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Teacher At School That Principal Left Gets 6 Months No-Pay For Hitting Student, Touching Others

School bus
School bus Photo Credit: https://morguefile.com/photos/JasonGillman

Already dealing with the mysterious departure of their principal and vice-principal, parents of students at Wyckoff’s middle school learned this week that a teacher there was recently disciplined for inappropriately touching students.

As with the abrupt departure of Eisenhower Middle School Principal Christopher Iasiello and Assistant Principal Christopher Giordano, parents this week said they had no idea that an arbitrator two weeks ago upheld a six-month suspension without pay for teacher Scott Levy.

No announcements were made nor information shared, parents in the northwest Bergen County district said.

Board President Robert Francin said Thursday that district officials don't intend to reinstate Levy despite the state-appointed arbitrator's ruling, which cannot be appealed to the State Board of Education or New Jersey education commissioner.

The district's only alternative would be to ask a state judge to uphold Levy's dismissal.

Levy already had a documented history when he was accused of assaulting a seventh-grade student and inappropriately touching two others, documents show.

The first student said he’d knocked a book from her hands and then whacked her in the face. The second said that Levy repeatedly touched her shoulder, back and hands and once kept his hand on her thigh. The third said he’d also touched her leg and made her feel uncomfortable.

District officials, claiming sexual harassment, wanted the tenured Levy removed.

Levy, who’s been a language arts teacher at Eisenhower since 2005, contended that he was innocent. Any contact was incidental and not purposeful, he said.

Following a tenure hearing, Arbitrator David J. Reilly ruled last month that Levy suffered from a “failure to maintain appropriate boundaries.”

At the same time, the arbitrator said he wasn't convinced that the behavior “constituted sexual harassment or was sexual in nature.”

The penalty: Six months suspension without pay and a final written warning.

Levy must also, at his own expense, “attend and successfully complete eight hours of professional development classes regarding appropriate teacher-student interactions and classroom management,” Reilly wrote in a 50-page opinion.

"Inadvertent and unintentional"

The Jan. 28 ruling followed tenure hearings held at an attorney’s office in Fair Lawn over the course of a month beginning last September, records show.

Levy, during his testimony, cited extracurricular service at the school, including running the winter theater program and drama club for nine years and serving as faculty advisor for the school’s newspaper club, as well as on its Language Arts Literacy Committee.

Officials were so pleased with his work, Levy said, that they established a journalism class and assigned him as its teacher.

If he was guilty of any inappropriate contact, he contended, it was inadvertent and unintentional.

Levy also argued that the board didn’t provide sufficient evidence to prove its case and discredited the testimony of the students.

Before the more serious allegations surfaced last year, district officials said, Levy had “accumulated a substantial record of misconduct in his teaching position for which remedial measures have been taken and failed."

Among those making that argument to Reilly was Christopher Iasiello, who’d been the Eisenhower School principal up until recently -- and apparently left, along with the school's vice-principal, under unexplained circumstances.

SEE: Where Did Bergen School Principal, Assistant Principal Go? Those Who Know Won't Say

Levy had a “very difficult year” in 2014-15, primarily with boys who complained of harsh treatment -- but with girls, as well, according to their parents, Iasiello said.

The principal told the arbitrator that he counseled Levy and met regularly with him the following school year but that he’d “failed to satisfy the requirements of the CAP.”

Problems included “parent complaints regarding his treatment of students, including his use of sarcastic and inappropriate language,” Iasiello said.

This time, Iasiello withheld Levy’s annual pay raise for 2016-17 and put him on a second CAP that required, among other things, that he “demonstrate consistently a positive, professional and respectful demeanor toward [his] students through appropriate daily instruction,” Reilly wrote.

In response, Levy “took what had happened the year prior seriously [and] was a whole different person,” Iasiello told the arbitrator. “[H]e met everything I asked him to meet.”

Iasiello said he switched Levy from the eighth to the seventh grade for the 2017-18 school year to give him a “fresh start.” Levy got positive evaluations that school year and the one after that, the principal said.

