Board Saves Teacher From Termination

Christopher Peak PhotoA high-school teacher threw a pencil-sized stick of wood across a classroom, hitting a talkative student’s hand.

A fireable offense?

Superintendent Carol Birks thought so. The Board of Education disagreed.

Four school board members bucked a recommendation to fire Richard Coburn, a tenured teacher, at a closed-door, hour-long disciplinary hearing on Thursday evening at the district’s Meadow Street headquarters.

Instead, in a brief, unanimous vote in public session, they voted to suspend Coburn without pay for three days. They also ordered him to attend a classroom-management training and to pen a written apology to the student.

Coburn has taught career and technical education at Hillhouse High School since November 2015. He got in trouble for tossing a piece of wood at a student in his shop class last spring, and for the last six months he’d been on paid administrative leave. The teachers union helped him argue his case.

On Thursday, Coburn didn’t make any defense in public. After the vote, Coburn he briefly thanked the union and his lawyer, Eric Chester, for representing him “so skillfully,” then walked out.

Playful Or Physical?

Melissa Bailey PhotoThe details of the incident are described in an impartial hearing officer’s report, which was released to the Independent through the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act. Based on written statements, legal briefs and testimony at five hearings, the 15-page report provide a moment-by-moment recap of what happened in Coburn’s class and the hearing officer’s recommended sanction.

On May 1, a student was gabbing with a peer in Coburn’s class instead of watching a video, distracting other students around him.

Coburn said something, but the student didn’t hear. To get his attention, Coburn threw a piece of wood — about three inches long and as wide as a pencil — at the student from about 15 feet away. It hit the student’s left hand; it didn’t injure him.

“Don’t throw shit at me again,” the student said. Coburn walked over to him, and the student repeated what he said: “Don’t throw shit at me.”

The student says Coburn then told him to get out of the classroom and not to come back. Coburn says the student just stormed out.

 

Either way, the student ended up in the main office, where John Tarka, an assistant principal, assistant principal asked him to write a statement about what had happened.

Later in the day, Coburn went to see Eric Barbarito, another assistant principal, to talk about an unrelated matter. He admitted that he had thrown a wooden object at the student, but he said it was not malicious. Coburn told Barbarito that he had a relationship with the student, and that it had been a “playful” way to get his attention. He said the student hadn’t been acting menacing.

Barbarito contacted the state Department of Children and Families. The agency initially decided the student had been physically abused, before reversing its decision.

By the time it got to the human resources department, Coburn told Valerie Hudson Brown, a labor relations officer, that he had “flicked” the wood at the student, “rather than approach him and risk a physical confrontation.” He went on, “In retrospect the intervention deployed to refocus this student was unsuccessful.”

Hillhouse administrators said they had been concerned about Coburn’s teaching style for a while. Tarka had previously told Coburn to speak “in a positive and calm tone.” He told him to cut out sarcasm and to give students time to think of their answers.

The concerns dated back to a similar physical confrontation a year earlier.

In 2017, Coburn had grabbed the backpack of a female student who walked into his shop even though she wasn’t assigned to his class. Worried about the hazardous tools and machinery, he corralled her toward the door by pulling on a strap, leaving bruises on her wrists and shoulder. Coburn was suspended without pay for one day for an “unnecessary and assertive physical interaction with a student.”

A few weeks after the incident, on May 24, Birks initiated termination proceedings, arguing that Coburn had committed “moral misconduct,” “insubordination against reasonable rules of the Board,” and “other due and sufficient cause.”

Coburn argued that the punishment was too severe, comparing it to “industrial capital punishment.” He said he had taken ownership of his actions and learned from it.

During the investigation, the student described Coburn as “a good teacher,” saying he “helps the student[s] whenever they need help.” The student said he thought Coburn cares about him, adding that he “wouldn’t mind seeing him back at Hillhouse.”

The independent fact-finder agreed with two of the charges.

Laurie Cain, the lawyer who served as neutral fact-finder, said she didn’t think there had been any “moral misconduct.”

But she did conclude that Coburn had violated school policy by overreacting in “us[ing] physical force to get a student to stop talking” and by acting unprofessionally in “initiating physical contact,” instead of deescalating.

Cain also felt that Birks had good reason to fire Coburn coming so soon after the 2017 incident.

