Delusions, Dismissal, Demented
Karen Horwitz, Wilmette, Illinois
I was an elementary school teacher and have been in the process of writing a book to tell my story. I think it is imperative that parents find out about teacher abuse, the shield that protects dubious administrators from ever having to be accountable to parents and children. With silent teachers, administrators are free to operate above the law and outside the wishes of parents.
Presently, even media people refuse to believe that teacher abuse exists. It does exist, just as child abuse and wife abuse existed long before people believed it did. Certainly we can’t expect to attract and keep quality teachers to an institution that denies teachers their constitutional rights. And we aren’t.
I returned to teaching in my forties after having earned a Master’s degree in Reading in 1992. In the spring of 1993, a principal with a vision for education, Carol Rak, hired me at Avoca School District, in Wilmette, Illinois, but resigned that June. The new principal, Venette Biancalana, was 29 years old with limited experience as a fourth grade teacher. During her first year, she terminated two older teachers who were up for tenure, and angered the community. They put the district on warning that they were going to watch what they did with me as they felt she didn’t want what they wanted, experienced teachers. So the following year I was given tenure with one hand while being covertly harassed, bullied, and accused of false charges with the other. As a resident of the nearby district that also fed into New Trier High School, one of the most renowned high schools in the US, they figured I wasn’t working for survival and would quit. They were wrong. Seeing what they were about, I became an investigative reporter and documented everything to expose the truth about our schools. It became survival of my soul.
“To live divided no more is to find a new center for one’s life, a center external to the institution and its demands. This does not mean leaving the institution physically; one may stay at one’s post. But it does mean taking one’s spiritual leave. One finds solid ground on which to stand outside the institution-the ground of one’s own being- and from that ground is better able to resist the deformations that occur when organizational values become the landscape of one’s inner life.”
Palmer J. Parker Courage to Teach
During my second year, John W. Sloan, the superintendent who is a master of deception, threatened me, letting me know I did not have the right to say my opinions publicly. This was a red flag, as few people feel comfortable threatening an attorney’s wife. Venette was so brutal, that by the end of my second year I was in bad shape. The stress contributed to my having to go through angioplasty in June. During that summer, the superintendent met with me and agreed to talk to Venette. My third year was great. But Venette could not control her need for power and during the fourth year she started creating situations to set me up, and turn others against me. At the same time she was harassing most of the other older teachers. The over 40 librarian, Barbara Entin, was suddenly ousted from her position and made into a floating substitute. They had to maintain her salary by contract, so she was earning over $75,000, while subbing on days when someone was absent. She was humiliated and expected to quit. I was ordered to move from fourth to fifth grade and to teach two sections of lab science. Biancalana admitted to our fourth grade team that she couldn’t teach science, yet she assigned it to me with no discussion. Over half of my fourth grade students’ parents requested to have their child in my fifth grade class as I was a respected and well-liked teacher. They had no knowledge of my issues with the District as I remained professional for four years.
I appealed to Superintendent Sloan about the discriminatory treatment older teachers were facing. He threatened me once again, saying if anyone escalated any issue he would make her life miserable. A group of us went to an attorney. I filed an EEOC age discrimination charge on my own. During my fifth year, I spoke publicly to parents about what was really going on, including writing an essay for the local paper that never was published, but was put on the Internet by a parent. I realized that my sense of professionalism had enabled the administrators to abuse the parents and children, and I had a moral duty to speak out. I also spoke out about the manipulated Board election.
Meanwhile, the president of the Union, Tracy Gordon, used her position to support the District’s retaliatory campaign against me. I was forced to see Dr. Peter Fink, a forensic psychiatrist infamous in Chicago for testifying that a retarded 9 year old boy, who was read his Miranda rights without adults present, understood his rights. He determined that I was fit to teach, but needed psychological testing since I was imagining harassment and might be paranoid or delusional. Dr. Fink violated the limited release I signed stating he could only release a report to the District if it were released to me simultaneously, and gave an oral report to the District without notifying me. When questioned as to this professional breach of patients’ rights, he stated that I wasn’t his patient. Somehow the Hippocratic Oath vanished even though I was ordered to see him in his capacity as a doctor. There is no limit to the sleaze in the world of education.
I was handed 50 nasty letters from October 98 through March of 99 and ordered to put my hand out in front of parents, colleagues and children. Teachers were encouraged to turn against me. A fellow teacher, Shelley Kelley, implied I was unprofessional in a newspaper article without ever talking to me. She claimed that the school always treated teachers professionally if they were professional; she knew that just months before they had arbitrarily demoted the professional librarian to a floating substitute and people were distraught over it. They loaded my class with difficult children whose records stated not to be put with another child who was also put in my class. They monitored my class. They falsely accused me of child abuse. They engaged the special education director and teacher to sabotage my efforts with special students. Every attempt was made to make my life miserable. I was determined to endure to force them to fire me while accumulating more proof. On April 21, 1999, when all eyes were on Columbine, Superintendent Sloan was obsessed with carrying out his threat and he sent me a list of 31 issues of insubordination and unprofessionalism.
My tenure hearing occurred in the summer of 2000 after the first hearing officer quit. It was a kangaroo trial including a parent’s letter submitted by the District that conveniently had a sentence missing, with a black line added to the page. (They didn’t know I had a copy of that letter.) The missing sentence stated: “Throughout the years, past experience has shown that what the parents want and what the children need is not important. It is what Dr. Sloan wants is what goes.” There is enough arrogance and disrespect for the laws of the land that they knew they could get away with submitting this letter in an altered form.
