Former Sampson G. Smith Teacher Loses Appeal Of Her Dismissal

appellate court sealA former teacher at Sampson G. Smith School who allegedly said a group of African-Amercian students were “acting like a bunch of monkeys” has lost an appeal of her 2012 dismissal on charges that her conduct toward her students was “unbecoming and violated the standards required by public school teachers.”

A 3-judge panel of the state Appellate Court found that the state Education Commissioner’s decision to call for the dismissal of former teacher Courtney Watson was warranted.

Watson taught math to nine special needs 5th graders, and also co-taught social studies and science to these and other students.

In her appeal, Watson argued that the commissioner’s decision was “arbitrary and capricious,” and resulted from an erroneous interpretation of the law, according to the June 4 decision. Watson also argued that if the commissioner’s decision was found to not be capricious, then a dismissal was too harsh of a punishment for her actions.

According to the statement of facts recited in the decision, former schools Superintendent Edward Seto initiated tenure charges against Watson involving seven incidents in 2011. Following a 4-day hearing, an Administrative Law Judge upheld five of the seven charges, according to the narrative:

  • On Dec. 14, 2011, Watson told the special education students, most of whom were African-American, that they were “stupid” and “acting like monkeys.”
  • On Dec. 14, 2011, Watson told another faculty member that she was going to “flatten” two students.
  • On Dec. 15, 2011, Watson grabbed the shirt of a student and hit him.
  • On Dec. 15, 2011, Watson grabbed a rubber band from one of the students and let it snap bak on her wrist.
  • Watson cursed at her students at various times during the year.

“The Commissioner concluded appellant’s conduct violated the required professional standards of a public school teacher, warranting appellant’s removal and dismissal,” according to the decision.

The Appellate judges noted that Watson admitted to cursing, to threatening to “flatten” the students, that she “guided” a student to his seat “without force” and that her comment to the students was made “without racial malice.”

According to the Appellate decision, the commissioner “was not persuaded by appellant’s alleged ignorance regarding the import attached to the comment. The Commissioner also concluded appellant’s testimony failed to ‘exonerate her from responsibility for using demeaning language in her directions to students’.”

In their decision, the judges ruled that the Administrative Law Judge properly heard all the relevant evidence, and the education commissioner properly relied on the ALJ’s decision in making his finding for dismissal.

“A teacher is charged with guiding students and must exemplify self-control,” the judges wrote. “Appellant’s behavior is just the opposite. Appellant’s admission to calling her special education children’s behavior “stupid,” symbolizes the epitome of unacceptable name-calling by a professional whose standards of conduct demands much more.

“Incorporating profane expressions of any type, while in charge of a fifth-grade classroom, cannot be defended,” the decision reads. “Appellant’s admissions also show she had engaged in unwarranted physical contact with students to effectuate disciplinary efforts. Finally, appellant’s demonstrated threatening motion of slicing across her throat, accompanied by a statement of intended physical harm made to school professionals, is neither benign nor tolerable.”

Watson’s conduct “manifests behavior that specifically undermines the public’s trust and confidence in her as a teacher, and generally reflects negatively on the public school, charged with caring for and educating young students,” the judges wrote. “The Commissioner’s findings and conclusions in this regard are supported and we discern no basis to intervene or correct the agency action.”

As far as her dismissal is concerned, the judges wrote that they were “not shocked” by the imposition of the penalty, and would defer to the commissioner’s decision.

“The Commissioner determined appellant’s relationship with her students had become ‘adversarial, and the responsibility for that must rest in great part with the adult — the professional’,” the judges wrote. “Finally, the Commissioner noted that appellant expressed no regret about the impact of her actions and she did not ‘truly accept responsibility.’ Accordingly, the nature and circumstances of the incidents, along with appellant’s seeming lack of introspection and expressed concern for the effect of her behavior on the students, the school and her profession, militated against the likelihood of correction.”

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