“[T]wice during the course of a year [he] engaged in physical interactions with students in futile efforts to resolve routine behavioral issues,” she wrote. “Students have the right not to be subjected to physical confrontations at school and the Superintendent need not tolerate it.”

Punitive Or Supportive?

Christopher Peak PhotoSchool board members, however, thought that the wood-throwing hadn’t risen to the level of being a fireable offense.

“We didn’t think that the punishment fit the crime,” said Darnell Goldson, the board’s president. “It’s a simple as that.”

Board member Ed Joyner said he thought that Coburn had surely acted inappropriately, but he empathized with the pressures Coburn was under. He said his vote was motivated by “compassion,” especially after many at Hillhouse had already forgiven Coburn and asked for his return.

“We’re probably all better than the worst thing we’ve done,” Joyner said. “What I’m hoping is that Mr. Coburn will see this as an opportunity to work harder at building relationships with students.”

The teachers union’s president, Dave Cicarella, praised the board’s decision, saying it took “courage” to stick up for Coburn.

“Many boards, in Connecticut and throughout the nation, they just walk in lockstep and agree. For this board to reject the arbitrator’s recommendation and go with a suspension, that shows courage,” he said. “I think it’s in line with our school reform: it’s an effort on the part of the board to not be punitive and be supportive instead.”

Cicarella added that, throughout the district, the job of teaching is getting tougher, as the trauma from poverty and violence spills into city classrooms every morning.

“Teaching in general has always been challenging, but it is becoming more and more difficult. The kids come in with a lot more needs, and the teacher is forced to manage those, whether academic or social-emotional. They’re bringing stuff from home that impacts how they act and how they learn,” he said. “We could always use more support, and it’s become more acute now.”

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posted by: 1644 on November 9, 2018  8:15am

My sixth grade social studies teacher had a great pick-off move.  He’d be writing on the blackboard,  back to the class, then suddenly turn and hit Ricky L. in the head with the eraser to shut Ricky up.  Sometimes other students, if they were talking, but mostly it was Ricky.  We were always amused, including Ricky.  As another teacher observed, Ricky just wanted attention.

posted by: NHNative on November 9, 2018  8:33am

How silly.  When I was in high school, my Spanish teacher used to throw chalk at us when we misbehaved.  It got our attention, and we loved him for it.

posted by: observer1 on November 9, 2018  8:51am

The stated offense in itself would not be a concern if it was a one time thing. After reading the complete article, I see a pattern of less than appropriate behavior over time. I also see anger management type problems. I would have sustained the termination.

posted by: Carl Goldfield on November 9, 2018  9:38am

I would like to offer a more nuanced response to the survey.  Throwing a pencil size, wooden object at a student should not be a termination event (unless of course it takes out an eye).  However throwing an anvil at a student would in my opinion justify termination.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on November 9, 2018  9:43am

posted by: observer1 on November 9, 2018 8:51am
The stated offense in itself would not be a concern if it was a one time thing. After reading the complete article, I see a pattern of less than appropriate behavior over time. I also see anger management type problems. I would have sustained the termination.

So what happens when a student does this.

Video: Maryland teacher punched in face by student
Baltimore City Schools investigating incident

https://www.abc15.com/news/national/video-maryland-teacher-punched-in-face-by-student?autoplay=true

posted by: AverageTaxpayer on November 9, 2018  10:27am

God save us from ourselves…

posted by: TFA2013 on November 9, 2018  10:53am

Anyone who has worked in NHPS knows it is much easier to suspend an adult staff member than a student. I know of teachers who have been physically assaulted by students and the principal’s response is that the superintendent does not want kids suspended because it hurts her data! Principals are desperate to keep these students in school, many times at the expense of other students’ learning and the teacher’s wellbeing.

posted by: ctddw on November 9, 2018  11:22am

Birks and the BoA deserve each other. Other teachers have been terminated or requested to resign over incidents that they have been cleared over. This sounds like a perfect example of “who you know” and not about justice policies that are fairly implemented.

posted by: observer1 on November 9, 2018  12:10pm

@THREEFIFTHS

Those of us that make the attempt to be objective when considering issues comment based on the facts presented, not our own personal agendas. If you follow my comments over time, I vary my position based on issues unlike some commentators. My comments are original and I do not see the need to quote chapter and verse from other sources. In this case, if the situation was reversed and the student was a problem person with history, the student should receive appropriate punishment. Proportional response to problems is critical to justly resolving problems. I trust I have answered your inquiry.

