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Bad Words Possible Culprit For Yavne

By Jeanne Sager
MONTICELLO — June 19, 2007 — Two bad words and a whole lot of bad grammar.
Those are the reasons cited by Monticello Central School Superintendent Dr. Patrick Michel for the termination of middle school English teacher Evan Yavne.
Yavne says the typographical errors in an October 2005 performance review aren’t his.
As for the curse words, he admits to one but not the other, and stands firm on his story that he did not directly call a student a “#@$%&*!&%#$@#!.”
Michel’s list of reasons cites a June 19, 2006 incident between Yavne and a female student.
A confrontation between the two allegedly resulted in Yavne’s use of the epithet, behavior Michel called “reprehensible and unprofessional.”
Yavne said the student pulled out a stack of photographs during an examination, twisted in her seat and began “narrating each picture to the person sitting behind her.”
“When I told her to put away the pictures, turn around and get back to work, she stood up and began screaming that I was an &%#$@#! and a jerk,” Yavne recalled.
She was sent to the assistant principal’s office for discipline.
“As she left the room, I closed the door behind her and, not intending to be heard, said ‘what an &%#$@#!’ under my breath,’” Yavne admits. “Unfortunately, two or three students in the front row heard my comment and, applauding and laughing, repeated to the other students in the room what I had said.”
How many referrals?
Yavne said he only learned recently from a teacher’s union representative that he could have a rebuttal to the administration write-up of the incident added to his file.
To bolster his claims, he said he wanted to put an exact number on the referrals the student had racked up in her time at Robert J. Kaiser Middle School on Route 42.
Yavne said he was sent by secretaries in middle school administration up to the high school’s assistant principal’s office as the student is now in ninth grade.
There he says he asked for the number and was offered the file by a hesitant Assistant Principal Ted Kusulas.
“I said all I need is the number of referrals to establish a pattern of behavior,” Yavne recalled.
He said he never asked to see the actual file, and even denied Kusulas’ offer to break down the details of each of the 40 plus referrals.
A few days later, Yavne said he was called out of an activity day assignment by Principal Deb Wood.
She handed him a document carbon copied to Michel charging him with “illegal access to students [sic] file.”
The reprimand states that secretaries reported back to Wood that they were “uncomfortable” and “suspicious” when dealing with Yavne in the matter.
Wood charged Yavne with violating the law and “this students [sic] confidentiality rights.”
“I have informed the student’s parents,” Wood notes in her write up. “They will proceed with whatever actions they deem necessary.”
Kusulas’ decision to provide the number of referrals was “unfortunate,” Wood said.
But Yavne said he couldn’t ascertain what law he broke by asking a question, and Wood’s reprimand failed to denote what law he stands accused of violating.
Even more upsetting, Yavne said, was the district’s decision to inform the student’s parents that he’d broken a law he wasn’t aware of.
“They had contacted the parents of this students to tell them that a 45-year-old man was looking into the personal files of their daughter for a reason not related to her education,” he said. “How does that sound?
“But I didn’t break any law by asking for information,” he reiterated.
According to federal law, it’s OK for a teacher to make the request for “school-related purposes,” said Yavne’s lawyer, Rosalie Wallis.
“He wasn’t asking for her shoe size to buy her shoes!” she said with disgust. “If anyone was in violation, it would be the school for giving the information out.”
Students’ right to privacy
According to Michel, the law in question is FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law protecting the privacy of student education records.
But Michel couldn’t speak to the district’s discipline of Yavne in the matter, although he alluded to the fact that Kusulas was also reprimanded.
“In public education, we’re at a disadvantage because we can’t comment on any personnel issue,” he said. “Even if that person has given up their right to privacy.”
Michel said he simply could not expand on the Yavne case.
Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the United States Education Department, which oversees the administration of FERPA, said the law does not carry criminal penalties.
“Any violations of the act are handled on a school district basis – not individually,” Bradshaw said. “We're hesitant to get into a who is right and who is wrong on this.
“ We usually only get involved in cases when a complaint has been submitted to our Family Policy Compliance Office,” he continued. “As far as I know, we have not received a complaint.”
In Monticello, the FERPA issue revolves around an interpretation of the “need-to-know” provision of the law, Bradshaw said.
A 1994 amendment passed by the federal government notes that “nothing in FERPA prohibited an agency or institution from disclosing information about disciplinary actions taken against students to teachers and school officials, including those in other schools, who have legitimate educational interests in the behavior of the student.”
“Depending on the specific circumstances, a school official generally would not be considered to have a ‘legitimate educational interest’ in a student's education records if he wanted the information to defend himself,” Bradshaw explained. “Let me hasten to add, however, that we are speaking generally and would not make any judgments on a specific case without conducting an investigation.”
Wallis said she still can’t see any violation on Yavne’s part.
“Your thoughts, your questions can’t be regulated by the government or by the school,” she said. “Our laws just don’t work that way.
“Their problem is that he wanted information,” she continued. “By trying to stifle him, they are trying to violate his constitutional right to free speech.
“A school of all places should be careful of stepping on someone’s First Amendment rights.”
Wallis surmised the district assumed the threat of legal action would stop Yavne’s fight against his firing.
But he says “no way.”
“I thought I’d really found a home here, and the response from the parents and teachers tells me I’m right,” Yavne said. “But I had the audacity to have Deb Wood’s awful writing in my file and referred to a student by a name.”
But the writing and the incident were from the 2005-06 school year, he said.
He was brought back for 2006-07, which he assumes is because of a “glowing” summation written in June 2006 by administrator Betsie Green.
“Mr. Yavne’s astute intellectual capacity, his profound and expansive knowledge of literature and his care for students’ success are major attributes that helped him to experience the success he did,” Green said in her evaluation last year. “As he takes and uses the suggestions from this year, he will undoubtedly experience even more success as a teacher . . .”
Michel’s predecessor, Eileen Casey, kept Yavne on after the teacher used foul language.
Michel was assistant superintendent at the time, and he wasn’t privy to the information used in the hiring practices of the district.
Yavne had the chance to make corrections to his supervisor’s grammar before it was put in his file, Michel said. He didn’t make them.
Michel said he has high standards for his teachers, although he admitted he doesn’t go in person to observe the non-tenured teachers in action.
But he read Yavne’s file. He decided. Foul language, poor grammar – they don’t mesh with Monticello schools.

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