Thursday, December 02, 1999

Jury sorting out school case

Talawanda couple say Leone retaliated to silence criticism

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Is former Talawanda schools Superintendent Dennis Leone a vindictive ogre who so intimidated a Somerville couple that he violated their First Amendment right to criticize his actions?

        Or is Mr. Leone a tough but sympathetic administrator who has become the victim of the couple's “lies, distortions, inaccuracies and half-truth?”

        That was the choice left to the four women and four men on a jury in U.S. District Court on Monday.

        If they agree with the closing argument of Scott Greenwood, attorney for Martin and Diana Stamler, jurors could award damages against Mr. Leone and a co-defendant, board member Edward Derickson.

        If they agree with defense attorney R. Gary Winters, then these “good men” did nothing more than exercise their First Amendment right to defend themselves against “char acter assassins” in “the rough and tumble” of public debate.

        It is illegal for a public official to retaliate so aggressively that it chills criticism protected by the First Amendment.

        The Stamlers said that was their fate after they attacked Mr. Leone's handling of the discipline of their son, David, who was caught smoking marijuana one day during his senior year, 1994-1995.

        The couple said Mr. Leone manipulated his counseling staff, and used them and board meetings and letters to local newspapers to silence them. Those were tactics used by Mr. Leone to “wear down the Stamlers” and other critics, Mr. Greenwood said.

        The Stamlers said they had seen him attack critics and they even joined other families who organized a “Leone victims” group calling for a new school board and superintendent.

        Mr. Leone kept after the Stamlers after David graduated, and even though he left Talawanda for another job, the couple remain too fearful to speak out at school board meetings, Mr. Greenwood said.

        Mr. Derickson was sued in part because he disclosed David's confidential disciplinary record to a news paper, and the Stamlers said that also was retaliation for their criticism.

        Even if the newspaper didn't use the information then, “It was wrong and it was false and it was inaccurate,” Mr. Greenwood said. “It went clearly beyond railing at the Stamlers.”

        Mr. Leone's version could not offer a starker contrast.

        He says he tried to be firm with David after the marijuana incident but had to ask counselors to make it clear to the youth that continued missteps could lead to expulsion. However, Mr. Leone relented and David graduated despite continuing disciplinary problems.

        The family, however, repaid lenience with an “unprincipled attack by character assassins,” Mr. Winters said.

        Even the accusation that Mr. Leone and Mr. Derickson humiliated their son by revealing his disciplinary problems to journalists was a lie, Mr. Winters said. Mrs. Stamler gave a reporter the damning internal memo Mr. Leone wrote to school counselors about David, Mr. Winters said. The Stamlers continued to criticize Mr. Leone after David graduated, so their freedom to speak without fear of retaliation obviously wasn't chilled, he said.


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