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Long Beach school district: State gives OK to fire special education teacher

Long Beach teacher Lisa Weitzman arrives for closing

Long Beach teacher Lisa Weitzman arrives for closing arguments in her disciplinary hearing May 22, 2017, in Long Beach. She was placed on paid suspension in November 2014. Credit: Howard Schnapp

A Long Beach Middle School teacher accused of harming her special-education students "irreparably shattered the bonds of trust that are integral to employment as a teacher," a state hearing officer found in his opinion, released Monday by the state Education Department.

Hearing officer Robert A. Grey recommended that the district dismiss teacher Lisa Weitzman, 37, writing that a less-severe penalty would be “ineffective, unwarranted and would unacceptably endanger the health, safety and welfare of the district’s students."

The Long Beach school board, in a statement on its website Monday, said it will act to fire Weitzman at a special meeting of the panel Tuesday. 

Grey's determination, detailed in a 128-page opinion, came after a process that stretched more than three years, with eight allegations against Weitzman involving five former special-education students since the 2012-13 school year.

The hearing officer found that Weitzman committed three of the charges concerning the disabled students, including placing a student in a bathroom for an unauthorized and inappropriate "timeout," physically grabbing a student and pushing him up against a wall by his shoulders to restrain him, and dispensing Motrin pain reliever to a student on one or more occasions.

Weitzman, who denied all the accusations and fought to keep her job, was placed on paid suspension in November 2014 and has been paid more than $540,000 since, according to information Newsday obtained through a public records request. She has been a teacher in the district since 2007.

"We are shocked and extremely disappointed by the decision," Debra Wabnik, Weitzman's attorney, said in an emailed statement. "Although five of the charges were correctly dismissed, the rest of the decision contains many contradictions and inaccuracies. Ms. Weitzman is currently evaluating her legal options."

Grey, in his opinion dated March 31, wrote: “The district proved that respondent's culpable conduct constituted misconduct, neglect of duty, and conduct unbecoming a teacher." She “knowingly and materially misled colleagues, supervisors, subordinates and parents.” He said that Weitzman's "claims of conspiracy and retaliation against her are not supported."

Several pages of the report, as well as portions of others and smaller bits of information, were blacked out in the document that was publicly released.

Weitzman's disciplinary hearing, open to the public at her request, started March 4, 2016, and ended May 22, 2017. She testified in February and April of 2017, strongly denying she harmed her students and saying she always was acting in their best interests.

The Long Beach school board, in its statement on the district's website, said, "Today, the NY State hearing officer who has presided over the 3020a disciplinary hearing notified the attorneys for the District that a decision has been made in the District’s favor, pursuant to which Ms. Lisa Weitzman is to be terminated. The Board of Education will meet on Tuesday, April 2, to immediately take action on Ms. Weitzman’s termination. The safety and well-being of our students is the district’s top priority, and we are grateful that this matter has been concluded for the benefit of our children."

The district has continued to pay the teacher's salary and benefits of $112,776 a year, according to a Newsday database of teacher salaries for the 2017-18 school year.

District officials, who have said they suspended Weitzman when they became aware of abuse allegations in 2014, declined to comment further Monday.

Several 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 — could not move forward until there was an Education Department resolution of the case, according to court papers.

Gerard Misk, a Queens-based attorney who represents four families that have brought legal action in federal court in Central Islip, said in a statement, "We look forward to now re-starting the Federal Court case so that we can prove what we believe to be the reprehensible actions of the administration and other staff of the District in the handling of this matter. “

Jim Mulvaney, a private investigator hired by four families who said their children were abused by Weitzman, said Monday that the families he has worked for are "happy, but a little bit dissatisfied by the lack of details."

Among the numerous allegations were 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 was accused of taping latex gloves to a child's hands.

Weitzman, in her testimony, said 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 fire alarm and held him to prevent him from getting to the alarm, her attorney said in closing arguments.

Grey, the hearing officer, was appointed by the Education Department to oversee the case. Sessions were held on widely separated dates over the months.

In July 2018, the Long Beach school district appealed to the state for a formal closure of the case. The board president, in a letter to the Education Department's teacher tenure unit, wrote that 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."

Over time, Weitzman's annual base salary of $96,000 grew, through automatic raises, to more than $108,000 for 2016-17 and $112,776 for 2017-18, according to the figures Newsday obtained through a Freedom of Information request. By mid-August, the district had paid Weitzman more than $540,000, according to the records request.

Section 3020a of New York Education Law gives tenured teachers the right to a hearing before the district imposes discipline. Tenured educators have the right to retain their positions and only may be fired if a district proves there is “just cause" for the termination.

With Robert Brodsky

Timeline of disciplinary case

2007: Teacher Lisa Weitzman is hired by the Long Beach school district.

November 2014: The district places Weitzman on paid suspension. This occurred when district officials said they learned of accusations that Weitzman had abused several special education students at Long Beach Middle School, starting in the 2012-13 school year.

March 4, 2016: Weitzman's disciplinary hearing begins, presided over by Robert Grey, the hearing officer appointed by the state Education Department. Weitzman, in an unusual move, requests the hearing to be open and public.

April 20, 2016: The Long Beach district rests its case against Weitzman.

April 21, 2016: In a separate legal action, a federal lawsuit is filed against Weitzman, the Long Beach district and several school officials, alleging that Weitzman physically and sexually abused an autistic student.

June 1, 2016: In the disciplinary hearing, Weitzman's defense begins.

June 27, 2016: Weitzman files a federal lawsuit against the district, claiming her removal was the result of a malicious investigation.

Sept. 7, 2016: Weitzman and teacher's aide Lauren Schneider file a suit in state Supreme Court in Nassau County, claiming they were defamed by school officials.

Dec. 30, 2016: In a separate legal action, a suit is filed in state Supreme Court in Nassau County detailing allegations of abuse of four former students by Weitzman and two of her classroom aides. The suit also alleges school officials did nothing to stop the abuse.

Feb. 24, 2017: The parent of a child with Down syndrome in the Long Beach district files a lawsuit in state Supreme Court in Nassau County, alleging her daughter was the victim of "repeated physical, sexual and mental abuse" under the supervision of educators, including Weitzman.

April 3, 2017: Weitzman’s defense rests in the state hearing held at the Long Beach district's administrative building.

May 22, 2017: Closing arguments in the disciplinary hearing.

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