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Mar 27, 2013 10:42 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Westhampton Beach Parents, Students Offer Differing Opinions Of Arrested Gym Teacher

Mar 27, 2013 12:52 PM

While the rumor mill keeps churning, parents and students remain divided over last week’s arrest of a popular Westhampton Beach Middle School gym teacher and coach accused of surreptitiously filming middle school students in the girls locker room with a cellphone, and how school officials handled the incident.

Thomas Sheppard, 27, of Speonk was arrested on March 20 by State Police at the school district’s administrative office, where he had been assigned since the police investigation began in late February, and charged with a felony count of second-degree unlawful surveillance. Authorities said he used his cellphone to shoot video of girls in the locker room at the school, where he has taught physical education for four years.

Mr. Sheppard, who is suspended with pay and faces up to four years in prison if convicted, was released from custody after posting $25,000 bail on the day of his arrest. His attorney, Rita Bonecelli of the Brill Legal Group in Hauppauge, did not return calls seeking comment.

While he awaits trial, many district parents, like Kim Dunning of East Quogue, said they are having a hard time believing that Mr. Sheppard, a tenured teacher and a graduate of the district, is guilty of such a crime. She said Mr. Sheppard, who is engaged, has taught both of her children—her daughter still attends the middle school, while her son now goes to the high school—and even coached her son in lacrosse.

Ms. Dunning said she knows Mr. Sheppard, who also coaches wrestling, from when he was working with her children, and that is the main reason why she does not believe the accusations. “Not only was he a great coach and a great teacher, but he takes his job very seriously and he is very professional,” she said. “Those are some of the reasons I really don’t believe he is capable of what he is accused of.”

While she believes the district handled the situation as well as could be expected, Ms. Dunning said she still feels terrible for Mr. Sheppard, whose life, even if he is eventually proven innocent, will never be the same.

“It is unfortunate, because I believe he is going to be found innocent, and he is not going to come back to Westhampton Beach—I don’t think he would want to,” she said. “That is a huge loss for everyone. I think it is really unfortunate all around.”

Another parent of a middle school student, Frank Lombardi of East Quogue, said this week that he does not know what to believe, as there are so many rumors circulating regarding what actually happened. Rumors have been rampant, with some suggesting that Mr. Sheppard’s cellphone was stolen, and many people, including students, going out of their way to defend the popular teacher, with some even blaming the victims.

Mr. Lombardi, whose daughter attends the middle school, said he intends to speak with State Police to see if his daughter was one of the girls captured on the video. Beyond that, he said he is leaving it up to the State Police to figure out what really happened.

“My concern as a parent revolves not around the police investigation, but around the school’s policies and procedures that allowed a male gym teacher to be in the [girls’] locker room,” Mr. Lombardi said.

Schools Superintendent Michael Radday, who has declined to comment on the arrest, said Tuesday that administrators are now reviewing district policies, though he would not say which ones. He also refused to say if there is a policy regarding who has access to the boys and girls locker rooms.

Mr. Lombardi, who has visited the middle school several times since the investigation began, said he is worried about the girls who allegedly found the video on Mr. Sheppard’s cellphone. Though the girls have not been identified by police, Mr. Lombardi speculated that some students know who they are and, even if they do not, that has not prevented blatant bullying on social media sites, like Twitter, over the past month.

He said some of the online messages target all girls who attend the middle school. The posts appearing on Twitter, many of which include the hashtag “FreeShep,” range from expressions of disbelief over Mr. Sheppard’s arrest to blatant threats against his accusers. Some of the posts have stated “bitches gon die,” and “at least we won’t be the most hated freshman class ever.”

Mr. Radday said the district is monitoring the social website activity closely and has already had several conversations with specific students, and their parents. He would not say if any of the students have been disciplined or face suspension.

“I can assure you that the district is monitoring social 
media carefully,” Mr. Radday said. “Certainly, our goal 
is to look out for the best interests of all students.”

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WOW!! Suspended without pay, should have had the union that the Eastport South manor teacher had that had 5 dwi's.
By LI native (127), east moriches on Mar 27, 13 10:56 PM
Apologies--due to an editing error (mine, in fact), that was a mistake in print and online. We're fixing it online now and will run a correction next week: He was suspended WITH pay.
By Joseph Shaw, Executive Editor (206), Hampton Bays on Mar 28, 13 12:05 PM
so this means that when the teachers and their union vote no to to pay freezes and step ups, that they only need to lay off 12 teachers?
By LI native (127), east moriches on Mar 27, 13 10:58 PM
1 member liked this comment
... why would you put so stupid an article here, calling for opinions of this man, in light of the delicate nature of the accusations and potential outcome for all involved? Are you attempting to try this man on the blog? Or is it simply another in a long string of attempts by the editor/staff to denigrate teachers and the educational system in general.

Or are you simply trying to drum up revenue via subscriptions by publishing and locking out non-subscribers by offering controversial ...more
By William Rodney (558), southampton on Mar 28, 13 11:49 AM
2 members liked this comment