They were correct in their thinking, as Rubin supported this. When my attorney submitted the authentic document that afternoon, the hearing officer screamed at him and would not allow him to put on the record that the sentence was mysteriously missing. The hearing officer stated that he would not allow witnesses who could speak to the lack of credibility of the administrators since they were not on trial. He went on to say that he didn’t care if they were after me. Although insubordination is the refusal to follow a reasonable order, he refused to investigate whether the orders were reasonable. The decision was due by Illinois State Statue in mid December of 2000. No decision was rendered; the hearing officer kept promising and then did nothing.
I sent letters to every conceivable government official in Illinois. I asked my Union attorney to go into state court and get the court to order Steve Rubin to rule. They hinted that I might have to choose another officer, ignoring my pleas that the law is unconstitutional and violates my 14th Amendment rights. There is no guarantee that any future hearing officer will rule either. Then, I received a letter from my Union attorney telling me that the Union counsel says I need to choose between a new hearing officer or a new hearing. (The last one cost me about $100,000.) The new officer would not be able to judge the credibility of the witnesses and they added that they might not be able to secure the record from Rubin and will then have to reconstruct a record from the transcripts. Steve Rubin had not only refused to rule, but was possibly withholding my record and the state and Union were permitting this as if it was just fine.
My evaluations throughout my first four years were excellent. Sixty parents signed a petition asking them to support me in my attempt to get the board to investigate the administrators. The board refused, saying that is not what they do. The president of the School Board, Dorothy Ballantyne, testified at the tenure hearing that I was an excellent teacher. Only five of the seven board members voted to remediate me and then terminate me. The two who stood in their integrity are now the President and the Vice President of the new board. The Superintendent retired in June of 2002, having lost his political hold over the board. Almost the entire cast of characters attempting to abuse me is no longer at the school.
The District’s state reading scores declined significantly during Venette Biancalana’s regime. Whereas the other feeder districts remained mostly in the 90 percentiles, my former school had a third grade reading score of 73%, a score unheard of in a community of the most highly educated professionals; Biancalana has focused her attention on teacher cleansing rather than education. Meanwhile, Tracy Gordon, the former Union president who gave documented false testimony at the tenure hearing is still teaching. Barbara Entin, the librarian, who had been targeted by the District, managed to regain a job in special education after she signed an affidavit with false information, helping the District win in summary judgment, thus denying me my day in federal court. (She had promised to testify about my having had lesson plans contrary to Biancalana’s false accusations; she was now saying she had no knowledge of harassment at our school.) A parent who started as a cashier, was promoted to head of food services right after she testified against me at the tenure hearing. She was one of three parents who spoke against me. A parent of a student I had for science, testified that she didn’t think I was a very good science teacher. I submitted a document signed by her commending me on an aspect of my science teaching. She apparently had forgotten she had written that in her fervor to support the administration. One other parent, whose son I was accused of abusing by Biancalana, testified that her son was upset at the beginning of the year because of my no nonsense style, but it all worked out fine. She attributed the success to Biancalana telling me her concerns; she had no idea that Biancalana never told me he was upset, hoping to create a case against me as the child’s issues escalated. No child was above being a pawn for her agenda. Even though the child was doing fine, Sloan accused me of abusing him.
Finally, after a phone call from the newspaper, the Illinois State Board wrote a threatening letter to Rubin, stating they would sue him if he did not rule. I received his decision on July 1, 2002, 19 months late. Of course, it was negative. Even if he weren’t already biased, which was quite apparent by how he treated me during the hearing, he knew I was the one forcing him to rule. I was responsible for the humiliating letter he received – a Harvard Law School Graduate being threatened like a lowlife attorney. In fact, he responded with a 66-page, single spaced vendetta, personally attacking me, and accusing me of being delusional about problems at Avoca. The hearing will be the focus of another book I plan to publish on the dismissal procedure, using certified documents to prove the abuse of the system. It reveals much simply on its own merits.
The IEA/Union has refused to support an appeal or a lawsuit to prove the process unconstitutional, so I will represent myself. The Attorney General’s Office has stated they cannot help me anymore even though they profess to care about teachers; they helped me obtain a tainted decision and dumped me. The ACLU says they do not have the money to support this, yet they find the money for issues such as supporting terrorists. Is it any wonder no person with half a brain wants to teach? Senator Peter Fitzgerald is the only faint light in the tunnel of abuse. The rest have ignored me or given me a runaround.
Working as an activist has been a challenge, since so few teachers will talk. But after three years of surfing the web, I finally found a few other like-minded individuals and a fabulous partner to start NAPTA, National Association for the Prevention of Teacher Abuse. It has become extremely fulfilling and has finally brought me to a place where I experience the joy I used to feel as a teacher. Most of all I believe I can really make a difference and have discovered why all this had to happen to me. There are no accidents.
Schools are organized crime. The record proves this was a witch-hunt and my story is one of many all over the US. The school has wasted over $300,000 on the tenure process so far and it may double with an appeal. They need to silence me because if just one teacher manages to prove what is really going on, their game is over. You may be thinking, this makes no sense. Neither does child abuse, but it happens. We need to stop teacher abuse. It makes a lot more sense than you think. It is the administrators’ ticket to total control, which they need to further their agendas which conflict with parents and taxpayers. Meanwhile, earlier this year, another teacher filed an EEOC age discrimination charge against Avoca School District because Biancalana struck again once she succeeded with me. More tax dollars squandered. It is sad.
“It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can do only a little. Do what you can.” Sydney Smith