ADVERTISEMENT

It begins with the rape of a 15-year-old girl in the home of a prominent member of the community.

A judge intercedes on behalf of the rape victim and is later admonished by his superiors for overstepping his authority.

After that, secret tapes are made of closed-door school board meetings.

A mysterious blogger spouts angry opinions on the Internet.

Next, there are accusations of blackmail and of a major cover-up of drug activity among high school students.

Vengeance, threats, lawsuits and finger-pointing.

This may sound like the plot to a sleazy novel or TV soap opera, but they are elements of a drama unfolding in the Hamburg Central School District.

In recent months, the people involved have essentially settled into two camps.

One is headed by Sally Stephenson, a veteran of Hamburg politics who is now vice president of the School Board.

The other camp is composed of her critics, who accuse Stephenson of joining the School Board to carry out a vendetta against the district because one of her daughters was fired from a Hamburg teaching job.

Stephenson said she sought and won election to the School Board so she can fight for quality education. She said she also wants to shine a spotlight on some of the district's problems, including what she calls a “huge” student drug problem that school administrators and Hamburg police are covering up.

The other camp is led by attorney Daniel J. Chiacchia and businessman Edward Piazza. They head a group of taxpayers and parents trying to get the state Education Department to investigate Hamburg Schools and have Stephenson and two of her allies thrown off the School Board.

Chiacchia's critics claim that he, too, is driven by vengeance, after a state judicial panel, acting on a complaint from Stephenson, admonished his law partner for acting improperly on behalf of the teenage rape victim.

The Buffalo News interviewed 42 people for this story, including all of the major players. At least 10 of those interviewed – mostly teachers and parents – spoke only on the condition of anonymity, saying they feared retribution on them or their children from others in more powerful positions. What becomes clear after these interviews is that the resulting turmoil has created a deep rift in this suburb that prides itself on being a safe and quiet community.

Lawsuits, complaints of alleged human rights abuses, heated public debates and calls to the police are all part of the story in this stormy district composed of six schools, nearly 3,800 students and 548 full-time employees.

Some are saying it has to end, but how?

“We've got to stop this war,” School Board President David M. Yoviene pleaded with colleagues during a particularly nasty meeting earlier this month.

There are few signs that a truce is in the works.

The rape

The war in the Hamburg schools can be traced to an underage drinking party nearly five years ago that was held in Holly A. Balaya's home and where a 15-year-old girl was raped.

Balaya, now a School Board member, is one of Sally Stephenson's three daughters.

Balaya said she and her husband went out the night of Jan. 31, 2009 and hired a 19-year-old baby sitter to watch their six children.

When Balaya and her husband returned home around midnight, she said they were upset when they realized her teenage daughter had thrown a party for friends. But she said she didn't find empty beer cans until the next morning.

“There were 15 kids in my daughter's room when we got home. They were playing video games,” Balaya said.

Rather than sending the teens home at such a late hour, she said she and her husband allowed them to stay overnight at their home on Pierce Avenue.

Early on the morning of Feb. 1, while Balaya and her husband were downstairs, watching television reruns of the “General Hospital” soap opera, a 15-year-old friend of their daughter was offered drugs and then raped in an upstairs bedroom, according to police.

Clarence Justice, Balaya's 35-year-old brother-in-law at the time, was later charged and convicted of the rape. Justice was living with the Balayas at the time because his marriage to Balaya's sister, Courtney Stephenson Justice, was breaking up.

The victim, a student at Hamburg High School, said she told some of her friends – including Balaya's daughter – about the rape that morning. But she did not report it to police until a day later, after school officials caught her with drugs at the high school.

Police said they and Erie County prosecutors did not charge Justice with rape until four months later, after waiting for results of DNA tests that found traces of Justice's semen on the victim's underwear.

Justice refused to submit to any questions from police, refused to voluntarily give blood or DNA samples and refused to take a plea deal.

The trial

With support from Holly Balaya and other family members, Justice insisted on going to trial and making the teenager take the witness stand.

“Even after this overwhelming DNA evidence came in, Clarence Justice and his family decided to put our daughter through the ordeal of a trial,” the victim's mother told The News in an interview. “I think that's disgusting.”

She said her daughter had to take a nauseating cocktail of AIDS-fighting drugs for a week after the rape because of Justice's refusal to voluntarily give a blood sample. Authorities later obtained a DNA sample from him.

And when the case went to a jury trial in July 2010, members and friends of the Stephenson family repeatedly harassed her, the rape victim told The News.

The victim, now a college student, said members and friends of the Stephenson family “sat right in the middle of the front row, staring me down,” and State Supreme Court Judge John L. Michalski directed them to move to a different part of the courtroom.

During a break in the trial, the rape victim said, two Stephenson daughters, Lindsey and Courtney, sat right next to her in a hallway, even though plenty of other seats were available.