Then came an incident on Jan. 3, 2020.

"Upset and stunned"

Suzanne Dobson, a school guidance counselor, testified that a 12-year-old seventh-grader told her that Levy “knocked a book from her hands when she approached him for assistance on a writing assignment” during class.

He then “reached back and hit her in the face twice” after she picked up her book and waited for him to finish assisting other students, the girl said.

The youngster appeared “very upset” and “seemed stunned” by Levy’s behavior, said Dobson, who notified Iasiello and then-Assistant Principal Charles Giordano.

Iasiello testified that the girl told him the same story later that day, as did two other students who corroborated her account. One said Levy “reached back with his hand in performing a fake yawn” and struck the girl’s cheek. The contact “was not accidental,” the classmate said.

Levy called the claims "preposterous" and said there was "no way that it happened, completely untrue,” Iasiello told Reilly.

Then-acting Supt. Jeffrey Feifer testified that he met with the girl and with Levy, who claimed to have a “great relationship with the kids.” He then suspended Levy pending a thorough investigation.

The girl herself testified last fall that she was holding her books and a Chromebook when she approached Levy for help with her assignment during third-period language arts.

After initially ignoring her, she said, Levy knocked the books and laptop from her hands, then pointed her to a nearby desk while he continued talking with her classmates.

She then “described him as talking with his hands and making contact with her head,” Reilly wrote.

When she raised her hands in defense, the girl testified, Levy “pushed through her hands and made contact with her head a second time.”

For his part, Levy said that he was in front of the class delivering the day’s mini-lesson when the girl “disregarded his directive to return to her seat.”

“Electing to ignore rather than scold her, he continued with the mini-lesson,” Reilly said Levy testified. “Upon concluding the instruction, he reported pushing past her and proceeding to the rear of the classroom, where he worked with a group of students.

“He acknowledged possibly making incidental contact with [the girl] as he walked by her, which may have caused her to drop her books,” Reilly wrote. “He did not, however, see the books fall from her hands, noting that he would have apologized if he had been aware [of it].”

He “denied striking [her] in the face that day and reported having no recollection of making contact with her face,” Reilly noted.

In his testimony before the arbitrator, Levy accused the girl of mocking his hand gestures when he spoke. If she’d been doing so that day, he told the arbitrator, “I can see myself going like this, like fake yawning, to stop her from doing that.”

That same month, a second seventh grader claimed that Levy “would get close to her" and "touch her shoulder and back," Dobson testified.

“She also related that on one occasion, [Levy] placed his hand on her thigh and did not remove it until she moved her leg away,” the guidance counselor told Reilly.

This “caused her to feel very uncomfortable” in his class, she said.

"Unwanted and unsolicited"

The girl, 12, signed a statement that said, in part, that Levy had “touched her back and hands multiple times and on one occasion had placed his hand on her thigh as he leaned in to look at her computer," Iasiello testified.

Iasiello alerted Feifer and referred the matter to the Board of Education’s anti-bullying coordinator, Stacey Linzenbold, for investigation of possible sexual harassment.

To him, the alleged behavior met the threshold of the school’s anti-harassment, intimidation and bullying policy, the principal testified.

Linzenbold – who this week officially took over as acting administrator in charge of the Eisenhower School -- told Reilly that she spoke with the girl, as well as with two other students.

She said she also spoke with Levy, who insisted reports of touching were “absolutely not true.” He also insisted that he would “never put his hands on a student," she told the arbitrator.

Linzenbold concluded that Levy had committed sexual harassment “in that it constituted an unwanted and unsolicited advance.”

The girl later testified that Levy, during the 2019-2020 school year, “put his hands on her shoulder and back, especially when she was signing out to the leave the classroom," Reilly wrote. "She also noted that on occasion, while reviewing her work, he would put his hand over her hand.”

One time, she testified, Levy “leaned over to look at her computer and put his hand on her upper thigh. She reported responding by shifting in her chair and pulling away from him.”

