Religion Teacher Axed After Telling Student to Die, Lawsuit Says
Middle Village — A Christ the King religion teacher with a devil-may-care attitude was fired after telling a student to "put a pillow over your face and wait for God to call you," according to a lawsuit.
Donald Errico, 65, was canned from the Middle Village high school on Jan. 20, 2012, for making the smothering statement to a student who asked him a question in class.
The comment came a year after he received a warning for other classroom conduct, including allegedly referring to Jesus' apostles with an anti-gay slur.
After his dismissal, Errico and his union, the Lay Faculty Association Local 1261, fought in arbitration to get his $85,000-a-year job back. The hearing officer decided his firing was justified but still awarded him $30,000 as severance.
Christ the King filed a lawsuit in March in Queens Civil Supreme Court, asking a judge to overturn the decision and claiming Errico was fired for misconduct and did not deserve any payout.
In its lawsuit, the school said that before firing Errico, it had flagged him for flouting the Ten Commandments in his classroom.
The lawsuit claims Errico's past transgressions include:
• Calling a student a terrorist and purposely mispronouncing his name as "Cigar" rather than "Sagar."
• Referring to the apostles as "a bunch of f-----s."
• Making fun of a female student's family's financial problems.
• Forcing students to clean his room after school.
• Failing to supervise a fire drill by taking an elevator while his students walked down the stairs.
• Letting students access personnel records.
Christ the King claims in the lawsuit that the arbitration hearing was unnecessary because Errico had already failed to collect unemployment insurance benefits. The federal Department of Labor and an appeals board had found Errico was guilty of misconduct and ruled against unemployment.
Still, under a labor pact between the school and the union, arbitrator Marilyn Levine heard the case, including the testimony of two students who claimed they heard Errico make the pillow remark. She ruled that there was just cause for the firing, but Errico, who had worked at the school for about 30 years, deserved $30,000 for his retirement.
Christ the King's lawyer, Thomas Ognibene, said Levine's decision was "incongruous" and that she only gave Errico the award because "she felt sorry for him."
"If he's fired justifiably, he was entitled to nothing," Ognibene told DNAinfo.com New York.
"We can't allow an award of $30,000. It would send a signal to other teachers that you can do what you want and still get money when you're fired."
Errico did not return a call for comment. In a Labor Department hearing, he testified that he was not feeling well and taking medications on the day he made the pillow comment.
Harry Kranepool, the president of the Lay Faculty Association, said Errico "was fired unjustly."
"He should be offered his job back. Whether he takes it or not is a different story," Kranepool said. "He doesn't deserve the kind of treatment he's getting."
The labor boss said that in the hearing and the lawsuit, the school dredged up old allegations against Errico that had been settled long ago. He added Errico meant the pillow comment in jest.
"The comment was not meant as a serious comment. It was meant more in terms of a relaxed or joking phrase," Kranepool said.