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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Harris Lirtzman, Whistleblower, Wins His Career Back After His Claims Are Found To Be True

All whistleblowers must stay on course and fight for right.

Stay the course. I wrote about Mr. Harris Lirtzman in 2012, and now give him our well-known "A For Accountability Award" awards him the "A For Accountability Award" for 2012

Betsy Combier

Harris Lirtzman

July 6, 2012

On Special Education, Spurned Teacher Is Vindicated

Perhaps it pays to heed Harris Lirtzman.
A passionate fellow, this teacher warned his principal last fall that their Bronx public high school was routinely violating the rights of the most vulnerable children, those in need of special education.
For speaking up, Mr. Lirtzman — who served as a deputy New York State comptroller before turning at age 53 to public-school teaching — saw his career ground to dust. He was denied tenure, and the principal, Grismaldy Laboy-Wilson, asked him to leave immediately. When he took his worries to the investigative arm of New York City’s Education Department, the investigators opened a file on him instead.
I wrote of Mr. Lirtzman’s struggle in May. His vindication arrived in the mail in June.
The State Education Department investigated his charges and sent him a copy of its report. It sustained Mr. Lirtzman’s allegations, one violation of state regulations after another.
High school administrators at the Felisa Rincón de Gautier Institute for Law and Public Policy in the Bronx had put unqualified teachers in charge of special education classes. They pushed these students into classes crowded with general education students.
And most egregiously, when faced with teaching vacancies, the administrators brought in a conga line of substitute teachers on “rotating” one-week stints to teach special education classes. That treads perilously close to educational malpractice.
It’s hard to scrape a usable quote from the state report, which is written in Haute Bureaucratese. Perhaps better to leave the talking to Mr. Lirtzman.
“There are a lot of gray areas in teaching special education in a big city,” he says. “But a fair amount is black and white: A kid is either getting the services required by federal law or not.”
This is not quite the end of the story. The city’s Education Department evinced little interest in Mr. Lirtzman’s allegations in May. Now a spokeswoman says it has commenced its own investigation.
The Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, which represents principals, argues that the fault lies with the city’s Education Department, which imposes budget cuts and ever more demands on principals. Higher-ups, they say, approved Ms. Laboy-Wilson’s decisions, including placing substitute teachers in special education classrooms on a rotating basis.
The principal, they say, is not at fault.
“You’re going to find that the mistakes they make up above are landing on the heads of my members,” said Ernest A. Logan, the council’s president. “This is a case in point.”
The council added in a written statement that history shows that the city and the state often have “inconsistent special education guidelines.”
Let’s posit, as it is true, that Mr. Logan and his staff are intelligent advocates who often stand at the forefront of fighting the most unreasonable aspects of the Bloomberg Education Revolution. They offer a properly stout defense of their members. And they passed along internal department memos that indeed show education officials have turned a blind eye to special education violations, and have directed principals to make do in ways that skirt these regulations..
It’s also true that the city’s Education Department shoulders a heavy burden. It dedicates 18,000 teachers to special education. Each student is required by law to have an individual educational plan.
But those words — “inconsistent special education guidelines” — are a not-so-lovely euphemism for violating the rights of underserved children.
I asked the State Education Department if it is unfair to blame a principal for failing special education children.
“Kids are supposed to get an education, and they are supposed to get it from properly qualified teachers,” said Tom Dunn, a department spokesman. “We said there are violations. They should fix it now.”
All of which brings us back to Mr. Lirtzman. He went to that high school in the Bronx for a job interview just before school began in 2009. The principal hired him on the spot, and a few days later, he was teaching a special education math class.
He had a wild toboggan ride of a time and came to love his students. Several parents said he was one of the best teachers their children ever had.
But when the department denied him tenure and the principal forced him out, he had enough. He retired.
His coda arrived a few days ago, again in the mail. The principal, Ms. Laboy-Wilson, filled out his final evaluation, in accordance with regulations. She rated him satisfactory over all.
On a long list, she listed him as unsatisfactory in just two areas: He did not keep a professional attitude and maintain good relations with supervisors.
If that’s the price of dissent, suffice it to say Mr. Lirtzman can live with that.