“At first, I really didn’t, like, think anything of it,” the girl testified, “and then, like once it kept happening over and over, like, I started to feel uncomfortable.”

Questioned directly by Levy’s attorney, the girl said she never told the teacher of her discomfort or asked that he stop. 

A Wyckoff police detective and district internal affairs officer also interviewed the girl, with no charges brought, Levy’s lawyer noted.

Levy denied ever touching the girl’s leg. It was “possible that I made incidental contact with [her] on her back when she – either I am trying to get in between the class or if she did something well,” he testified.

“He added that he might have touched or patted her shoulder or back in congratulating her for good work,” Reilly wrote. “He also reported having no recollection of touching her on the hand other than to move it out of the way when accessing her computer keyboard to provide assistance.”

Then came a third reported incident.

This, too, involved a 12-year-old seventh-grader who Dobson said complained to her on the same day as the second girl.

The student told her that Levy “would get too close physically and would put his hand over hers while at her desk,” Dobson testified. “Also, on one occasion, she said that he had touched her leg.”

Once again, Dobson went to the principal, who spoke with the third girl. And once again, Iasiello referred the incident to Linzenbold to investigate for possible harassment.

Linzenbold told Reilly that she interviewed four witnesses from that girl’s class. Two said they’d seen Levy touch classmates' shoulders but not theirs. One reported not seeing any physical contact but said Levy “gets too close.” Another reported seeing Levy “look down a student’s shirt.”

“It was completely untrue,” Linzenbold said Levy told her. “[T]his never happened.”

"Inappropriate and unbecoming"

Levy asked his period collaborative teacher to attest to his innocence, Linzenbold told Reilly. 

The teacher, in turn, called Levy “touchy” with both boys and girls, the arbitrator wrote. Although his conduct “crossed the line for her," Reilly noted, "she confirmed never having discussed it with [Levy] or lodged a complaint with the school’s administration." 

The teacher said she considered Levy's behavior “unprofessional” but not inappropriate, he wrote.

Once again, Linzenbold concluded that Levy had committed harassment.

The third girl later testified that Levy made her “feel uncomfortable” by “making physical contact.”

This included “putting his hand over hers while standing along side her desk,” Reilly noted. “In doing so, she described that he would rub or squeeze her hand slightly. On one occasion, she recalled, while looking at her computer to check her work, ‘he put his hand on my knee and, like, moved it up my leg.’

“ ‘I don’t know for sure, but it didn’t – I don’t think it wasn’t intentional….I don’t see how you could slip on that, and it wasn’t really, like, fast. It was just, like, he seemed to be knowing what he was doing’.”

Levy later testified that he never touched the girl’s knee or “any of his 5th period language arts students on the hand, other than to move their hands off the computer when reviewing and correcting their written work,” Reilly wrote.

“Shoulder touching, he said, would have been limited to providing a student a congratulatory pat for good work to build confidence,” the arbitrator added. Any other physical contact with students “would have occurred incidentally,” Levy reportedly told Reilly.

With desks tightly clustered and little separation, “if you are getting into a computer, then occasionally incidental contact would happen," he added. "You would rub your shoulder against their shoulder and then try to move their desk out of the way.”

Both Iasiello and Feiffer told the arbitrator that they considered Levy’s alleged behavior “inappropriate and unbecoming.”

Despite his counseling, two CAPS, a salary freeze and a switch to 7th grade, they said, Levy had “continued to act in a manner that jeopardizes his students, as evidenced by the complaints at issue here."

In their opinion, Levy couldn't "be trusted to make appropriate choices with students in the classroom, and as such, should not remain in his tenured position with the Board,” Reilly reported.

Removing him was “necessary to protect the well being of the students," Feiffer told the arbitrator. Further remedial measures "would be unlikely to succeed and would pose a risk to the students,” the superintendent added.

"Truthful and credible"

District officials cited what they called “truthful and credible” testimony from all of the young witnesses, none of whom they said appeared to have any “interest, motive, bias or prejudice” that would make them lie.

