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Enfield Board of Education Accepts Settlement Offer In Graduation Site Lawsuit

The settlement ends more than two years of litigation over use of a Bloomfield church for commencement exercises.

A two-year-old lawsuit filed in protest of the Enfield Board of Education's practice of holding high school graduations in a Bloomfield megachurch came to an end Wednesday night, when the board voted to accept a settlement proposal made by two activist groups who brought the suit.

In 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed suit on behalf of two high school students and three parents, who objected to holding graduation ceremonies at the First Cathedral Church.

During construction of a new athletic complex, held its graduation at the church in 2007. Both Fermi and Schools utilized the church in 2008 and 2009.

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After the board decided to hold the ceremonies in Bloomfield again in 2010, the lawsuit was filed, and District Court Judge Janet Hall issued a temporary injunction barring use of the religious building for a public school function. Commencement exercises at both schools have been held on school grounds since then, with the 2012 ceremonies taking place for the first time on the new artificial turf fields.

Under terms of the settlement, the school board agreed not to hold future graduations at the church. The plaintiffs' legal fees would be partially reimbursed, reportedly up to $500,000, by the Connecticut Interlocal Risk Management Agency (CIRMA), the Board of Education's insurance provider.

Prior to the vote, which took place at the conclusion of a two and a half hour special meeting, audience participants and board members expressed divided opinions as to whether to accept the proposal.

Former school board members Lynn Scull, Bill Thomson and Judy Apruzzese-Desroches spoke in favor of settling.

"Our mistake was in continuing to go there, and in pursuing the suit," said Apruzzese-Desroches, who consistently voted against holding the ceremonies  at the venue while serving on the board. "Where it's held should not be the issue; that it's held is what's important."

Board Vice Chairman Vinny Grady, who made the original motion to accept the settlement following a tumultuous on July 10, said via conference call, "I would like to end this tonight. We are voted in as nine members to make responsible fiscal decisions."

Board members Joyce Hall, who also participated via telephone while away on vacation, and Jennifer Rancourt said the majority of emails they had received in recent days indicated support for the settlement.

"I believe in fiscal responsibility, and I feel going forward with this is irresponsible," board member Tina LeBlanc said.

Several others expressed opposing viewpoints, referring to the plaintiffs as "bullies".

"I am a taxpayer, and if it costs me a little more I'm okay with that, but at least I'm standing up for principle," resident John Unghire said.

Board member Kevin Fealy said, "Because the past boards did not keep their word, I am not bound to right their faults. Deep pockets with nothing to lose have the opportunity to push us into a corner. It sets a bad precedent in my house to succumb to it."

Attorney Tom Gerard, representing CIRMA, said, "The insurance carrier has the contract right to make a settlement."

In response, board member Chuck Johnson said, "We have not gone to trial yet. We have a temporary injunction against us, and to me, it's premature for the insurance company to do this to us. It's a heinous way of dealing with a customer."

After considerable debate, the board voted 6-3 in favor of settling. Johnson, Fealy and Peter Jonaitis were opposed.

"I am disappointed in the 6-3 vote that took place, but I am happy that we finally got this before the public, so people who attended tonight's meeting and people who watched it on TV have a better understanding of some of the things that we went through behind closed doors," Jonaitis said after the meeting. "We had to use a parliamentary procedure to get this before the public. I wish we had done this earlier, when people were still in town. It was a bad time of the year. I'm really upset with the insurance company; I feel like they're the ones who are causing us to do something that we think is important to do on principle."

Board Chairman Tim Neville said, "It was an emotional discussion. People had strong views on either side, but I think the will of the board was to make this decision in the best interest of the system and the kids. I'm pleased we had an open session, and I think ultimately the decision we made was the right one."

