Details Revealed in Charges Against HMX Counselor

by Judy Silberstein

(October 30, 2008) A year after two Hommocks counselors, Elizabeth Denhoff and Haruko Hirose, were removed from their regular posts and administratively reassigned to stay home, the two have begun working from separate district offices on tasks characterized by district spokesperson Debbie Manetta as “related to their tenure area.” (See: Two HMX Guidance Counselors Administratively Reassigned.)

Neither the district nor the counselors would comment on the allegations. Ms. Manetta reiterated the position stated last year, that there are strict limits on what the district can make public in a personnel matter that is under review.

However, allegations against Ms. Denhoff have come out this week after the Journal News reported on a petition filed by her attorney last April with the NY State education commissioner. The petition lists charges of 20 separate violations of misconduct or neglect against Ms. Denhoff, including, according to the Journal News, that she “belittled and threatened subordinates, rolled her eyes and sighed at them, referred to them as stupid, morons and incompetent. The district also said she overly criticized a subordinate guidance counselor’s work and directed a subordinate counselor to give Denhoff her office chair, in addition to other charges.”

The most serious charge described by the Journal News is an allegation that Ms. Denhoff “trapped a less senior guidance counselor in an office while berating, harassing and/or threatening her for approximately one hour.”

Ms.Hirose declined to comment at this time and there was no information on whether the charges were the same or different for her.

Ms. Denhoff did speak briefly with the Gazette on Wednesday, October 29, explaining that there are limits on what she can discuss.

“I am not being able to have access to my children’s educational experience,” said Ms. Denhoff. Except for back to school night at Mamaroneck High School, where her two children attend, and for her assigned office, “I can’t go on school property,” she said.

Roger Denhoff, the counselor’s husband, was banned from school grounds pending the resolution of criminal charges that he made harassing telephone calls to a young counselor and to the principal of the Hommocks. Court hearings scheduled for earlier this week in Mamaroneck Town and Larchmont Village were both postponed until late November. (See: Husband of HMX Counselor Arrested for Harassment.) According to the petition, as described by the Journal News, the same total ban was applied to Elizabeth Denhoff, “without notice or explanation.”

Asked why the counselors had been assigned to home last year, Ms. Manetta said she was unable to comment on the specifics of the case. However, she did explain that “the school district takes the action of reassigning someone to home when a person’s presence would prevent the district from going forward with the investigation, or is detrimental to the operation of the organization and also as a protection of the person so no one could accuse them of tampering with the investigation.”

As for Ms. Denhoff’s current assignment, which is in an office in the bus garage across from Mamaroneck Avenue School, “I’m sitting in the bus depot doing nothing everyday from 8 to 4,” she said. Until October 6, she had been at home, also “doing nothing.” The office, which she said smelled of fumes from the numerous buses parked in the garage, is also used by the district’s director of transportation.

“We assigned her an office where we had space,” said Ms. Manetta, “We would never put anyone in an environment that we didn’t think was safe."

Ms. Hirose has a desk in the office of student support services. “There are a number of different assignments that are planned for them,” said Ms. Manetta. These include “researching guidance best practices, researching curriculum-based initiatives on topics such as bullying, drugs and alcohol, and helping organize guidance materials that are sent out to parents and students.”

Meanwhile, both women are continuing to receive their salaries, approximately $87,000, along with full benefits and raises that applied to all other counselors this year. The district hired replacements to handle their counseling caseloads at the Hommocks. The district is also continuing to incur related legal costs. This week the Gazette filed requests for exact expense figures under the Freedom of Information law; the district will respond by November 26.

Ms. Denhoff said she is continuing to get support from colleagues and students, but she had no comment on support from the Mamaroneck Teachers Association. Ann Borsellino, president of the MTA, said once the district files charges, the attorneys take over and “we take a step back, unless it’s a pay issue. We support [the two counselors] and hope a favorable end comes of this.”

How was Ms. Denhoff holding up? “Best as can be expected,” she said. As to next steps, “I have no idea at this point,” she concluded.

Ms. Manetta could only say that the case was “ongoing.”