Many in the Wantagh community are rallying on behalf of a beloved school custodian recently fired from the job he loved.
Hundreds packed Thursday night’s Wantagh Board of Education meeting voicing support for part-time custodian Melvin Turner, a 45-year old man with Autism who was let go by the district because of alleged threatening remarks he made about harming school property during an outburst to students in July while walking home. An audio recording of the outburst was handed over to the district officials and in addition to losing his custodial position at , Turner was also not allowed to enter school grounds, which meant keeping him from attending Wantagh sporting events he has always enjoyed being apart of.
Following dozens of speeches urging the school board to reconsider its decision, the trustees met in executive session for more than 30 minutes and decided to allow Turner back on school grounds, leading to thunderous applause. The lifting of this restriction means Turner can attend this Saturday’s big and he arrived in the Auditorium following the executive session to say how thankful he was for the school board’s action.
“I’m very appreciative,” said Turner, who was hired as Wantagh Middle School custodian in July 2007. “I promise I won’t say anything like that again.”
Turner told Patch after the meeting he is excited to be allowed back on district property and his hopeful of being rehired soon to the custodian job.
Turner’s longtime friend and neighbor, Patrick Ryder, said he also hopes Turner can return to working at Wantagh Middle School but added that he understands certain legal protocol needs to be first followed by the district. Ryder said if Turner is unable to be rehired, many others in the community have stepped forward to offer him jobs. He has started a fundraising campaign to help Turner with his bills that people can make donations to online at www.indiegogo.com/mel2012.
Wantagh resident Suzanne Reek, who is president of the Nassau Suffolk Chapter of the Autism Society of America, said during the meeting that she knows an agency called the ACLD that could provide support to Turner should the district offer him a second chance at his custodial job. Michael Cucci, president of the Wantagh school board, asked Reek to meet with him after Thursday’s meeting to see if a solution could be found.
During the public comments portion of Thursday night’s meeting, Ryder and other supporters of Turner argued that the he did not mean what he said to the students during his outburst and is not a threat at all to children in the schools.
“Only Mel can bring all these people into one room,” said Ryder of the large crowd that came out to speak up for his character. “All he wants is his job back.”
“Mel is not a guy you are afraid of,” said Mitch Smith, who coaches baseball in the Wantagh Little League. “This guy is not a danger to society.”
“Mel has always been the one to get me through the day,” said Wantagh High School student Peter Brasile. “If you take this away from him you might as well take away his life because this is all he’s got.”
Cucci read a statement before public comments emphasizing that the school board cannot discuss specific personal matters and is limited in what details can be provided on decisions to terminate employees.
“The board’s primary obligation is to protect the health, safety and welfare of our students and staff,” said Cucci in the prepared statement he read. “In conformity with that obligation, we as a board carefully considered all the facts and circumstances presented, as well as the explanations provided, and the allegations and statements made by the employee. As a result of consideration of all those issues, at the recommendation of the superintendent of schools, the board made the difficult decision it made, and it took the action which it deemed would best protect our students, staff, and included referring the matter to law enforcement authorities.”
Wantagh resident Angela Ruggiero said after the meeting she hopes the situation Turner has endured will be a lesson to the community that bullying needs to be taken seriously.
“As a clearly supportive and united community we should stop pointing fingers, take some accountability and find solutions so that kids don't cause this happen to Mel, or anyone of our friends and neighbors ever again,” she said. “Discipline, manners and respect starts at home.”