Judge dismisses defamation claim in former principal's suit

A judge dismissed Wednesday a former principal's defamation claim against the Fayette County Board of Education for producing a report accusing her of wrongdoing.

Circuit Judge James Ishmael ruled that the board did not publish the report, which accuses former Booker T. Washington Academy Principal Peggy Petrilli of improperly holding students back a grade.

Petrilli denies the allegations. She is suing the board for defamation over the report and alleged racial discrimination.

Ishmael said the report became public only after the Herald-Leader filed an open records request for it.

Under the law, publication is an essential element of defamation.

Petrilli claims the report was a "hit job" intended to discredit her and any litigation she might file against the board. Petrilli is also suing the board for alleged racial discrimination.

Her attorney, Dale Golden, argued that a school board attorney, Brenda Allen, wrote the report for the sole purpose of defaming Petrilli. The board knew the media would obtain the report and publicize it, Golden said.

School board attorney John McNeill said the board is required to comply with open records requests. He said the document was intended for internal purposes only and was not meant to be published.

Golden says Allen's investigation was biased, and points to an e-mail that Allen sent Petrilli outlining topics she would investigate. The e-mail has been filed under seal, Golden said in a hearing Wednesday.

Last week, Golden filed affidavits from two former Booker T. staff members who claimed they were harassed in interviews by Allen.

Assessment coordinator Leigh McCauley claimed she was threatened with suspension if she did not "go along with their agendas." She also claimed that Allen did not understand testing data that she relied on for the report.

McCauley was one of the staff members named in Allen's report. She said that Allen gave her no opportunity to respond to the allegations.

The board has said it stands by the months-long investigation. It has also noted that Petrilli, by her own admission in a deposition, requested an investigation because she thought it would clear her name.

Petrilli resigned after parents confronted Superintendant Stu Silberman with a long list of complaints in August 2007. She was principal at Booker T. from March 2005 to August 2007.

Petrilli, who is white, claims she was forced to resign because parents wanted a black principal. The board has said Petrilli left on her own, and noted that interim principal Jock Gum is white.

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