Looks like the Garden State is taking center stage in the education world. Two of the biggest stories in the nation around schools are happening right here.
Start with this astonishing story in Cherry Hill:
After receiving reports that his son had become prone to violent outbursts, Stuart Chaifetz sent autistic 10-year-old Aikan to Horace Mann Elementary School with a recording device.
Akian came back with 6.5 hours of tape filled with verbal and emotional abuse from his classroom aide and teacher. Stuart Chaifetz documented the tape and published it in a YouTube video.
According to Collingswood Patch, Chaifetz replays portions of audio with his son’s special education teacher Kelly Altenburg and aide Jodi Sgouros. In the recording, voices tell Akian that he is “such a bastard,” order him to “shut his mouth,” and tell the child “no” when he asks for reassurances that he will see his father soon.
Stuart Chaifetz has started a website, a Facebook page, and placed a petition on Change.org asking New Jersey legislators to enact a zero tolerance policy for bullying by teachers or educational staff. “I’ve gotten dozens of emails from parents in smiliar situations,” he said, according to babble.com. “Special needs adults are contacting me about teachers bullying them in school.”
Cherry Hill Public School District spokesperson Susan Bastnagel said that the incident is a “personnel matter that the district took seriously and handled appropriately,” according to the Huffington Post. The aide was reportedly fired, but Altenburg was moved to another class.
According to Fox 8, Chaifetz has no plans to sue, but he would like to see the teachers in the video make a public apology and resign. Recent early research suggests that more than 60 percent of American children with autism spectrum disorders have been bullied, and 47 percent of students from fifth-grade have faced bullying.
Akian Chaifetz has been transferred to another school and is doing quite well, according to reports.
I listened to the audio on Chaifetz’s YouTube post, and it is disturbing. It’s hard to see how any of what’s posted could be justified. But the Cherry Hill school district has given what I consider a measured and reasonable response:
In response to the recent media and social media attention regarding the district and Horace Mann Elementary School and, in an effort to communicate directly with our parents and community, Board of Education President Seth Klukoff and Superintendent Dr. Maureen Reusche presented the following statement at the April 24 Board of Education meeting.
“My fellow Board members and I certainly understand and share the concerns expressed by many members of the community,” said Mr. Klukoff. “We strongly believe that the district acted swiftly, appropriately and judiciously with regard to the staff in the classroom. What’s more, we are confident that these decisions were informed first and foremost by compassion for the students. We are proud of the many caring teachers and staff of our district who provide tireless dedication to our children and work ceaselessly to ensure that our classrooms are conducive to learning and growth.”
Dr. Reusche added, “In February, upon receiving a copy of an audio recording, the district undertook a thorough and rigorous investigation and, as we have previously noted, responded swiftly and appropriately. Although this is a personnel matter and there are specifics that I cannot legally address publicly, I want to assure our parents that the individuals who are heard on the recording raising their voices and inappropriately addressing children no longer work in the district and have not since shortly after we received the copy of the recording.”
I really can’t add any more than this: teaching is a grueling, difficult, and often thankless job – especially when teaching the children who have special needs. But it is always wrong to call a child names in a classroom, no matter the age. We’ll see how this plays out.
Meanwhile, another big story is emerging in Perth Amboy:
Perth Amboy school board members tonight voted to place their outspoken superintendent on paid administrative leave for a string of personnel charges.
Only four of the nine board members voted to remove Janine Caffrey.
Five board members abstained from the vote, with four of them saying they could not vote on personnel issues because they have relatives employed by the board.
The board vote was met with a roar of cheers and applause from the audience, many of them district employees who opposed Caffrey’s attempts to make change. Employees claim Caffrey was ordering changes without staff input.
Members of the Parent Teacher Organization supported Caffrey, saying she tried to move the district forward.
Board president Samuel Lebreault, in a lengthy statement, read 22 allegations against Caffrey, including giving interviews to newspapers and accusing him and another board member of pushing to give district jobs to their friends.
“These attacks are a great disservice to the community,” Lebreault said.
He also said staff morale is at its lowest point.
Caffrey, in a brief statement, called the charges baseless and said she would not give in to attempts to prevent her from doing her job.
“This is not about me,” Caffrey said. “This is about a community that has a long history of difficulty with government and a history of interference with administration. I will not yield.”
Yes, Perth Amboy’s had its issues, but this story isn’t really about that.
Caffrey has been a star witness against tenure for the corporate reformers in New Jersey. Tom Moran at the Star-Ledger tried to make her a folk hero for her stance, but he neglected to mention her qualifications to run Perth Amboy’s schools were less than stellar.
But bashing tenure has its privileges: coming to Caffrey’s aid was B4K, the reformy anti-union group. B4K launched a full-scale PR campaign supporting Caffrey; unfortunately for them, it didn’t work, and Caffrey has been put on a paid leave of absence.
But this story is hardly over. It turns out that Caffrey presided over a contract in Perth Amboy with a firm that has convoluted yet definite connections to B4K. Even if Caffrey gets her job back, questions will remain about her connections to the well-heeled group that fought for her in the press.
In addition, the president of the PABOE, Samuel Lebreault, is under investigation by the state Attorney General’s office for fraud in applying for free school lunches. The charges are similar to those faced by the president of the BOE in Elizabeth – a board that is politically aligned with Chris Christie.
Christie, however, has used Elizabeth as an excuse to radically change the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), which governs how state aid is distributed to districts. Right now, state aid is distributed through a formula based on school lunch enrollment. Christie’s administration contends that fraud runs rampant in the school lunch program, and he has appointed a woefully inadequate task force to investigate changing how this enrollment is applied.
But now the president of the Perth Amboy BOE is under investigation for school lunch fraud. How very… convenient.
We’ll see how each of these stories plays out in the days ahead. Share your comments below.