2000-10-07 / Columnists

School Scope…


School Scope…

There are not too many people in this universe with the power to destroy a career, to change a person’s life entirely.

Ed Stancik is one such person. He is the special commissioner of investigation for the New York City School District. His charge is to investigate a myriad of charges against people who work for the school system and to make recommendations to the Chancellor for action.

He is hated and he is feared with a capital F. Not so much for what he can do, but what for what he does do.

I have worked with his office in the past. A few years ago, I was given a tip by a parent that a local elementary school principal had failed to report a case of child abuse by a parent and that the child had been badly beaten and hospitalized later on. It proved to be true, but it took Stancik’s office more than two years to complete the investigation. The principal’s "punishment" was one extra year of probation.

I only mention that old case now because the punishment was so insignificant and that is germane to a recent case at MS 180.

Even if you are not an educator, put yourself in the place of the school’s dean for a moment.

You are distributing caps and gowns to seniors who are going to shortly graduate. A few sixth graders come to you and tell you, "Some boys were fooling around during lunch." One of the sixth grade girls adds, "One boy picked me up and dropped me."

You ascertain that the girl is not hurt and make the judgment that this incident is not any different than the thousands of others that have been brought to you in your two dozen years as a teacher and as a dean.

You tell the girl to write a statement and you plan to read it as soon as you finish distributing the caps and gowns. You find the boy who was involved in the incident and you tell him to write a statement and put it on your desk.

Since "there were no injuries, no further information from the police officer (who sent the students to the dean in the first place) and the students had gone home," you plan to review the statements in the morning. You go home.

So do the students.

When the student reported the incident to her mother, however, she allegedly told a far different story.

According to a letter from Stancik to Chancellor Harold Levy, the mother of the student the report calls "Student A," reported to police that her daughter "had been attacked and molested by male students in the schoolyard that day." The girl had reportedly described to her mother the fact that she had been "lifted upside down with her hands held together while boys touched her breasts and buttocks." She reported to police that they had "also tried to remove her clothes."

The police, responding to the charges brought by the mother, arrested the boys who were responsible.

I say that the mother reported these things, and not the daughter, because, according to Stancik’s report, "the attorney representing Student A would not allow her to be interviewed."

What a world. Your daughter is attacked and sexually molested and the first thing you do, after notifying police, is hire a lawyer who then keeps the kid from talking to investigators and to everyone else. You can bet that a lawsuit against the city is not very far away.

The investigators did talk to other kids who corroborated that the attack took place. One noted that she witnessed the girl "with her skirt around her knees."

The question is not whether the attack happened. The question is what the dean knew and when she knew it.

It is clear from all the statements included in Stancik’s letter to the Chancellor that none of the girls verbally reported the seriousness of the incident to the dean but that they did in their written statements.

Even before Stancik’s investigation began, however, District 27 School Superintendent Matthew Bromme removed both the dean and principal, Bob Spata, from the school and assigned them to the district office.

It is clear that the dean was assigned to the district office pending the investigation.

It is not clear, however, why Spata was taken out of the school. The conventional wisdom around the district is that he was not even in the building that day.

The Stancik report has a cryptic footnote that reads in whole:

"Principal Spata was also reassigned. His transgression involved the circumstances surrounding the suspension of one of the male students. We did not investigate that matter."

I spoke with Deputy Commissioner Regina Loughran, the person who did the investigation for Stancik’s office, and she was very forthcoming in discussing the case, even after I told her that I was a teacher as well as a reporter.

She told me that "she had no authority" to talk about the incident that led to Spata’s removal from the school since she did not investigate that removal as part of the larger investigation.

We talked for some minutes about the case and she seemed to be puzzled about why the district took that action against Spata.

The district CW says that Spata has now been exonerated, but that he will not return to the school. Spata is running for president of the union representing supervisors and administrators. He is running against a slate that has the backing of superintendent Bromme.

It is sad that many parents, school board members and community activists will not be sorry to see Spata gone. They blame many of the recent problems in the school on the principal.

It is not the principal, but the dean who is left hanging in the wind, however.

There are a number of penalties that she could face.

Stancik made a recommendation that, in my opinion, shows that he and his staff have no idea of what school personnel face each day.

The report says, "(The dean’s) decision to devote her attention to the distribution of caps and gowns over helping girls who sought her intervention could have had disastrous consequences. It is therefore the recommendation of this office that appropriate disciplinary action be taken against (the dean)."

Notice that I do not use the dean’s name, although it has been on the radio and in some of the daily papers.

I don’t use her name because I have great respect for her and her career and because I don’t think she handled this situation any differently than I would have in her place. Several of the middle school deans that I spoke to about the issues, both in this district and in others around the city, tend to agree.

Stancik says, at the beginning of his report, "…the girls promptly reported the misconduct to educators who failed to take appropriate action."

The deans I "spoke" to (it was really over AOL), agree that the dean did take the appropriate action at the time based on the information the girls had given to her. Should she have dropped everything and read the written reports, as Stancik says she should have done?

The deans all said that they would have waited until they were finished doing whatever they were doing as she did.

The case gave pause to the deans. Some of them told me that they were planning to report any action that could in the least be construed as an assault to covert themselves from the kind of action taken against the MS 180 dean. They agreed that the reports would "clog the system" and cause school administrators to spend all of their time investigating the reports rather than focusing on education.

They all agreed that the student had not provided the impetus the dean needed to drop everything and get involved right away. Each had a dozen stories about incidents in their schools where they were told basically the same thing by students that the dean had been told and it sorted out to kids fooling around.

Certainly, had the girl told the dean what she later told her mother, the dean would have responded far differently.

But the girl did not and the dean did not.

The dean could theoretically lose her license, her job and her pension because she did not report an assault upon a child. That is what I mean when I say that Stancik can ruin careers and even lives.

I don’t believe that this will happen unless there is some sort of double standard working. A principal knowingly fails to report a case of abuse and a child is badly hurt. That draws a one year extension of probation. Can the punishment be greater when a mistake is made and a child is not at all harmed?

It is more likely that the dean will be returned to another school and taken out of the dean’s position for the remainder of her career.

Who will make the final decision?

Stancik’s letter was sent to the Chancellor recommending "appro-priate punishment."

The Chancellor responded by putting the ball in Bromme’s court.

Stancik’s letter has been forwarded to Bromme with a mandate to "review the letter and then to take appropriate action."

I certainly hope that Bromme does the right thing. It might be politically correct to take a strong action in this case, especially for a new superintendent.

In my opinion, however that would be the wrong thing to do.

The message the superintendent should send to other educators is to be alert to assaults and to promptly report them to the proper authorities. I think that everybody who works in the field already knows that.

The message he would send by destroying the dean’s career is that the dean’s job has become an impossible one because they will be second-guessed to death. The second message is to report everything, no matter how trivial, and that will tie the system up so badly that it will grind to a halt.

Everybody who works in the public eye today is under a microscope. Both teachers and police officers are constantly watched for transgressions, real and imagined. Those who commit transgressions should certainly be punished. The principal who did not report the assault was certainly one of those.

Those who simply make errors in judgment, as this dean may have done by not reading the statements in a timely fashion, however, should not face extermination. They have learned their lesson and it is time for us all to move on.


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