Lin Chojnicki July 19, 2012 at 10:45 AM
"Our mistake was in continuing to go there, and in pursuing the suit," said Apruzzese-Desroches, Ain't that the truth!
Pat Droney July 19, 2012 at 11:33 AM
In some places this is called extortion.
Olive3 July 19, 2012 at 12:05 PM
Nice place or not, this was the absolute right decision on this matter. Money was saved and we can put it in the past. Moving forward, we will be down to only one high school and the school board should be focusing on educating our students for the future. This also includes the job shortages projected in the vocational area. Electricians, plumbing, heating, air, mechanics, machinists, welding, carpentry, landscape, brick work, etc.. We need to offer students who aren't college bound or who have the finances for college an alternative for their future. Fermi would be the perfect place. It would be a high school that students would be drawn to want to attend.
Lin Chojnicki July 19, 2012 at 12:18 PM
... time to move on, Pat ..........
janet July 19, 2012 at 12:27 PM
Sorry but I agree with Pat, the ACLU does not care about the rights of the citizens it is supposed to defend. They look for the deep pockets and go after it. The do whatever is best for themselves. How about the rights of the other 98% of the students. The ball fields are way too hot and buggy and now we have to have 10 ambulances on hand incase of heat stroke victims. I am young and I thought I was going to pass out this year.
Mary Ann Turner July 19, 2012 at 12:37 PM
You can't go into a legal battle knowing that BOE will change and people will lose the stomach for the fight. This was a true case of "slip and fall" - where the insurance company doesn't want to "mess" with it anymore. The only good thing - was finally - it came out of "executive session" and the public got to participate. Bad thing - they held this "emergency" meeting in the middle of vacation week. This is one bitter pill to swallow.
Bob Fahey July 19, 2012 at 12:42 PM
glad the graduations are back on school grounds where they belong ... Good decision by the members ..Thank you !!
Jim July 19, 2012 at 01:26 PM
I wonder who will be the next to sue the town of Enfield BOE once the word gets out they wont put up any fight, they will just settle. I wonder who will crawl out of the woodwork next loking for some easy money. I want to thank those of you who voted "not" to except this deal. Mr. Droney is right, this sure seems like extortion. I will laugh if the aclu loses the Elmbrook case and it is found that Enfield may have won this and they gave away a half million dollars just to tkae the easy way out. You taught the kids of Enfield a great lesson here, when things get tough, don't stand up for yourself, go run and hide and take the easy way out. Give in to the thugs.
kathy marine July 19, 2012 at 01:30 PM
I agree with u Bob they should have never gone to another venue. It has been tradition for seems like forever that graduations are held at the schools. Its bad enough that the kids have to choose who goes if graduation is held inside because of space but to be made to have a graduation somewhere else is just wrong.
B A Dragon July 19, 2012 at 02:49 PM
They were WRONG to have graduation in a religious institution and WRONG to refuse to change it when it was challenged. Time now to pay the fine and get on with education. Fortunately we do not (yet) live in a theocracy.
BigTitan July 19, 2012 at 02:56 PM
Regardless of one's feelings about the ACLU or the BOE or the venue that started this whole thing one thing is for certain, the graduations are now being held EXACTLY where they should have been all along. And yeah, it was hot on the fields but those temperatures that we experienced are the exception, not the rule. I graduated from highschool, college and graduate school (all during better ecomnomic times) and yet I was out on a field of some sort each and every time and had rain, heat or a combination of both. None of my classmates or relatives melted or died, and from what I recall we all had a wonderful time celebrating our accomplishments. Seems like a sad trivialization of a milestone when all the focus is on venue rather than the things that actually matter...Hopefully Enfield gets back to the basics before my little one is that old....
Bluephantom Inc. July 19, 2012 at 03:39 PM
1.) The ACLU bullied the Enfield BOE for half a million dollars. 2.) Vinny Grady and certain BOE members should be ashamed of how they dealt with the entire situation, from closed doors meeting, to allowing emotions to get the better of them. 3.) The BOE has every right to hold the graduation ceremonies as they see fit, and no matter where they choose, people will argue. Case in point (XL Center = high cost for venue and participates pay to park; Banquet Halls = high cost; Mass Mutual Center/Springfield Symphony Hall = out of state, high cost for venue and participates pay to park). So, why not keep it at the high school? It goes well beyond the fields. Those who attended this year’s graduation ceremony can tell you that the weather was not accomidating, and to predict good weather is impossible. So therefore, have it inside…but now the students complain because they are only allowed so many tickets per student, and, the A\C is not made to accommodate over 1,000 individuals in the gym. In Bloomfield, students had unlimited access to invitees, free parking, air conditioning and cover from the harsh weather. They covered any religious symbols, and at no time, that I am aware of, handed out religious materials.