posted by: AliceB on November 9, 2018  3:15pm

Mr. Coburn’s students love him. I just want to thank the Board of Education for showing great wisdom in this decision. All teachers know we are one bad day away from being escorted out of the building yet we soldier on because we know, on our good days, we connect with and guide our students in a positive direction
Mr. Coburn is a wonderful educator.  When I informed his students he would be coming back they were so happy. 
Again, thank you to the board. I only wish others had your discernment.

posted by: ctddw on November 9, 2018  4:02pm

New Haven school system is notorious for blaming teachers for misbehaving kids. The teacher will be the one punished.  Apparently though, wrestling a child to the ground is not grounds for employee dismissal when a family member is on the board. That employee is just given time off and then moved to a different school. They are foolish enough to think these actions go unnoticed.

posted by: robn on November 9, 2018  9:08pm

If the thrown item doesn’t draw blood or cause a concussion, no harm, no foul.

posted by: dad101 on November 10, 2018  12:41pm

Really fire the teacher? Someone who has also been an effective totally engage teacher.. Where is the part about how many students rallied for this teacher not just on this incident but in others. Where is the support documentation that came form parents who have spoken out for this teacher who doesn’t just show up but who is present for many many students thru ought the years of turbulence and chaos that has come thru this school booth from other students as well as the board of education and administrations! Its somewhat comical how you want teachers to be martyrs , you want them to be sacrificial lambs to the system as well as the students for what the love of the job.  How many parents throw a shoe across the room not in an effort to hurt a teenager but to get their attention. Superintendent how about take off your colors but on something less than $ 300 clothing and go teach in random classes and schools without a camera crew and secuirty and get a grip on the climate in school theses days. Yea another qualified teacher has survived political correctness of a chosen few who want to put on a show! restorative practices for those 12-19 yo who assault each other ,who engage in unacceptable behavior, language, etc in multitudes of 20 to 25 but a single individual who went to school to master subject and share that should be treated as a classified felon for something that weighed approximately and ounce!!!!!!

posted by: Sabrina-in-NewHaven on November 10, 2018  3:56pm

First of all, six months of paid leave?!!! So in the meantime, some substitute has to be paid to take over the class. So there’s classroom essentially with two salaries being paid out, am I correct? And you wait 6 months to NOT fire someone over an incident where the kid gets to be a jerk and the teacher goes to ‘classroom management class’. You can teach classroom management but teenagers still need to be able to control themselves. What is wrong with the world that it is abuse to throw a three-inch piece of wood the width of a pencil?? Thank you liberals for continuing to baby students. We’ve turned into a world where you are defenseless against disruptive students.

And thank you BoE for wasting more money. Why couldn’t this be decided sooner? Perhaps the teacher could use another method. But whatever he chose to do takes away time from the other students and disrupts that class even more. And please spare me the anger management issue. You can not be serious or just trolling for attention. I had the same kind of relationship with certain teachers in high school. Usually, it was chalk and it was because we were being silly or getting off-topic. AND no one stormed out or called social services. I went to a private school we felt completely respected by our teachers. And that is because we were sent to school and expected to respect adults. If my mother or father found out I told a teacher to not “throw shit at me again” I guarantee you I’d get a good slap in the mouth. I would have to apologize to the teacher and I’d lose every privilege I had except work, which I did after school. I actually hate the way this was reported. Can we at least get some statistics on how often this happens or not?

I know people keep saying times have changed, but the standards by which we hold students accountable should not.

posted by: Dennis Serf on November 10, 2018  9:26pm

...“and for the last six months he’d been on paid administrative leave”..

So the city is broke, the board of ed is incurring layoffs and were paying a teacher to stay home and do nothing for 6 months?

Unbelievable..

Dennis Serfilippi
https://newhavenct.squarespace.com/

posted by: AliceB on November 11, 2018  11:25am

Dennis, that is absolutely correct. The whole saga began May 1.  This should have been cleared up months ago. The students have been shifted all over the place. There has been a sub but not a certified , long term sub who could continue a curriculum.  This has been a travesty.  In a city that cannot afford text books; a city that is still talking about teacher furloughs, a city that laid off teachers, to waste time on this non issue shows a total lack of ........