Former Trumbull sub worries for student's protesting

The saga of Joe Rodgers, the substitute teacher who was let go by the Trumbull school district after reporting a threatening and violent Facebook post that was being reposted by a student this summer, could reach a boiling point Tuesday night when Trumbull High School students speak in front of the town's Board of Education.

Despite a Facebook group titled "Stand With Mr. Rodgers" that was created by a THS alumni to organize and rally student support, the longtime sub believes those facing the board have an uphill battle to climb.

"I'm very touched by the willingness of these kids," he told the Times Tuesday afternoon. "But they know there's something seriously wrong; something that's embedded deep in the culture of their town and in the culture of their schools, and that's not something they're going to overcome tonight...

"You can hear the defeat in their posts on the group's Facebook page, saying things like 'don't speak about the truth or will get thrown out of the meeting,' 'don't discuss the controversy — you know how the board operates,' 'we just have to convince them they need more substitute teachers,'" he added. "They know that this is a totalitarian board that's ultimately run by a dictatorship-style government,"

"These are well meaning students and alumni from Trumbull High School and they're basically admitting that they have to try some ruse to convince this board to make some sort of compromise."

Rodgers believes that justice can't reached at Tuesday's meeting, or possibly ever, as long as the town's run by the administration of First Selectman Tim Herbst.

He told the Times that the he was let go without explanation on the Sunday before the first day of school, Aug. 30, and that is was because he asked a student — the son of Town Council member Cindy Penkoff — not to circulate a posted that called President Barack Obama a "sick tyrant" and threatened his life.

Rodgers said that the post, which went up on July 24, has since been pulled down by government officials in the FBI who targeted it as a very serious homeland security issue.

The 69-year-old, retired United Nations interpreter said it wasn't the only controversial post he's seen coming from Penkoff, a Republican who he called a "right-wing extremist," on social media.

"It's clear that the boy got his attitudes from his parents, and it's also very clear to me now that I grossly underestimated how vindictive these people are," he admitted. "I was politely asking for him to take down this very danger, very offensive post and I was fired for it, and now the machine is trying to cover it up for her because she's on a political team...

"This regime that I've met head-on is incredibly evil, and I've been who's tried to dramatize anything," Rodgers added. "But they've tortured me — they've been brutal to me on social media and online and they've had the police check in on me."

He stressed that Penkoff started this dilemma, and that he was originally happy to forgive and forget.

However, that's no longer an option.

"She's perpetuating this; she's the one who contacted the police and has continued to have me harassed," he said. "I tried to be compassionate and good, I just wanted her to council her son not to post these type of things...

"I've learned that when you say 'please don't do this' to someone in a government that's run with a totalitarian mindset that all you get is attacked, fired and they try to make you even disappear," he added.

The Trumbull police confirmed that the case involving Rodgers is still "under investigation" and that no report could be provided at this time.

Officials respond

Like board members who were asked to comment on this story, Penkoff told the Times that this a personal matter that "involves a minor child."

"I will tell you I had nothing to do with the man in question not being called back to the Trumbull School System," she said.

Superintendent Dr. Gary Cialfi was also asked to respond to this story, and Rodger's claims that he's a "whittling tool in the hands of the Herbst administration," issued a statement Tuesday.

“It is our practice not to comment publicly regarding personnel matters," the superintendent said. "This applies to substitutes as well as regular employees.”

For his part, First Selectman Herbst, who's mother serves as the education board's chairman, has been relatively silent on the matter and did not return a call from the Times Tuesday morning.

In a separate news story, he denied that any elected official had anything to do with Rodgers being let go this summer.

'Flagrant lie' 

Rodgers said that the first selectman's stance is perhaps the most disturbing element he's seen since being let go in late August.

"It's an arrogance of power — they feel like they can get away with anything," he said.

"What he said today about no elected official having anything to do with this — that's just a flagrant lie," he added.

Rodgers blames Herbst for allowing the spread of hatred in Trumbull.

He points towards a recent, now-deleted post that Penkoff made that compared Reverend Al Sharpton to convicted serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.

"What decent person could post something like that and be supported as an elected official," he said, highlighting another graphic post from Penkoff's Facebook page about deporting illegal immigrants and calling it "incredibly obscene, bigoted and demented."

"And now they've indoctrinated their son, who's really innocent in all of this," Rodgers added. "And he's out there spreading this extreme hate — this very angry message that our federal government has asked us to report if we see it."

Freedom of speech

Rodgers views tonight's meeting as a clear freedom of speech violation, if students feel suppressed in the messages they can convey and present to the board.

"Kids shouldn't be brought up in a community like this where it's instilled in them to believe that justice can't be reached — that if they speak the truth, they'll be denied their First Amendment rights and thrown out of a public meeting," Rodgers said.

"But they're fully aware that this is a tricky and nasty board that's notorious for suppressing others, and that they'll be thrown out of the meeting if they step over the line," he added.

Rodgers, a United States Army veteran, said that he's never seen such oppressive and autocratic system or government.

"I've worked in military intelligence and I've never experienced anything this in my life," he said. "I've had teachers call me and tell me they've been pressured, threatened and harassed not to make comment — they've been bullied and can't say anything."


Rodgers, who has worked consistently for Trumbull schools for a dozen-plus years, claimed that Dr. Cialfi isn't making things any better.

"I spoke with him two days after [Penkoff] called the police on me and the superintendent told me he'd resolve the situation and he'd give me a call in a week," Rodgers said. "I learned about my firing from a robo-call the day before class started — he never got back to me...

"What's most disturbing is that I was told, 'Don't talk to any students — not anywhere in town or online,'" he added. "I didn't know what was going to happen to me — I didn't know if I was actually going to be OK and keep my job, but all I know is I couldn't sleep."

As of Tuesday afternoon, there were almost 1,700 members part of the "Stand With Mr. Rodgers" Facebook group.

"The students don't want to mention the controversy," Rodgers said. "And that's because the truth won't work on these people and that's why there won't be a resolution tonight."