Gina Perillo Sullivan July 19, 2012 at 03:47 PM
What I thought was most disappointing was the decorum of some of the BOE members during the meeting. It was embarrassing to watch. If some of the BOE members have disdain for for others, keep it behind closed doors and do not make it a show for the public.
Lin Chojnicki July 19, 2012 at 04:54 PM
How can a few still not comprehend the Town of Enfield/BOE was essentially "bullying" those students & their families who didn't feel comfortable attending a public school graduation in a church? While 5 may have filed suit, its clear from comments far more people in this town that didn't approve of this location, from day one. There wouldn't have been a lawsuit had the Town/BOE done the wise thing and chose a non-religious venue as soon as objections were raised. The plaintiffs weren't bullies. The Town was. Had the Town "won", can just imagine all the gloating some would do. But the Town "lost", so its time to stop acting like sore losers. Time to pay up, and move on. For the record, I attended Fermi'12 graduation - was down on the synthetic field with all the others who came to the school grounds to celebrate the seniors' accomplishment. Was a very happy crowd. Yes, it was hot, but heck, it was the end of June!!! Also attended a ceremony in Cathedral - w/its huge cross out front - parking was a pain, plus it was a much longer ride to, and from Bloomfield. Once inside, it was clearly a church. Banners and "quotations" were everywhere. They made no attempt to cover up religious symbols, as previously reported. One thing is very clear from this brouhaha - elected officials, and folks in general, need to learn to "disagree agreeably". Should be no name calling permitted. Everyone has a right to their opinion, & should feel safe when expressing it.
Doug McComas July 19, 2012 at 05:54 PM
Lin, Move on....I think not. The Super of BOE should be fired. I bet you find these same families out CHRISTmas shopping in December. Heads should roll. ACLU ... a bunch of greedy lawyers
Joe Saxton July 20, 2012 at 12:35 AM
Good, someone is looking out for the taxpayers and school budget. If you want to make a point with the ACLU do it on your own dime.
Charlotte July 20, 2012 at 02:16 AM
And I bet they have no trouble spending that money "IN GOD WE TRUST"
Olive3 July 20, 2012 at 02:20 AM
Why haven't officials thought to have the graduations under a big tent on the town green? Close off No. Main St. like the 4th Celebration and it would provide a safe place with enough parking and space for all. The graduating classes/class would be seen by the whole town to be proud!
janet July 20, 2012 at 10:34 AM
Good point Charlotte, perhaps we should pay them in Monopoly money since "In God We Trust" does not appear!!
Lin Chojnicki July 20, 2012 at 11:28 AM
.... if haven't already done so, this is well worth the read http://enfield.patch.com/articles/kiner-s-korner-donna-szewczak-the-voice-of-reason-and-fiscal-restraint
Pat Droney July 20, 2012 at 12:41 PM
Where exactly is the parking you're talking about? There is little parking adjacent to the Town Green, which is why the 4th of July has a shuttle bus from the Square. You're talking about adding thousands of dollars to the event for additional security. If it's going to be held in Enfield, having it at the schools makes the most sense.
Jim Dodd July 20, 2012 at 10:02 PM
Imagine that, the ACLU backed the BOE into a corner and CIRMA threw in the towel. Well why are you surprised? The schools don't teach Civics and Constitutional Law instead they boil it down to "Social Studies" Maybe if they taught the basics of our Constitution the ones who brought upon this lawsuit would realize it has no base. In fact the meaning of Separation of State and Church is that the government cannot dictate that its people must practice one religion over another. That does not mean that the use of a religious building or land can not be used for a public function. If the church required all attendees to say a prayer that that would be another story, then you have the grounds. Not to just use the building to host an event does not violate the separation of church and state. This whole thing is as absurd as restricting all public vehicles such as public works, police etc from being parked on the property of OLA or the congregational church as an affiliation of church and state. God (yes God) forbid they are parked in the front when one of these plaintiffs drive by. They could say the town is promoting that religion. The fact is this was a waist of time resources and our tax dolors and just amplifies the ridiculous behavior of the "It's all about me" population today. Think about this. If the founding fathers of this country didn't make decisions based on their religious beliefs, this country wouldn't exist, and you wouldn't have a lawsuit to peruse.
Laurie August 03, 2012 at 03:08 PM
I agree with you Jim. I, along with other parents who have kids in High School are very disappointed with this outcome.

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