Stories & Grievances
Maria Colon, New York City Whistleblower Teacher, is Exonerated by the 3020-a Arbitrator in the Name of Justice
Ms. Colon, a former chapter leader from John F. Kennedy HS in the Bronx, was exonerated of all charges brought by the Department of Education, which had tried to have her fired for neglect of duty, insubordination and conduct unbecoming her position. In a stunning 26-page decision, an independent hearing officer threw out all the charges against Maria Colon, claiming that the Department of Education presented “no evidence” to substantiate one of their claims and “insufficient evidence” to back up another claim, and that minor record-keeping deficiencies did not warrant a change from the Satisfactory rating Colon had received for the previous school year.
by Jim Callaghan,Jan 18, 2007 2:34 PM
UFT helps defeat attempt by DOE, principal to have her fired
A former chapter leader from John F. Kennedy HS in the Bronx and powerful witness in last year’s City Council whistle-blower hearing was exonerated of all charges brought by the Department of Education, which had tried to have her fired for neglect of duty, insubordination and conduct unbecoming her position.
In a stunning 26-page decision, an independent hearing officer threw out all the charges against Maria Colon, claiming that the Department of Education presented “no evidence” to substantiate one of their claims and “insufficient evidence” to back up another claim, and that minor record-keeping deficiencies did not warrant a change from the Satisfactory rating Colon had received for the previous school year.
Colon has been sitting in a rubber room, formally called a “Reassignment Center,” since September 2005. Although the decision was written six weeks ago — on Dec. 4 — she has yet to be assigned to a school.
“This was a great victory for the UFT, the students at JFK and faculty members who stood by me,” Colon said. “The principal of the school, Anthony Rotunno, and the DOE went after me because they wanted to bust up the union. They wanted to use me as an example — if it can happen to a chapter leader, it can happen to anyone.”
Colon was brought up on dismissal charges shortly after she, in her capacity as chapter leader, confronted Rotunno about Regents grades that teachers discovered had been changed.
Colon said she refused to look the other way when grades were being changed. “What happened to me is a 21st-century version of McCarthyism,” she said.
In March 2006, Colon testified with other UFT members at the City Council urging the body to pass a whistle-blower law.
“What has happened to me over the past year has put my career in jeopardy and undermined the integrity of the school I love,” she told Council members.
She testified that two English teachers at her school suspected that the administration had inflated the scores of the English Regents exam to boost the school’s academic ratings. They noticed that about 20 students who had failed the exam later had their scores adjusted upward, sometimes by as much as 25 percentage points.
“It was dishonest and we felt that it was a violation of New York State testing procedures that compromised the entire scoring system,” Colon testified.
Colon said she organized a group of English teachers to go to the principal to discuss the issue and filed a complaint with the State Education Department. Colon said the principal “ignored them.”
“The very day I filed the complaint with the state, my principal called the Special Commissioner of Investigations alleging that I had student transcripts in my office,” she testified. “Investigators rifled through my office the next day and found nothing.”
Her colleagues at her school took a vote of no confidence against the administration, and some 60 teachers and 30 students staged a protest outside the school.
“Anyone who was involved in that protest was retaliated against in one way or another,” Colon said.
Lynne Winderbaum, the UFT district representative for Bronx high schools, said that soon after Colon reported the grade changes to the state, she received notice that she was in excess.
Every bilingual social studies teacher was put in excess as Kennedy HS closed down its bilingual program despite having hundreds of ELL students. “This was a clear violation of state law,” Winderbaum said.
Colon said there was no question in her mind that she was taken out of the classroom and hit with trumped-up charges because of her political activism as a chapter leader.
“I was punished because I was a whistle-blower,” she said.
UFT President Randi Weingarten applauded the hearing officer’s decision.
“Justice has been served, although it has exacted a very huge toll on Maria and our sisters and brothers at JFK HS. The decision is crystal clear — and chilling. It fully exonerates what Maria and others did — which is to call attention to what appeared to be grade tampering.
“Instead of being applauded for that act of whistle-blowing, they were retaliated against. The hearing officer saw it and called it the way it was. Now it is incumbent upon the DOE to immediately get Maria back in the classroom where she belongs,” Weingarten said.
In another part of the case, JFK’s principal alleged that Colon tampered with a student’s attendance records and interfered with a police probe involving that student’s records. Rotunno filed a complaint against Colon with the special commissioner of investigations.
The hearing examiner wrote that the record “does not provide sufficient support for the Department’s position that Colon interfered with a police investigation. There is no persuasive evidence that the matter was under investigation by the New York City Police Department.”
Colon was also accused of sending confidential student records to a reporter for Newsday, a charge that was also thrown out by the hearing examiner due to “insufficient evidence.”
