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Long Beach district asks state to act on special education teacher accused of abusing students

Lisa Weitzman arrives at a disciplinary hearing in Lido Beach in May 2017.  / Howard Schnapp

The Long Beach school district has appealed to the state for formal closure of the lengthy, controversial case involving a middle school teacher accused of abusing her special-education students, according to a letter sent by the school board last month.

The district is seeking to fire Lisa Weitzman, who faces eight allegations involving five former special-education students, starting in...

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The Long Beach school district has appealed to the state for formal closure of the lengthy, controversial case involving a middle school teacher accused of abusing her special-education students, according to a letter sent by the school board last month.

The district is seeking to fire Lisa Weitzman, who faces eight allegations involving five former special-education students, starting in the 2012-13 school year. She was placed on paid suspension in November 2014.

“For fourteen (14) months, we have waited for disposition from the hearing officer and we find it quite frustrating to move into another school year with no decision,” board president Dennis Ryan wrote the Education Department in the letter dated July 17 and obtained by Newsday through a Freedom of Information Law request.

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The school system had paid her more than $540,000 in salary and benefits from the time of her suspension through Aug. 14, according to figures obtained by Newsday from the FOIL request. Her disciplinary hearing, overseen by a state hearing officer, started March 4, 2016, and ended May 22, 2017.

State Education Department officials are aware of the district's request, a department spokesman said Friday. The agency confirmed that no decision has been reached.

Weitzman's attorney, Debra Wabnik, said Friday in an emailed statement that "this was a lengthy hearing with extensive exhibits and testimony, so it is not unexpected that we do not have a decision yet. Of course the wait is difficult for Ms. Weitzman, but she looks forward to having her name cleared and being back in the classroom teaching, which she misses dearly." Wabnik is based in Garden City.

State education law Section 3020-a outlines the process districts must follow to discipline tenured teachers accused of misconduct or incompetence. It states that a hearing officer shall render a “written decision within thirty days of the last day of the final hearing, or in the case of an expedited hearing within ten days of such . . . hearing.”

Among the numerous allegations are that Weitzman sent a student to the classroom bathroom for a "timeout," cursed at a student, dug a high heel into a child's foot and threatened to use a zip tie as a restraint. She also is accused of taping latex gloves to a child's hands.

Weitzman, testifying in February and April of 2017 during the hearing, strongly denied that she ever harmed her students and said she was always acting in their best interests. 

The teacher also responded to specific allegations, saying she had covered a student's hands with latex gloves to protect the student, whose hands were covered in feces. Weitzman blocked a student from pulling a false fire alarm and held him to prevent him from getting to the alarm, Wabnik said in closing arguments for her client.

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School officials have said they suspended Weitzman, a teacher in the district since 2007, when they became aware of allegations of abuse in 2014.  

Robert Grey, the hearing officer, was appointed by the Education Department to oversee the case, and sessions were held on widely separated dates over the months. At Weitzman's request, the hearing was open to the public.

The board president's July letter to the Education Department's Teacher Tenure Unit said the lack of a decision "places great hardship on the district in planning and scheduling staff. We very much would like to move on but the tardiness of this decision prevents us from doing so."

Schools Superintendent Jennifer Gallagher echoed the board president's call for a resolution to the case. 

“I agree with Dr. Ryan in terms of how frustrating and difficult this is for the district, and I am sure for the families involved as well,” Gallagher said.

Over time, Weitzman's annual base salary of $96,000 grew, through automatic raises, to more than $108,000 during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years, according to the figures Newsday obtained through the FOIL request. This past school year alone, the district spent more than $140,000 on her salary and benefits.

Several separate lawsuits have been filed in federal and state courts related to Weitzman, other Long Beach educators and the district. The parties in those legal actions — some brought by parents of former students in Weitzman's class and others by Weitzman against the district — cannot request to move forward until there is an Education Dpartment resolution of the case, according to court papers.

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Such disciplinary hearings are not supposed to take so long, said Jay Worona, deputy executive director and general counsel with the New York State School Boards Association. The statute has been amended several times with the aim of expediting cases, he noted. That, in turn, cuts down on the time that hearings take and costs to the districts.

Worona said changes in the law stemmed from "a grave concern how long these cases were taking and how expensive they were . . . 3020s are not perfect. They still are too expensive and too long.”

An analysis by the School Boards Association, which periodically surveys districts on the issue, found that the average length of time it took to process a Section 3020-a case dropped from 502 days between 2005 and 2008 to an average of 180 days since Oct. 1, 2016. The group released the results of its most recent survey in May.

The price tag of a typical disciplinary case runs about $141,000, including the salary for the accused, according to the survey. The most common charge brought was for insubordination, followed by excessive absenteeism and/or lateness.

The association has continued to lobby for reform, Worona said.

The Long Beach school board, in its appeal to the state, asked for "some definitive date as to when we can expect a decision. We send this letter to your attention with the hope of expressing our frustration with the process and our sincere expectation for immediate resolution in the very near future."