“The prosecutor asked them to move, and they refused,” the victim's father recalled. “They only moved after the prosecutor threatened to go and get a court deputy.”

And after the jury convicted Justice of felony rape and a felony criminal sex act, Martha Kavanaugh, a Hamburg teacher and close friend of the Stephensons, glared at her in the courtroom, twice mouthed the word “LIAR” and then flashed her middle finger at her, the victim told The News.

Members of the Stephenson family, Kavanaugh and Kavanaugh's attorney vehemently denied those allegations in interviews with The News.

“That is a preposterous allegation. It didn't happen,” attorney Robert L. Boreanaz said. “If the allegation had any credibility, the district attorney's office would have taken some action. They have not and never did.”

When an attorney for the victim raised the allegation, Boreanaz said, he reviewed the court transcripts and found no evidence of intimidation. He also said he reviewed a videotape of the hallway outside the courtroom.

“The DA's office had access to all of this as well. If the DA thought there was any credibility to one of their witnesses being intimidated, I have no doubt they would have taken action, but they didn't take any action whatsoever,” Boreanaz said.

Court officials told The News that the videotape from the hall no longer exists, as the tapes are routinely erased after a few months.

But Kavanaugh, Balaya and Sally Stephenson said – despite the DNA evidence – they are convinced that Justice is innocent and wrongly convicted. Kavanaugh called the trial “a farce.”

“As I sit here today,” Balaya said, “I absolutely do not think he did this.”

Capt. Michael Melisz of the Hamburg village police disagreed, saying the DNA evidence found in the victim's underpants showed that the probability that Justice had sex with the 15-year-old was “about a billion to one.”

Even if Justice claimed the sex was consensual – and Justice made no such claim, because he never gave any statement and never testified – it would still be rape, because the legal age of consent in New York is 17, Melisz said.

The village judge

In the early stages of the rape case, Justice was arraigned before Andrew P. Fleming, the village of Hamburg's part-time judge, and the case was soon after referred to State Supreme Court.

Fleming is a longtime friend of the rape victim's family.

So after the rape case was transferred to state court, Fleming – as part of his private law practice – acted on behalf of the rape victim and her family.

He spoke several times in 2010 with a prosecutor, Judge John L. Michalski and the victim's family about the alleged harassment of the rape victim, according to the state Commission on Judicial Conduct.

And soon after the trial, in late July 2010, Fleming sent a letter to Lindsey Stephenson and Martha Kavanaugh, stating that he represented the victim's family and threatened a lawsuit.

In the letter, Fleming demanded that Kavanaugh, Lindsey Stephenson and others associated with the Stephenson family “cease and desist” any further harassment of the victim. Fleming also sent a copy of the letter to Hamburg School District officials.

Sally Stephenson said she is convinced that the judge's letter is the reason her daughter was fired from her teaching job in late 2010.

Earlier this year, Stephenson filed a complaint against Fleming with the state judicial commission. Lindsey Stephenson and Kavanaugh also sued him and his law partner Chiacchia in 2011, claiming the attorneys had slandered them in his letter.

After an investigation, the judicial commission in September admonished Fleming. Admonishment is the least severe punitive action the commission can take against a judge.

Even if Fleming was “motivated by a sincere desire to help the young victim of a crime,” ethical regulations prevented him from acting as the girl's advocate as an attorney, the commission said. The commission noted that Fleming received no money from the rape victim's family and that he has “acknowledged the impropriety of his conduct” and promised to avoid such situations in the future.

“I made the complaint against Andy Fleming. Chiacchia blames me for his admonishment,” Sally Stephenson told The News. “That's why Chiacchia is going after me now.”

That is not true, Chiacchia said.

He said he got involved in the fight against Stephenson and her allies because Stephenson “has a personal vendetta” against the district and has been flooding the district with lawsuits, complaints and freedom of information requests.

Fleming said it would be inappropriate for him to comment on the situation because he is a judge.

Last week, Stephenson said she recently filed a second complaint against Fleming with the judicial commission, regarding another aspect of his involvement in the district.

As for the rape victim and her parents, they said they were upset when Fleming was admonished.

“These people put my daughter through hell, and all Andy Fleming did was stand up for her as a decent human being,” the victim's father said. “Andy did the right thing and got punished for it.”

The firing

Lindsey Stephenson is a graduate of Columbia University and the University of Michigan, and she served on the school district curriculum commission in Manatee County, Fla.

After finishing her first probationary year as a teacher at Hamburg, she was fired.

She was accused of going into Kavanaugh's economics class in June 2010 and berating the students while defending Kavanaugh's academic integrity and the second-quarter grades Kavanaugh had given them. Students and their parents had complained about the grades and the principal had raised them – against Kavanaugh's objections. Kavanaugh was removed from teaching the class soon after the grading incident.