In his efforts to strip Colon of her teaching license, Rotunno alleged that Colon was late in turning in her weekly attendance reports. “That has never been a cause for dismissal in all my 36 years of teaching,” said Winderbaum.
The hearing officer wrote that Colon’s tardiness in submitting the reports “did not affect the ‘Satisfactory’ rating she received for the 2003-2004 school year,” and that the letter that the principal placed in her file on the matter precluded the DOE from disciplining Colon again for the same violations.
Colon has no regrets about her actions. “It was my responsibility to protect the members of the UFT,”?she said. “I could not entertain the thought of ‘if I am fired.’ We had a moral, ethical and legal obligation to protect the members and safeguard the educational interests of over 3,000 students.”
She said that she was happy with the outcome of her case, but suffered emotional stress while sitting in the Reassignment Center.
“You are devastated and angry to be taken out of a classroom you love so passionately as you wait for a case to be resolved,” she said. “But this case has certainly lifted the spirits of the members of JFK and I hope that it will be a vehicle of motivation for others who fight against brutal injustices — and who sit in the Reassignment Centers waiting.”
Winderbaum said Colon’s loss has been felt at JFK.
“Maria was a very popular teacher among the bilingual student community,” she said. “As an ESL teacher, we shared many of the same students. I know what they thought of her and how she felt about them. It was certainly a great loss for them.”
Colon grew up on Southern Boulevard in the South Bronx and was graduated from JFK, where, she said, she had “wonderful teachers.” After attending Herbert Lehman College, she returned to JFK as a bilingual social studies teacher in 1995. She was the school’s UFT chapter leader from 2003 to June 2005.
Colon thanked the union for its help throughout her ordeal and cited, in particular, for standing by her: Winderbaum, NYSUT attorney Sherry Bokser, Weingarten, UFT Vice President Carmen Alvarez, UFT Special Representatives Paul Egan and Rodney Grubiak, UFT Executive Board member Jeff Kaufman and retired teacher Norman Scott.
Testimony Of Maria Colon To the Council Education Committee on Proposed Whistle-blower Legislation March 2, 2006
My name is Maria Colon. I was a student at John F. Kennedy HS and returned to the school as a bilingual social studies teacher in 1995. I was the school’s UFT chapter leader from 2003 to June 2005.
What has happened to me over the past year has put my career in jeopardy and undermined the integrity of the school I love.
In May of last year, two English teachers told me they suspected that the administration had inflated the scores of the January English Regents exam to boost the school’s academic ratings.
The teachers noticed a pattern of about 20 students who had failed the exam, but subsequently had their scores adjusted upwards, sometimes by as much as 25 percentage points. It was dishonest and we felt that it was a clear violation of New York State testing procedures that compromised the entire scoring system. At no time were teachers or guidance counselors informed of the changes.
Following my advice, the teachers went to the principal, who ignored them. So I organized a group of English teachers to go to the principal to discuss the issue. The principal insisted that the administration had the right to change the grades. We held three more meetings with the principal to urge him to act, but he refused to do anything to rectify the situation.
For the protection of students at JFK, we filed a complaint with the State Dept. of Education in May.
The state, however, punted the probe to the city. A Dept. of Education spokesman told New York Times columnist Michael Winerip last month that city investigators concluded that the complaint was “unsubstantiated” since a principal had the right to change grades. But there was no written report, however. The spokesman admitted that the city did not look into whether the changes were appropriate.
The very day I filed the complaint with the state, my principal called the school system’s Special Commissioner for Investigations alleging that I had student transcripts in my office. Investigators rifled through my office the next day and found nothing.
The press picked up on the grade change story. I, as chapter leader, was quoted in the news stories, making me even more vulnerable.
In May, my UFT chapter took a vote of no-confidence against the administration. About 60 teachers and 30 students also staged a protest outside Kennedy HS in early June.
Anyone who was involved in that protest was retaliated against in one way or another.
In my case, on the last day of school, I received a letter notifying me that I was being excessed. I was one of 17 staffers in bilingual education who lost their positions at Kennedy in September. I believe that the administration got rid of all those bilingual and ESL instructors to justify getting rid of me. The school served more than 2,000 JFK students who needed our services. Their education was sacrificed because of our political action. Children who were mandated for bilingual education were told to go to school elsewhere or were left to sink or swim in English-only classes at Kennedy.
In September, I was falsely accused of sending student transcripts with their names on them to the press. I have been reassigned to a “rubber room” pending the outcome of the investigation.
In October, I received a revised annual performance rating. I was given a U for the 2004-2005 school year. I was stunned. I had never received a U rating before, even for an observation.
This January, I was brought up on 3020a charges for termination for insubordination and not following department policy.
Why is my teaching career in jeopardy? Simply for telling the truth and trying to protect the integrity of the educational system and the interests of students.
I urge you to pass the whistleblower legislation before you. Teachers like me desperately need its protection.