A 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?
The 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?
School 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.”