2002-04-27 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

By Howard Schwach

One of the first things that a teacher learns is not to get involved in the "he said – she said" type of argument, the type of argument that begins 90 percent of school fights and can never be resolved.

Having said that, I am now involved in an altercation between the principal of Beach Channel High School and a teacher that could easily be qualified as a "he said – he said" kind of argument that has far-reaching ramifications, far beyond a typical school fight.

The story is one that illustrates just how hard it is to pin down a story when it becomes a "he said – he said" variety.

It began just before Valentine’s Day, back in February.

A parent of a BCHS student, who identified herself only as Anna, called The Wave to say that there was a crisis at the school. According to Anna, a teacher had been taken out of the school by the Queens Superintendent, John Lee, for "assaulting a student." Now, she said, Lee wanted to put the teacher back in the school and the school’s principal, Bernard Gassaway, has "threatened to resign rather than take the teacher back."

I tried to follow it up, but Gassaway was not at the school and calls to the Queens High School office got no call-backs.

Anna called back to say that there would be an "emergency PA meeting" on Valentine’s eve to address the problem. Part of my problem was that nobody could tell me what had happened to get the teacher suspended in the first place.

I checked after the meeting and was told that "it went well, but that there was no conclusion."

"There was nobody there from the district or the school who could answer any questions," one disappointed parent told me. "All they do is hide behind procedures and talk about union rules."

The parent who called said that she and others were ready to pull their kids out of the school if the teacher was returned.

I asked the parent if she knew what it was all about

She told me what she had heard.

"A boy was taking a test and gave the teacher a hard time," she said. "The teacher told the kid to give him the test, that he was going to send him to the dean’s office. The kid cursed the teacher and the teacher stomped on the kid’s foot. The kid was sent to the dean’s office. After the period ended, the teacher went to the dean’s office and assaulted the kid."

I also found out that Gassaway had gone on the school’s loudspeaker and told the faculty and staff that he was not leaving.

More calls to Gassaway. More calls to Lee. No response.

Two days later, the boy’s father came to The Wave office to speak with me.

The father told me his side of the story.

"The teacher was passing out papers and he kicked my son’s foot," he said. He kicked it again and blamed my son for putting his foot in the aisle. He told my son to do it again and see what happened. My son said something back to him and he grabbed my son’s paper. He shoved my son into a locker and got school security to take him to the dean. Fifteen minutes later, he stormed into the dean’s office and stepped on my son’s foot again. He told my son, If I hit you, I’ll kill you. There was a scuffle and he would up on top of my son."

"I was told that Gassaway was going to take care of it," he continued. "Then, a week or so ago, I found out that the UFT wanted him back in the school, that he was going to come back."

"I’d discharge my child to another school before I let him back with that teacher," he concluded.

More calls to Gassaway. More calls to Lee.

No response.

A week later, a BCHS teacher came to the Wave.

He told me that he had been teaching at BCHS for a dozen years, but didn’t want his name used because he "feared retribution from Gassaway.

He said that the suspended teacher was "reputable," that he was "tough on kids, made kids live up to the standards. Those who didn’t failed his course."

"The kids who didn’t do their work hated him," he added. "So did the principal because he had such high fail rates. The principal looked to get him out of the school."

"It became a Black – White issue," he added.

He told me his version of what happened on that October day.

"He was giving a test and he told everybody to take all of their books off the desk," he said. "This kid left his foot in the aisle to purposely trip him. He fell over the kid and pushed him into a locker. He then held onto the kid until security came. He was hurt and he filed a ‘line of duty injury form’ about his injury. After the class, he went to the dean’s office to file the LDI form and to make sure the dean knew what had happened. He never intended to push the kid. The incident report was changed two days after it was originally written to look more incriminating."

"He was supposed to come back, but after Gassaway’s statement and the PA meeting, his return was postponed. Teachers were ordered not to go to the meeting. There was nobody there to tell the teacher’s side of the story," he added, asking again that we not use his name.

Just this week, the teacher came to see me at The Wave. He indicated that he was ready to file some lawsuits, that he had been defamed by both Gassaway and by a number of parents.

He gave me two letters that he was sent from long-time teachers in the school building.

One was from Howard Gallan, the long-time Social Studies Department Chairperson at the school. Gallan has since retired.

Some of the statements in Gallan’s letter are damning to Gassaway.

"During the time that the principal, Mr. Bernard Gassaway, has been at the school, he has expressed his dislike towards you. On several occasions, he has called me to his office telling me that he wanted to catch you doing something that he could use to remove you from the school; either voluntarily or otherwise."

"Last year, when several students complained to him that a test that you gave was very difficult, he requested that I go to your room and bring down the garbage pail to find the discarded tests of those disgruntled students. When I brought him the pail, he immediately emptied the contents on his conference table and rummaged through the refuse in order to find samples of this exam. I was quite shocked by his strange behavior."

"Numerous times last year, Mr. Gassaway came to your room to observe you with the sole intention of giving you an unsatisfactory rating. When I came to observe you, I would find that your lessons were most satisfactory. It is apparent that his motive was to make it more difficult for you to perform your professional responsibilities."

Harry Gross is the long-time UFT Chapter Leader at the school. He was suspended for a short time during the last school year.

"As chapter leader for more than 10 years, I have never had a union member who has been called into the principal’s office more than (this teacher). The vast majority of times were for needless and frivolous reasons. Mr. Gassaway’s animosity towards (this teacher) was vicious and unfounded."

This teacher, whose name is known to The Wave and most of the community, puts it more succinctly.

"Gassaway is trying to get rid of all the White, Jewish teachers," he charged. "It is as simple as that."

Which version of the story is closer to the truth? Who is right? Who is wrong? Is anybody telling the real truth, or only his or her version of the truth?

He said – she said. Where will it end? Your guess is as good as mine.

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