May 21, 2012

Helping Special Education Students, and Paying With His Career

There was no particular moment when Harris Lirtzman decided to blow the whistle, and so close the door on his teaching career.
A former deputy state comptroller, he had decided to give public school teaching a midcareer whirl. In 2009, he landed a job as a special education math teacher at the Gautier Institute for Law and Public Policy, a Bronx high school.
He describes that first year as a cross between a hurricane and a tornado, learning his craft in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. He came to love his work.
But in September 2011, school administrators placed uncertified teachers — and a conga line of unemployed teachers who came for one-week stints — in classrooms filled with special education students, which is to say those children most in need of expert help.
This violated federal regulations.
Mr. Lirtzman, 56, decided to speak up. As he was not yet tenured, he stepped gingerly.
“I am NOT trying to cause problems,” he wrote in an e-mail to his assistant principal, but, he added, “we’re violating” court-mandated educational plans for students.
Mr. Lirtzman, unwittingly, became sand in the school’s gears.
He had received nothing but satisfactory evaluations. But in December, he said, the principal, Grismaldy Laboy-Wilson, said that she would not recommend him for tenure. The next day, she told him to leave immediately.
Mr. Lirtzman took his allegations to the Office of Special Investigations, an in-house unit at the Department of Education. An investigator asked for proof.
Mr. Lirtzman handed over 20 student programs, all of which showed that administrators placed students in classrooms with uncertified teachers. The investigator informed Mr. Lirtzman that these were confidential documents.
Now I am opening an investigation of you, she told him. It would be enough to bring a smile to the lips of Kafka.
“These are the most vulnerable kids, the ones no one really looks out for,” Mr. Lirtzman said. “This wasn’t a gray legal area. This was black and white, and the Department of Education decided that I was the problem.”
The Department of Education portrays Mr. Lirtzman as disgruntled at his failure to get tenure, and the principal declined to comment on his allegations.
New York City does not shoulder an easy burden trying to care for its tens of thousands of special education students. More than 18,000 teachers are dedicated to special education. Each student is required by law to have an individual educational plan, or I.E.P.
It’s also true that the city, over many administrations, has failed many of these students. Therapy is in too short supply; students — who wrestle with emotional and learning disabilities — are crammed in classrooms that are too large; and administrators sometimes conspire to push out troubled children. Graduation rates for these students are vanishingly low.
As Kim Sweet, executive director of the nonprofit Advocates for Children of New York, said: “We see cases of schools violating I.E.P.’s all the time. Our phones ring off the hook.”
Mr. Lirtzman acquired a crash course in these multiple neglects. And, although he does not phrase it so grandly, he also helped rescue a few of these children.
One such teenager, Derek Chestnut Jr., had more or less thrived in middle school, but ran upon the academic shoals at Gautier, where he was stuck in classes with a changing cast of uncertified teachers. One day, Mr. Lirtzman talked to the student’s father, Derek Chestnut Sr.
“He kept hinting something was wrong, and finally he told me there were rotating aides and teachers,” Mr. Chestnut recalled about their conversation. “The administrators told me otherwise, and I really didn’t appreciate when they tried to pull the wool over my eyes.”
Mr. Chestnut took his case to the upper reaches of the education bureaucracy. Quickly, without the usual resistance, he obtained an unusual legal letter that entitled him to place his son in a private school for special education children, all paid for by the city.
“They admitted off the bat that my son’s I.E.P. was being violated,” he said. “I owe this to one honest man, Mr. Lirtzman. He became an advocate not just for my son, but for all special education students in that school.”
Mr. Lirtzman acknowledges that he burns hot. The Department of Education now says Ms. Laboy-Wilson filed a harassment charge against him after he sent her several particularly heated e-mails. Mr. Lirtzman, who showed me dozens of his e-mails, insists his correspondence included no threat.
He has worked at high levels in city and state government. He was not intent on career suicide.
“I wanted to be a teacher; I wanted to get tenure,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to commit kamikaze so that I would feel good about myself.”

New York Exonerates Sped Teacher Fired For Reporting Legal Violations