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Ex-Latin student seeks 'justice': New Fairfield High grad sues school district for sexual harassment from teacher

For more than a year in her New Fairfield High School Latin class, says Angela Nastasia, her teacher made sexual comments to her. She felt humiliated, but when she and her mother complained to the principal, they were warned the teacher might retaliate. In fact, he increased his verbal abuse and Nastasia dropped out of the class.Those claims are made in a lawsuit to be heard in U.S. District Court in Bridgeport by the beginning of next year.

The allegations are not new. State investigators found others complained of harassment by Latin teacher William Merritt. In response, the school district created a monitoring plan for him.

Nastasia's lawyer, Joshua Friedman, said only the district is named in the suit because his client does not want to hurt Merritt financially and only wants to make sure other girls are protected. However, Merritt could be added to the suit later.

Merritt, contacted by telephone Tuesday, said he had "no comment."

New Fairfield schools superintendent Joseph Castagnola said the district has worked to improve the school climate.

First, the district changed its procedures when handling sexual harassment complaints. If a complaint comes from a staff member about a colleague, the issue is referred to the district's director of human resources. If the complaint comes from a student, it is referred to the district's Title IX coordinator.

Castagnola said the district investigated some complaints of sexual harassment during the past year and continues to investigate two of the complaints He would not identify those involved because of privacy concerns.

"In the spring, we conducted a district-wide in-service training," Castagnola said. "It was not geared just to sexual harassment, but to ensure students and staff were safe, that individuals understood that this is a serious issue everywhere, not just here."

Nastasia's lawsuit alleges the district did not understand the seriousness of the issue when she was a student.

"I just feel Mr. Merritt violated me and I want justice," Nastasia said in a recent telephone interview. She is now a 19-year-old college student and no longer lives in New Fairfield. "He shouldn't get away with what he did to me and other students shouldn't have to go through what I did. It certainly changed me as a person, It affected me in a negative way. It doesn't make any sense that my principal or my superintendent didn't want to help a child. It doesn't make any sense."

Nastasia's lawsuit was filed after her June 2004 graduation. It could go to trial as early as January 2006.

Nastasia's mother, Jan, supports the lawsuit.

"Angela made complaints. On top of her being singled out in class she was made a sexual object in class," Jan Nastasia said. "If you look at the paper trail, you'll see that they were intentionally closing their eyes to what was going on."

Jan Nastasia said Merritt's actions were allowed to continue "way too long. They could have made a bigger effort so my daughter could have avoided the pain and suffering. I don't think any child in this state or any state should experience this at the hands of the school district."

Friedman, the lawyer, said a state investigation found "going back into the 1980s, Merritt was making sexual remarks to his students, and even his fellow teachers had admonished him."

While Nastasia was still in high school, her family filed complaints over the school system's handling of complaints against Merritt with the state Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.

The federal government put the district "on notice of a possibly sexually hostile environment" and found the district should have been aware of Merritt's conduct toward Nastasia since the fall of 2000 and toward other students before the spring of 2000.

State investigators interviewed 12 current or former New Fairfield High students. It reported that six times between 1987 and 2003, Merritt was disciplined or given a notice for behavior or remarks, though not all the remarks were of a sexual nature.

The state's investigation concluded with an agreement in November 2004 that required school officials to monitor Merritt until June 2006, when his teacher's certification will expire. Merritt promised not to apply to teach anywhere again.

Castagnola said the school district has followed through on the monitoring, and the superintendent meets monthly with high school principal Alicia Roy to evaluate the monitoring. Roy was not the principal when Merritt was accused of harassment.

"It's gone very well," Castagnola said. "We haven't deviated from the plan. We have taken this on as part of our responsibility."

He said the district allowed Merritt to continue his responsibilities in the school, like leading the Latin Club, being a class adviser and producing the yearbook.