Lindsey Stephenson in the spring of 2010 had received a notice that she would be laid off, one of about a dozen teachers losing their jobs in a cost-cutting move.

But during the summer, following her brother-in-law's rape trial, she received from Fleming the “cease and desist” letter concerning the rape victim. The letter was dated July 27, 2010, and Fleming also sent a copy to a school board member.

A day later, July 28, district officials notified her that she would be fired instead of laid off.

The school board discussed her dismissal during a closed executive session on Sept. 21, 2010, and then fired her during the open meeting that night.

Stephenson appealed to state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. The appeal was dismissed because it was not filed on time.

But in his dismissal, King noted the district's concern over her speaking to Kavanaugh's class.

“Generally, a board of education has the unfettered right to terminate a probationary teacher ... for any reason,” he wrote in his decision, unless she was fired for a constitutionally impermissible reason or in violation of the law.

Secret tape

After Lindsey Stephenson was fired, a tape recording of the executive session from the Sept. 21, 2010 school board discussing her dismissal was distributed widely in the district.

The copies were delivered anonymously to several community members, and no one claims credit for it.

Sally Stephenson, who was not a member of the school board at that time, said the tape mysteriously appeared in her mail box Sept. 22, 2010, the day after the executive meeting.

Soon after, others reported they, too, had received a recording under similar circumstances.

On the tape, board members are heard discussing “what Andy Fleming did” and the incident of Lindsey Stephenson addressing Kavanaugh's class in June.

Sally Stephenson and her supporters say the secret conversation proves her daughter was wrongfully fired.

The previous Hamburg School Board and several current and former staff and board members have sued Sally and Lindsey Stephenson and Kavanaugh, claiming they are responsible for the secret taping of the executive session and distribution of the recording.

The three women deny they taped the meeting, and when the new School Board majority was elected earlier this year, it voted to discontinue the district's involvement in the lawsuit.

Elections

Holly Balaya was elected to the Hamburg School Board in 2011, after the conviction of her brother-in-law and after her sister was fired.

Her mother, Sally Stephenson, was elected in 2012. And together, they formed a bloc of two.

But control of the seven-member School Board flipped dramatically this year with the election of David Yoviene, Catherine Schrauth Forcucci and Laura Heeter.

The newly elected board members plus Stephenson and Balaya made dramatic decisions in their first meeting in July.

All five voted to hire a new lawyer for the school district and to remove the district from the lawsuit against Sally and Lindsey Stephenson and Kavanaugh. Four - a majority - voted to place the outgoing superintendent on administrative leave until his retirement.

The bloc has splintered since then, with Schrauth Forcucci remaining steadfast in voting with Stephenson, while Yoviene and Heeter have not.

Control of the board is important, because the board is expected to appoint a new superintendent in March.

Chiacchia last week made a formal appeal to the state education commissioner to remove Stephenson and Balaya for conflict of interest. Should one of them be removed or replaced, control of the board could flip again.

Allegations of cover-up

During an interview of more than five hours with The News, Balaya, Stephenson, Kavanaugh and Schrauth Forcucci repeatedly claimed a major drug problem exists in the Hamburg Middle and High schools.

They claimed that the district has done little to attack the problems and also claimed that police and school administrators are covering up the problem.

According to Kavanaugh, she and several other teachers in recent years have been transferred to other schools, or punished in other ways, after they claimed the district wasn't doing enough about drugs.

“I've told the administrators for years that there's a drug problem at Hamburg High School. They refused to do anything about it, and the police did nothing about it,” Balaya said.

Balaya and Stevenson said several incidents involving students possessing drugs have been covered up.

Acting Superintendent Richard E. Jetter acknowledged drug incidents in the schools, but he denied that they are covered up.

He also maintained that Hamburg's drug problems are no worse than in other local school districts. He noted that the district sponsored a drug information session for parents Nov. 13.

Melisz, the Hamburg police captain, said the cover-up claim “doesn't sound legitimate to me,” adding that Hamburg officers do not cover up drug incidents in the schools.

In response to a freedom of information request from The News, he provided reports on eight drug incidents involving high school students dating to 2010.

Five of the incidents involved students caught smoking pot on school buses, in restrooms, locker rooms or outside the high school.

Claims of intimidation

Martha Kavanaugh has become a lightning rod for much of the controversy in the Hamburg schools.

Her trouble with the district started with the allegations of harassment at the rape trial, according to her attorney, Boreanaz.

“From that point, Martha has been diligent to try and defend her record of being an outstanding educator,” he said, adding that “challenging people's outlandish claims are defensive acts, not acts of threats or intimidation.”

