Former UPrep principal sues Warren for defamation

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We live in a time when an accusation of wrongdoing can spread widely and quickly. And a time when the remnants of an accusation—whether it ultimately is judged to be true or false—can live on in a pseudo-permanent state online.

A notable local lawsuit will soon deal with the issue of how careful people need to be in making sure that their public accusations offer an accurate depiction of what happened. The suit stems from an incident that made national—and even international—news last summer. This headline from CBS News was typical of how most outlets summarized the incident: “Principal refuses to allow first black valedictorian to give speech, so Rochester mayor intervenes.”

That valedictorian was Jaisaan Lovett, and he had just graduated from the University Preparatory Charter School for Young Men (UPrep). Joseph Munno was the principal of that charter school. Munno had a long history in Rochester education circles. He had graduated from Rochester schools himself before embarking on a 37-year career in the Rochester City School District. He rose to become principal of John Marshall High School before retiring from RCSD in 2007. Munno then came out of retirement in 2010 to found and lead the all-boys charter school.

By all outside measures, UPrep was doing good work. In February 2018, its state authorizer—the SUNY Charter Schools Institute—issued a highly positive report recommending that the school be renewed for another charter term. The report indicated that about 79 percent of UPrep students are African American, with another 12 percent being Hispanic. Also, 97.7 percent of UPrep students qualified for free lunches based on their family’s economic circumstances.

Despite the socioeconomic challenges faced by its student body, the report noted that UPrep “has posted four-year graduation rates exceeding 92% for all three years in the Accountability Period,” with “77% of the most recent graduating class currently enrolled at a college or university.” These numbers are in stark contrast to graduation and college readiness numbers achieved by the RCSD. As noted in the state report: “UPrep Young Men is relentless in ensuring its students graduate its program rather than drop out from high school.”

Lovett himself has indicated that he does not believe that his issues with Munno are related to racism, saying: “I know we have our disagreements but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was a racial thing.”

In an interview with local radio station WDKX shortly after the incident, Munno indicated that Lovett had told a member of the school’s leadership that he did not wish to give a valedictorian speech, and only changed his mind “10 minutes before the graduation was going to start,” when it was too late to let Lovett speak. Munno also indicated how hurt he was at the numerous accusations that he was a racist. “It was only two years ago that the mayor was the keynote speaker at my graduation,” he said, further stating that “I don’t deserve that. I’ve dedicated my whole life to this community—46 years I’ve been working with students in the city.”

The lawsuit, filed by Munno last week against the City of Rochester and Mayor Lovely Warren personally, alleges that the mayor’s “actions were politically motivated convoluting a situation so she could utilize the ugliness of race baiting to grab international media attention.”

After Lovett was not able to speak at the UPrep graduation, Warren let him give his speech at City Hall and posted it on the city’s YouTube channel. In her introduction of Lovett, the mayor said: “For some reason, his school—in a country where freedom of speech is a constitutional right, and the city of Frederick Douglass—turned his moment of triumph into a time of sorrow and pain.”

Later in the video (see beginning 4:47), Lovett says: “To Mr. Munno, my principal, it’s a whole lot of things that I wanted to say to you for a long time. As a matter of fact, I wasn’t going to give this speech at all. … And I’m here as the UPrep 2018 valedictorian to tell you that you couldn’t break me.” That middle part of the quote—that Lovett “wasn’t going to give this speech at all”—may be evidence corroborating that Lovett really had told UPrep officials that he wasn’t planning to give a speech.

After Warren let Lovett give his speech at City Hall, the story (predictably) went viral. Soon after, Munno resigned from the charter school he had founded (though he now states that he was forced to resign over the racially-tinged controversy).

Should Warren and her colleagues have investigated the situation more thoroughly before giving Lovett a platform and consequently damaging the reputation of both Munno and UPrep? Should Munno’s 46 years of service as a seemingly successful local educator have bought him some benefit of the doubt—or at least some caution—from the mayor?

A local jury may soon determine the answers. And in this age of social media and daily scandals, it is especially important to get these answers right.

4 thoughts on “Former UPrep principal sues Warren for defamation

  1. Very well stated Alex. I’ve known Joe Munno as a colleague. He cared more for his students than anyone I’ve ever known. I know the true story.
    We lost a great educator and Edison lost a great young principal, Walter Larkin, who replaces Joe. I’ve been a victim of this kind of accusation as well. My accuser never spoke to me just as the Mayor never spoke to Joe. Easy to accuse.

  2. Mr muno is far from a raciest over4 years ago i went to him as a concerned parent my son was heading down the wrong path he took him into the school despite the waiting list and im blessed for thst he is a blessing my son graduated this year from UPREP with a full scholarship to college without Mr muno my son would have become a statistic

  3. It is very difficult to win a libel suit. When you gather your evidence, it must be focused on meeting all elements of a defamation claim. This is sometimes called establishing a “prima facie” case. Though each state has its own particular requirements as to what constitutes defamation, generally all of the following elements must be satisfied:

    publication (to someone other than the person who brought the case)
    of a false statement
    of fact (rather than opinion)
    that injures the reputation of the person being defamed (“plaintiff”), and
    is not privileged.
    Burden Of Proof. The law requires that these elements be established in a manner that meets the burden of proof. The burden of proof in a civil lawsuit is usually “by a preponderance of the evidence” (i.e., greater than 50% chance that the proposition is true).

  4. Note that the name, Munno contains the word NO!
    No educator, no matter how accomplished is above criticism, not even Mr. Munno.
    ————————————————————————————————–
    I think the problem with schools has a lot to do with educators, who see themselves as above criticism. Note that the very word, TEACH, contains the same letters as the word, CHEAT. Yes, teachers can be cheaters, if they do not listen to criticism, if they do not wish to take responsibility to improve.

    I am not aware of what has been happening at UPrep, but I hope that Joseph Munno will reflect on his own shortcomings. I hope he will learn to be more humble. His students had to put up with discouragement and failure. Why can’t he put up with it, himself?

    Finally, let me again, suggest watching the YouTube video “ALTERNATIVE MATH”, on school foolishness” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zh3Yz3PiXZw&t=254s

    Good luck to Joe Munno and to Jaisaan Lovett.
    I hope the new RCSD, Superintendent, Terry Dade, will learn from UPrep, as a new school year, begins, in September…

    Harry Pearle, Ph.D. http://www.SavingSchools.org

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