taking four girls to visit a boy who had liked Phoebe and was devastated by her suicide.

Dan Smith, who has just stepped down as principal, accused Caldieri of not getting the proper approval to take the kids out of school. Whether she did or not was very much open to debate, but that was a smoke screen anyway. Caldieri’s real sin was to challenge Smith’s authority and suggest that Phoebe wasn’t protected as she should have been. Smith told her he was going to get rid of her, and he did.

Other administrators would sit in on her classes, challenging her teaching methods. Her MS was already wearing on her, and the stress from Smith’s threat and the intimidation tactics of other administrators triggered seizures. She went on medical leave in December, bullied out of South Hadley High just as Phoebe was.

Sayer maintains his people did nothing wrong in the Prince case, and he says they bent over backward to keep Caldieri in the classroom. He says her MS was an issue long before Phoebe Prince, and rejects any suggestion that the way the school treated her worsened her symptoms.

He also rejects Caldieri’s claim that Smith, who retired in June, was vindictive in pursuing disciplinary action against her. “We don’t treat anybody like that,’’ he said.

Phoebe’s parents consider Caldieri one of the few adults at the high school who tried to help their daughter. They were furious when they found out Smith purposely excluded her from the girl’s funeral.

Phoebe’s aunt, Eileen Moore, has been paying Caldieri’s health insurance. It’s paid up through this month. Caldieri’s trying to get health insurance elsewhere. She’s already destitute. She may soon be a very sick woman without any health insurance.

Deb Caldieri started crying on the phone with Gus Sayer. He tried to comfort her by suggesting that maybe if her MS gets better she could reapply for a job in South Hadley. That won’t happen.

“I can’t go back,’’ Caldieri said. “I can’t even go near the building.’’

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.