But five people – teachers, parents and a former student – told The News that Kavanaugh intimidates them and they or their colleagues are afraid to stand up to her.

Those who have done so have received nasty emails and been stared at by Kavanaugh as they move through the school, they said. Or they are the subject of internal charges of harassment.

Since 2010, Kavanaugh has filed 17 grievances and nine harassment complaints against the district, including four complaints with the state Division of Human Rights. Some complaints are about staff members, others refer to parents and students.

Several of Kavanaugh's complaints are pending, several were not pursued beyond the building level and some were withdrawn. So far only one of her complaints has been resolved in her favor, according to district officials.

“I've watched my colleagues go through hell and back,” one teacher said of their dealings with Kavanaugh. “I'm scared to death to have my life tied up in knots.”

“We've gone to the union, and they said it's something the district has to do. We've gone to the district, and they said it's something the union has to do,” another teacher said.

One teacher told The News she thought Kavanaugh was being treated unfairly.

One mother, who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution, said that a school official warned her that the district could not guarantee that her daughter wouldn't be bullied by Kavanaugh after her child posted on a Buffalo News story a comment referring to Kavanaugh.

“My hope and prayer is that nobody else gets a call,” the mother said.

The Stephenson family and supporters of Kavanaugh are outraged a district official would make such an accusation. They said this and other false allegations are part of a vicious, systematic attempt to ruin Kavanaugh's reputation and livelihood for speaking out.

They also said she has been harassed and threatened.

Kavanaugh has been out on sick leave since Oct. 17, due to stress, she said.

The parents' group

The parents group got started this fall as the controversy swirling in Hamburg appeared to grow.

So far, the group has held three public meetings: Oct. 3 at the Erie 1 BOCES offices in West Seneca, Oct. 17 at the Hamburg Fairgrounds, and Nov. 12 in a church hall in Boston, which is part of the district.

Ed Piazza is one of five parents and taxpayers who founded the group, known as Hamburg Education Information.

Piazza and other members said their goal is to improve education in the district.

“If decisions in the district were being made properly and ethically, there would be no need for this group,” said Christina Whipple, vice president of the district's Parent Teacher Student Association.

More than 200 people showed up at the group's most recent meeting, Nov. 12. Leaders of the group accused Stephenson, Balaya and Schrauth Forcucci of several violations of district policies and the code of ethics. They demanded the resignations of the three.

While that is an unusually large number of people for such a community meeting, critics of the parents' group point out that the vast majority of district taxpayers did not attend. About 28,000 people live in the school district.

Balaya accuses Chiacchia, the parents' group most vocal member, of carrying out a vendetta against her family and trying to blackmail her.

According to Balaya, Chiacchia sent her a series of text messages on Oct. 16, threatening that he would publicly expose the facts of the Clarence Justice rape case if she could not get her mother to resign from the School Board. She said Chiacchia also demanded that Lindsey Stephenson and Kavanaugh drop a lawsuit they have pending against Chiacchia and his law partner Fleming.

“He said he was going to bring up the rape in public if I did not broker that deal,” Balaya said.

She characterized Chiacchia's actions as “bribery ... coercion ... blackmail.”

Her mother did not resign nor drop her suit. And Chiacchia talked in detail about the rape case the next night, on Oct. 17, at a public meeting of the parents' group at the Grange building on the Erie County Fairgrounds.

During an interview, Chiacchia did not dispute the series of text messages with Balaya, but he said the texts were part of many long discussions he has had with Balaya.

“These were negotiations, not blackmail,” Chiacchia said.

But Chiacchia makes no secret of his dislike for Stephenson.

“They keep saying this is a witch hunt,” he said. “We know who the witch is. We have her in our cross hairs.”

The future

Despite all the controversy surrounding the Hamburg School District during the past three years, its students perform well on the state's standardized tests. The district has featured a pre-kindergarten program for 45 years. It has its own emergency medical technician program. The high school has a Finance Academy, where students gain business skills and run their own credit union.

Eighty-six percent of the high school's 2013 graduates said they intended to attend college.

While he said he is proud of the district's accomplishments, Interim Superintendent Jetter admitted that the drama and infighting can be frustrating.

“If I didn't have this layer of chaos, I could go home and have dinner with my family at night,” he said.

And yet the Hamburg School Board has some very important issues on its plate.

Board members are starting work on the budget for the next school year, and they are also cooperating with an audit by the State Comptroller's office.

Last month, the board hired a consultant to help them search for a new superintendent, and some who live in the district worry that all the turmoil will discourage top-notch people from applying.

And during one recent meeting, Hamburg officials discussed a new proposal for allowing some Buffalo Schools students to transfer there next year because of all the problems in the city's public schools.

“Shouldn't we get our house in order first?” one parent asked.

email: bobrien@buffnews.com and dherbeck@buffnews.com