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Suspended Long Beach teacher questioned in disciplinary hearing

An exterior view of the Long Beach school

An exterior view of the Long Beach school district's administration building in Long Beach on Dec. 1, 2016. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

An attorney for the Long Beach school district closely questioned suspended middle school teacher Lisa Weitzman on Monday about her treatment of the disabled students she formerly taught and asserted that she did not notify a pupil’s parents of inappropriate classroom behavior.

The district is seeking to fire Weitzman, who faces eight allegations involving five former students. Weitzman, who continues to draw her $96,000 annual salary, has denied the accusations that she mistreated students in her class, who were severely disabled.

Hearing officer Robert Grey was appointed by the state Education Department to oversee the disciplinary hearing, which began in March 2016. Weitzman requested that the hearing be open to the public.

School officials have said they suspended Weitzman in 2014 when they became aware of accusations of abuse; she had been a teacher in the district since 2007. Among the allegations are that she sent a student to the classroom bathroom for “timeout,” cursed at a student, dug a high heel into a child’s foot and threatened to use a zip tie as a restraint.

Her attorney, Debra Wabnik, has said her client is innocent and is being retaliated against by others in the district for advocating for her students.

Christopher Powers, a lawyer representing the Long Beach schools, focused several questions Monday on Weitzman’s use of the classroom bathroom as a “timeout” spot.

Weitzman testified the student would place himself in the bathroom when he felt vulnerable in the class as a way to “self-soothe.”

“The student placed himself in the bathroom?” Powers asked.

“Yes, that is my testimony,” Weitzman replied.

Powers presented evidence that the student was placed in the bathroom and that Weitzman did not notify the student’s parents. He also noted that school officials told Weitzman to stop the student from being in the bathroom.

Weitzman testified that the bathroom door was always open.

The exchanges between Powers and Weitzman became heated at times.

“I can’t have a witness questioning me on the validity of my questions,” Powers said to the hearing officer.

At one point, Wabnik defended her client after Powers raised his voice, accusing him of badgering her and saying, “How about you calm down?” She said Weitzman had reached out for help with her students but was ignored by district officials.

Later Monday, Powers asked Weitzman, “You’re testifying these charges were drummed up against you?”

Weitzman replied: “Absolutely.”

Under cross-examination regarding when she had taped Latex gloves to a student’s hands, Weitzman testified that she did so for sanitary purposes. The student, she said, had feces on his fingers and she wanted to protect him and other students. She said the school nurse approved the measure.

Weitzman also testified that she believed some earlier witnesses, including local educators, had lied when they testified at the hearing.

Another hearing date is scheduled for April 21.

Apart from the disciplinary hearing, several separate legal actions have been filed in state and federal courts.

Last month, the parent of a child with Down syndrome in the Long Beach district filed a lawsuit alleging her daughter was the victim of “repeated physical, sexual and mental abuse” while under the supervision of Weitzman and other educators in the system.

The complaint, filed by Shirlyn Summers on Feb. 24 in state Supreme Court in Nassau County, alleges that several educators, including Weitzman, would “demonstrate sexually explicit acts” using students as props in front of other students, including her daughter; uttered profanities; and consumed marijuana in the presence of children.

That lawsuit also named district officials and Weitzman’s former teaching assistant, Lauren Schneider.

Schneider, who worked in the classroom with Weitzman before leaving the system in 2014, testified in the disciplinary hearing in January and described situations in which some of the severely disabled students turned violent and punched, kicked and bit other students, as well as staff. She said she never saw Weitzman be rough with a student.

In June, Weitzman filed a federal lawsuit against the district, claiming her removal was the result of a malicious investigation.

In September, Weitzman and Schneider filed a suit in state Supreme Court in Nassau County, claiming they were defamed by school officials.

Additional legal actions involving Weitzman, the district and other families are pending, court records show.

Last April, a lawsuit was filed against Weitzman, the Long Beach district and several school officials, alleging that Weitzman physically and sexually abused an autistic student.

In December, four families of former students sued the district, detailing allegations of abuse against Weitzman, Schneider and another aide. That suit also says that school officials, including Weitzman, failed to act after the allegations were made.

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