STANHOPE — Former Lenape Valley Regional High School assistant principal Keith Lockwood is suing current superintendent Paul DiRupo and Board of Education secretary Robert Klinck — along with the Lenape Valley school district, Lenape Valley Board of Education and 10 unnamed persons — alleging that DiRupo conducted an “emotional terror campaign” designed to force him to resign.
In the lawsuit, Lockwood alleges DiRupo acted unprofessionally in student-related school matters and deliberately harassed Lockwood by making derogatory remarks and sexual advances toward him after Lockwood questioned and refused to go along with DiRupo’s leadership.
The lawsuit alleges that DiRupo’s actions, which were allegedly supported by the Board of Education, caused Lockwood, who the lawsuit said suffers from an undisclosed disability recognized under New Jersey state law, to be hospitalized in a psychiatric ward and terminated from his position, and prevented him from receiving unemployment or disability compensation.
The lawsuit was filed in Superior Court by Ameri and Associates of Hackensack on behalf of Lockwood and was received by the defendants at the end of May.
“In our opinion, this case represents rural politics, corruption and a misguided delusion of immunity,” Lockwood’s attorney Nima Ameri said. “We believe this is a case where individuals believed they were above the law merely because they became institutionalized. In our opinion, the defendants acted as though their actions would not reap consequences. This stemmed from the misguided notion that being in a vacuum of cohorts enabled them to be untouchable.”
However, attorney James McCreedy of the law firm Wiley, Malehorn, Sirota & Raynes in Morristown, speaking on behalf of DiRupo and Klinck, said the pair denies any wrongdoing.
“We intend to deny the allegations and vigorously defend the lawsuit,” McCreedy said. “We’re hopeful that the case will be dismissed.”
Calls for comment to board President Richard D. Kuncken and board attorney Anthony Sciarrillo were not immediately returned.
In the lawsuit, Lockwood alleges the trouble began when DiRupo conspired to create a hostile work environment for Lockwood after he refused to lie about a special education student’s achievements to an administrative law judge at DiRupo’s request.
Lockwood alleges that DiRupo made the request in an attempt to prevent the high-achieving student, who Lockwood claims DiRupo referred to as a “retard,” from becoming the class valedictorian. The lawsuit also alleges that DiRupo and Klinck casually referred to both the student and the student’s parents using profanities.
The lawsuit further alleges DiRupo expelled a black student despite protests from Lockwood that similar actions were not taken for white students for the same offenses, and says DiRupo referred to the student using a racial slur.
Lockwood also claims that DiRupo made “intimidating and reproachful comments” about his disability.
Despite DiRupo’s alleged attempts to create an environment that would force Lockwood to resign, the lawsuit notes that his contract, which began in June of 2013, was renewed by the Board of Education the following year based on favorable evaluations written by DiRupo.
The lawsuit alleges that when DiRupo learned of the contract renewal, he asked Lockwood for his resignation, Lockwood declined the request.
The lawsuit alleges that Lockwood fought to maintain the quality of his performance in spite of the “interference and hostile environment,” but eventually “began to succumb to his disabilities, and to contemplate self-harm and suicide.”
According to the lawsuit, DiRupo laughed when Lockwood sought accommodation for his disability. When Lockwood instead sought professional help, physicians hospitalized him at the Ramapo Ridge Psychiatric Hospital for in-patient treatment to address his disabilities and “post-traumatic stress disorder specifically linked to his employment at Lenape,” the lawsuit said.
It alleges the defendants sought to terminate Lockwood in violation of a clause in his contract that required 30-day notice of termination without cause, and orchestrated that a hearing on the matter would be held when Lockwood, who was still in the hospital, would be unable to attend to defend himself. As a result, the lawsuit alleges, Lockwood was terminated from his position by the Board of Education.
After Lockwood’s termination, the lawsuit alleges the Board of Education interfered with his attempts to apply for unemployment and disability compensation by “issuing false written statements” to the respective state agencies stating that Lockwood had been “terminated with cause, as a result of unspecified misconduct.”
Lockwood is seeking “compensatory, consequential and incidental damages together with costs of suit, interest, attorney’s fees and such further and other relief as this Court may deem to be just and equitable.”
According to McCreedy, the lawsuit is now entering the potentially year-long “discovery” phase, during which the court allows each side to exchange documents and send written questions to be answered under oath. Following that period, McCreedy said he plans to file for summary judgment on behalf of his defendants. If a trial is held, he said, it would likely be no earlier than two years from now.