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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, August 14, 2008

After knife arrest, Petrilli put on leave

By Zach Simeone

BERNE — Mary Petrilli, the principal of Berne-Knox-Westerlo High School, was placed on paid leave Monday after being arrested Saturday for menacing and possession of a weapon. Petrilli had returned to her $73,000-a-year job last month after nine months on medical leave.

At 8:10 p.m. on Saturday, State Police say, a witness passed by Petrilli’s home in Schodack and “noticed two persons engaged in a physical altercation where Petrilli was in possession of a 12-inch knife.” A 911 call brought police to the scene to investigate the “domestic dispute,” according to a release from the State Police.

Petrilli, 54, was arraigned at Schodack Town Court, spent the night in the Rensselaer County Jail, and was released on Sunday when she made bail for $1,000. She has been charged with second-degree menacing and fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon.

“We had no choice in this matter,” said Superintendent Steven Schrade. “In a case such as this, we are not allowed by law to suspend a public employee without pay.”

The BKW School Board held a special meeting Monday night and, after an hour-long closed session, voted unanimously to place Petrilli on paid administrative leave pending the outcome an internal investigation.

When asked if Petrilli’s lesbian relationship affected the board’s decision, Schrade replied, “No, not at all. The topic of homosexuality wasn’t even raised. I can’t emphasize enough that that topic wasn’t raised.”

Petrilli had been on medical leave since October 2007, and returned to work on July 1. When asked if Petrilli’s leave was related to alcoholism, Schrade said, “The fact is that, first of all, whether Ms. Petrilli has a problem with alcohol or not is not anything that we can acknowledge. The reason for the medical leave remains confidential, so we have no comment to make, and we’re not allowed to make any comment on her medical history,” he said.

“Secondly, by law, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, anyone with alcoholism is treated the same as a person with a disability,” Schrade added. “That’s where the board is with any issue such as that. If, in fact, any employee has such a disability, we are required to follow those laws.”

Once Petrilli took her leave, Ralph Lyons was interim principal until Dec. 21, after which Schrade assumed the role of acting principal on top of his duties as superintendent.

In June, teachers petitioned the school board for leadership, which they said was needed to do their jobs well and to maintain a healthy, productive, and educational environment for their students. Parents of students turned out at the meeting to show their support for the teachers’ stance.

When pressed for his views at the June meeting, Schrade said, “I do not believe that the high school is running the way I would want it to run at this time…I thought that there would be a resolution to this much, much earlier…”

The superintendent recalled this week some of the more upbeat points of Petrilli’s career: “She was, for 10 years I believe, a very good classroom teacher,” he said. She taught social studies when Schrade was principal of the high school.

“When she was interim principal back in 2000, she had widespread support to become principal,” Schrade continued. “The board and I felt she was a superb candidate,” he said in 2000, as she was well-respected by staff and parents.

“She always expressed that she liked the school and liked being principal,” Schrade said this week. “That’s what she always said to me.” Petrilli has consistently worked hard for her school, he said.

Petrilli is tenured, which means, to be removed from her job as principal, the district would have to go through a costly 3020A proceeding, outlined by State Education Law. Whether this will actually happen remains to be seen, Schrade said. “As stated, our attorney is conducting an internal investigation, so that question is unanswered,” he said.

The school’s attorney Beth Bourassa is conducting the district’s investigation independently, but will be gathering information from the State Police regarding last weekend’s events, Schrade said.

Bourassa declined to comment, as the details of a pending personnel investigation are confidential, she said.

“Right now, we’re going to search for an acting principal, because there is technically not yet a vacancy,” Schrade said, meaning that BKW is not yet looking for a permanent replacement.

In his search for new leadership, Schrade will seek assistance from Charles Dedrick, district superintendent for the Capital Region Board of Cooperative Educational Services, along with the School Administrators Association of New York State and the New York State Council of School Superintendents, he said.

“I’ll try to find some suitable candidates, present them to the board, and they’ll make the final determination,” said Schrade. “I’m going to try and do that before Labor Day. We will have an acting principal in place by the opening of school,” he said.

Whether or not that person will be Mary Petrilli is to be determined.

A principal’s arrest can certainly hamper her ability to perform in her duties as a leader, Schrade said. It is difficult for a principal to lead a school if people perceive that the principal is not living up to the same standards that are expected of the students and staff, he explained.

“Initially, there’ll be, I’m certain, some consternation. I believe the students and staff will be able to get back to business quickly,” Schrade concluded. “Situations such as these are always disappointing, and embarrassing for the district, but we’ll carry on and try to do our best.”

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