NORTH SHORE FACULTY, PARENTS PRESS SCHOOL DISTRICT TO REINSTATE EXONERATED TEACHER
November 10, 2013 -- More than 150 North Shore School District faculty members and several parents attended this past Thursday evening’s Board of Education meeting to press the Superintendent and school board to wrap up its investigation of allegations of misconduct against Middle School Physical Education teacher Aaron Kozlowski, and to re-instate Mr. Kozlowski to his teaching position. This was the second consecutive meeting in which the faculty, donning maroon and white and displaying “Standing Up for A Koz” buttons on their chests, filled the center section of the High School auditorium and stood as Union President Bruce Fichtman addressed the Board and Superintendent. At this meeting however, the tone was markedly more assertive than two weeks ago.
For more than seven months, Mr. Kozlowski has been on “administrative reassignment” after being accused of inappropriate conduct by four students last winter. In April, the Nassau County’s District Attorney’s office brought four criminal charges against the teacher. In late September, Nassau County Court Judge Valerie Alexander dismissed the charges against Mr. Kozlowski.
At the start of the meeting, Board President, Dr. Herman Berliner, read a statement that had been prepared by the district’s legal counsel. “The Board of Education,” said Dr. Berliner, “is aware that some of our guests this evening may be here to speak about a personnel issue involving a member of our staff. Please understand the reason for our inability to address this matter of concern in detail. It is the Board’s important responsibility imposed on us by the education law of the State of New York to protect the rights of staff as well as students. The Board of Education hopes that you understand its responsibility is to ensure that the privacy and due process rights of the affected persons are fully protected. We assure you that the district is diligently and vigilantly following the law in this matter. We further assure you that legal counsel for the district has been gathering all available information, interviewing witnesses, and reviewing documents in order that they may fully and fairly advise the superintendent. Once counsel’s investigation is completed, which will be concluded in the next week to ten days, that the Superintendent will make a determination and report it to the board. A thorough inquiry serves the interests of all parties and will benefit those parties along with the school district and this community. Thank you for your consideration."
Then, reading a statement on behalf of the North Shore Schools Federated Employees, Mr. Fichtman went beyond simply requesting that the Board reinstate Mr. Kozlowski, but alluded to other grievances as well.
“I am here to communicate the deep frustration of your teachers, secretaries and teaching assistants. We are extremely concerned about your conduct in several related areas,” Mr. Fichtman said. “First, we continue to advocate that all teachers, in accordance with due process and basic principles of fair play, be permitted to do their jobs without fear of reprisal. Slow-moving and callous indifference to individual dignity cannot be tolerated; Second, we are puzzled that this Board, in tight fiscal circumstances, would elect to pay anybody for services not rendered when there is zero evidence to justify such a course of action. Wasteful disregard for community resources should not be tolerated; third, we are wondering when, if ever, this Board will take a firm stance in defense of its teachers against untruthful, baseless attacks. Students have been empowered to slander teachers at will with little to no consequence. Timid complicity in the face of reckless student behavior should never be tolerated.”
Mr. Fichtman spoke in much broader terms than he did in his October 24th statement, and at no point mentioned Mr. Kozlowski by name.
He expressed concerns about what he perceived as efforts by the Administration and school board to limit the faculty’s right to speak out on the issue. In the posted meeting agenda, for the first time, guidelines for public comment were included. One bullet point stated, “The board will not permit in public session comments/discussion involving individual personnel or students.” In addition, in late October, according to sources, the teaching staff at three schools were directed to remove their "Standing Up for A Koz" buttons after district officials said a student reported being "emotionally upset."
Mr. Fichtman said, “Like all teachers and community members, I received the message you sent when tonight’s agenda stipulated the conditions under which you will permit people to address you. Please be assured that my comments will stay within those parameters. Given such assurances, I request that the Board and Administration will hear me out.” At another point in his address, he stated, “As champions of academic and political freedom, we are appalled at your repeated recent efforts to silence teachers and stifle free speech. In 1969, the Supreme Court reminded this nation that, ‘It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.’ Heavy-handed contempt for basic civil liberties cannot be tolerated.”
As Mr. Fichtman neared his conclusion, he commented on the impact that Mr. Kozlowski’s ordeal and the pace of the investigation has had on the faculty as a whole. “My colleagues and I pride ourselves in sharing our expertise and passion for learning each and every day with our students,” he said. “But, our collective enthusiasm has been shaken by your refusal to support our colleagues and by the recent suppression of fundamental rights. An atmosphere of fear, insecurity and low morale has taken hold of the teaching staff in all five school buildings. The actions of this Board and this administration can either accelerate or reverse this trend. We will see.”
(Click here for full statement)
After Mr. Fichtman spoke, Schools Superintendent Dr. Edward Melnick responded to Mr. Fichtman’s comments regarding the language included under the "Public Comment" section of the meeting agenda. He stated that the guidelines were those that appear in the board policy manual, and were in no way intended to limit speech. He apologized for the timing of including the guidelines on the agenda for this particular meeting. He clarified the bullet points, saying that one does not need a written statement to speak. Secondly, he said that state law precludes the board and administrators from talking about individual personnel issues in public. He said that this was not intended to "suppress public comment about this issue or any other issue.” Dr. Melnick also conceded that the faculty's “trust and morale was at a low point.”
Following the union president’s comments, several parents from the community came to the podium in succession to urge the board to re-instate Mr. Kozlowski.
The next Board of Education meeting will be on November 21st.
QUESTIONS ABOUT PROCESS AND PROCEDURE
At Thursday evening’s Board of Education meeting, the issue of process and procedure arose several times, either as a part of Board President Herman Berliner’s opening statement or in the form of residents’ questions to the Superintendent and Board. Towards the end of the meeting, during the last public comment segment, resident Tom Murphy asked for clarification of the issue. Dr. Berliner repeated a portion of the prepared statement that he had delivered earlier in the meeting, that "legal counsel for the district has been gathering all available information, interviewing witnesses, and reviewing documents in order that they may fully and fairly advise the superintendent. Once counsel’s investigation is completed, which will be concluded in the next week to ten days, that the Superintendent will make a determination and report it to the board." Dr. Melnick explained that "it is the superintendent's decision whether or not to bring charges. . . . If the Superintendent recommends charges, the Board has the obligation to determine if there is probable cause to move forward with those charges." (see the process below). If the Superintendent does not recommend charges, then, according to the legal counsel present, the teacher would be re-instated.
The steps for initiating disciplinary action against tenured teachers charged with incompetence or misconduct are set out in section 3020-a of New York State education law and are thus known as 3020-a procedures.
The process works as follows:
1] After an investigation, charges of incompetence or misconduct are filed with the secretary or clerk of the district.
2] Within five days of the filing of charges, the employing board (school board) in executive session shall determine by a majority vote whether probable cause exists to bring disciplinary proceeding against the employee.
3] The employee is then notified of the following – the charges against him; the maximum penalty if found guilty of the charges; and, his rights.
4] If the employee challenges the charge, he must notify the district of his request for a hearing before an independent hearing officer within ten days.
5] The district notifies the Commissioner of Education of the hearing request. The commissioner in turn notifies the American Arbitration Association of the need for a hearing officer. A list of eligible hearing officers is given to both the charged employee and the employing board. From the list a mutually agreed upon officer is chosen
6] After evidence is presented, the hearing officer issues a decision.
An appeals process then follows, if either side chooses to pursue that course.
Click here for a link to New York State Education Law 3020-a. http://www.highered.nysed.gov/tcert/resteachers/lawregs.html