SPRINGFIELD, NJ — A lawsuit brought against the Springfield School District by a social worker claims the school board fired her after she blew the whistle on abuses at the Edward V. Walton Early Childhood Center.

Kara King, of Westfield, filed the suit in Superior Court in Elizabeth last month. The complaint names the Springfield Board of Education, former Springfield Superintendent Michael Davino and former Walton School Principal Adriana Coppola, among others.

“This is one of the most egregious cases of retaliatory discharge of a district-wide social worker who paid a hefty price, the loss of her job, healthcare benefits for her and her family as well as her dignity and reputation when she blew the whistle on what she in good faith and reasonably believed to be unlawful conduct on behalf of her superiors,” said Heidi Weintraub, the attorney representing King.

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Springfield Board of Education President Marc Miller declined to comment, saying “The board of education does not comment on pending litigation.”

King worked for the district from April 2015 to May 2020. While she worked at Walton School, King, witnessed Coppola “physically and emotionally abusing students in violation of their civil rights,” according to the complaint.

The lawsuit claims Coppola made dismissive and discriminatory comments about special-needs students, saying among other things that they were “so gross” and that she “had to sanitize her hands after being around them.”

The lawsuit refers to a list of 46 incidents King claims are “evidence of Coppola’s unlawful and/or inappropriate conduct toward the District’s students and staff.”

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King claims that Coppola, grabbed the arm of a special needs student who suffered from anxiety and dragged him into the hallway causing the student to cry, according to the suit.

In another instance, King claims, Coppola was seen “Yelling at autistic students and on one occasion, grabbing the wrist of a pre-schooler with autism and saying ‘I am speaking to you, you will look at me when I am speaking to you.’”

King claims that she also witnessed the former Walton School principal abuse her authority by directing subordinates to review her niece’s out-of-district Individual Education Program during school hours and telling an elementary school teacher at a staff holiday party that if she stole the centerpieces, which were owned by the catering restaurant, and gave them to her, she would give her a higher score on her teacher’s evaluation.

After meeting with the now-former superintendent Davino, King said she felt her complaints were brushed aside by Davino, and that following her meeting, Coppola allegedly began to retaliate against King in a number of ways, including by restricting her ability to attend meetings at other district schools and outside the district, according to the lawsuit.

King alleges in the complaint that the district worked to fire her in violation of her tenured status after she blew the whistle again on what the lawsuit claimed was an unethical successful effort by the district to obtain a parent’s signature for testing and evaluation without the Child Study Team present, which is unlawful.

The lawsuit alleges that after King blew the whistle a second time, Davino overruled her directive and had the student tested. Eventually, King claims, the district fired her without due process, in May of this year through board action.

The lawsuit claims that there was no public notice of the proposed action item to terminate King’s contract until the day of the meeting itself, when the board agenda was released nor was plaintiff sent a formal Rice notice, which is a legally required document that notifies public employees that their employment status is to be discussed.

In the period between king’s dismissal and the complaint being served, Davino’s contract with the district expired. He had been with the district for 15 years. Coppola has since left her position as Walton School’s principal, being replaced by Michael Plias.

Among the goals of the lawsuit, Weintraub said, will be to return King back to work.

“The Firm of Javerbaum, Wurgaft, Hicks, Kahn, Wikstrom & Sinins has filed this lawsuit to vindicate her rights and to hopefully return her to a job that she loved and through which she enriched the lives of the students in the Springfield School District,” Weintraub said.

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