2003-04-05 / Columnists

From the Editor's Desk

By Howard Schwach
From the Editor's Desk By Howard Schwach

From the Editor's Desk

Francine Newman, who taught at Far Rockaway High School for many years, is angry. She is so angry that she has written a book called "The Cannibals At 110 Livingston Street." When nobody would publish her book, she self-published it. That is how angry she is at the board of education - the "cannibals" she speaks of in her book. Despite the fact that she is now retired, she seeks "retribution" from the cannibals she writes about in her book.

"I wrote this book to expose the dark underbelly, the hidden unconstitutional abuses heaped upon teachers who try to report wrongdoing by their supervisors," Newman says.

Newman worked in the city schools for more than 30 years. In the early 1970's she says, her troubles began.

She was teaching physical education at Far Rockaway High School at the time, working alongside such Rockaway icons as Jack Kershman, Allie Metzger and Jake Miller.

Newman says that her problems started with two incidents that attracted the principal's attention.

The first, she says, happened when she was demonstrating a dance move to her students when her pantyhose split. The principal, she says, told her that she was displaying her private parts to the class.

"It has come to my attention that on Wednesday, October 29, 1969, your pantyhose was torn at the crotch while you were demonstrating," a letter from the school administration says. "Nevertheless, you continued to demonstrate to the students. What made the situation even more acute was the fact that you were not wearing underpants, and your students and assistants were very conscious of that fact."

She denies that anybody saw anything in the mishap, which she says lasted all of five seconds.

In the second incident, she says that the principal of the school told her that she was failing too many students and that she had to pass many of those she had failed. She refused.

Shortly thereafter, she says, she was suspended and sent for a psychiatric hearing at the board of education.

Newman's suspension lasted for eight years. The board of education called it an "involuntary leave of absence without pay." Newman says that it was hell.

During those eight years, Newman was subjected to two psychiatric examinations by Board of Education doctors. She claims that the doctors told her that she was fine, but reported otherwise to the board.

"They had to find that I was unfit for teaching duty," she said. "That was what they were paid for."

She hired two psychiatrists who said that she was fit for teaching duty. The board conducted another 45 minute examination that found once again that she was not. She asked for the board's medical records on her case so that she could compare them to those of her psychiatrists and so she could prepare a defense to the charges.

The board refused to give her access to the medical reports or to give her a hearing on her suspension.

Newman sued in court to have the board's decision overturned and to get back pay for the eight years she has been on involuntary leave.

After losing several battles in lower courts, she won a hearing when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that the Board of Education had "failed to provide rudimentary fairness."

"Prior to taking this action, the board did not give appellant any opportunity either to examine the medical reports and other data forming the basis of its action, nor to rebut those reports."

While the judge held that the public had a right to the speedy dismissal of a teacher who is judged to be unfit to teach, he also said that Newman's rights were violated continuously after the dismissal.

At a rehearing, Newman was ordered back to duty and she finished up her career at Forest Hills High School without incident.

A New York Post story at the time said that "the board of education has, for years, forced some teachers to undergo psychiatric examinations to declare them mentally unfit in order to remove them from teaching. These examinations have been conducted with the acquiescence of the United Federation of Teachers, which, a former union official says, 'sold these teachers down the river by not supporting them."

The Post story goes on to say, "some of those teachers were ordered to psychiatric evaluations because of personal vendettas against them by their principals."

One of those interviewed by the Post for its story was Dr. James Shea, a Manhattan psychiatrist, who was a paid consultant to the board during that time.

"I only saw four patients during that time," he says. "Three were unfit, but the fourth was not. I was supposed to say that she was a mess. When I said that she was healthy, I was dropped from the board's list of consultants."

"They (the board's psychiatrists) were like Soviet psychiatrists," Shea adds. "They saw eye to eye with the ruling forces."

Newman's book includes four pages of a "hit list," those school administrators, UFT officials, politicians and doctors that she believes "wronged her" during that period.

I am not going to repeat those names here, because she probably libeled about 75 people in her book, and I do not want to get The Wave involved with that deal.

Suffice it to say that Newman was wronged, as many teachers were by an distant and uncaring Board of Edu-cation bureaucracy, and that she is still angry, even after her retirement, even after 30 years have passed since the beginning of her ordeal.

If you want to see just how angry she remains, and who she is angry at, you can read her book, which was published by 1stBooks. You can find them on the web at www.1stbooks.com.

If you are a teacher of a retired teacher, as I am, you might find it fascinating reading.

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