Despite how Levy viewed it, “the students made plain their reaction to it," they said, "namely, shock and discomfort.”

Levy’s testimony “contains serious flaws” and in some cases was “illogical and nonsensical,” district officials argued. It left him “beyond rehabilitation,” they told Reilly.

Levy countered that the district didn’t make a successful enough argument. For one thing, he said, it lacked a “preponderance of evidence.”

“Stripping an individual of tenure is the most severe form of discipline that may be imposed, and, as such, generally requires a showing of egregious misconduct," his lawyer told the arbitrator.

Although hearsay evidence is sufficient in an administrative proceeding, state law says “legally competent evidence must exist to support it," the attorney added.

Reilly needed to assess the credibility of the students' testimony “with consideration of its rationality, internal consistency and the way it ‘hangs together’ with the other evidence,” the lawyer noted.

If any part of a witness’ testimony is found untruthful, the attorney said, it should all be rejected.

The first girl, for example, “walked back considerably her allegations that formed the basis for this charge,” the lawyer noted.

Specifically, she called the “degree of force with which he touched her face as being a touch, rather than a strike” and “acknowledged the possibility that the contact was accidental in that he was talking with his hands at the time.”

The lawyer also noted that the girl, when testifying before Reilly, suddenly added a Chromebook to what she said had been knocked from her hands. She also “expressed dislike for his teaching methods and satisfaction with being transferred out of his language arts class.”

It follows that her true concern was his teaching style, the attorney argued, and not any alleged inappropriate classroom behavior."

Inadvertent touching doesn’t “rise to the level of unbecoming conduct that would warrant his loss of tenure,” the lawyer contended.

The second girl’s allegations were called unfounded, as well. No other students reported seeing Levy touch her thigh, an allegation that she didn’t raise until the second interview, his lawyer said.

His final accuser was equally discreditable, the lawyer argued.

Although she first reported seeing him touching legs of other female students in her fifth-period language arts class, she later told an investigator she hadn’t. In that case, the attorney said, the “false in one, false in all” principle applies.

Even if it didn’t, the girl's account to school officials didn’t match her testimony before the arbitrator in several areas, Levy’s attorney argued. That includes new claims that he moved his hand up her leg and squeezed and rubbed her hands.

"Preposterous and completely untrue"

As for the incidents prior to 2020, Levy maintained that he wasn’t disciplined by the district and was “never afforded an opportunity to defend himself, nor was a determination ever made as to the truth of those allegations. Therefore, he concludes those outdated claims cannot be used against him now.”

Levy requested that the charges be dismissed and that he receive all withheld pay and benefits. If any of the charges were sustained, he asked that the arbitrator impose only minor discipline.

Reilly rejected the requests.

The first girl “very precisely detailed each step of her encounter” with Levy, “made no attempt to embellish” her story and provided a consistent account corroborated by two classmates, he wrote in his ruling.

Levy, on the other hand, was “unpersuasive” in an argument that “has evolved over time,” Reilly added.

Although Levy originally told Iasiello and then Feifer that the girl’s account was “preposterous” and “completely untrue,” the arbitrator wrote, he acknowledged during the hearing that he could’ve knocked the books” from the girl’s hands “through incidental contact as he walked past her."

Levy also “described a scenario in which” he could have hit the girl in the face, Reilly noted.

“Laid bare, his testimony strikes me as an attempt to present an alternate account that minimizes his culpability for this incident, while avoiding an affirmative admission,” the arbitrator wrote. “His straddling of the fence in this regard necessarily undermines the credibility of his claims.

“In sum, it is plain to me that his testimony simply lacks the ring of truth.”

Reilly also found the second girl’s account consistently credible and in no way deceptive. Levy again changed his story, he said, first telling Linzenbold that the allegations were “absolutely not true” but later conceding during the hearing that he may have made “incidental contact with her back while walking past her in the classroom.”

Levy “touched [the girl] inappropriately on the shoulder, hand and leg,” Reilly wrote. “I am also convinced…that this touching was disturbing and caused her to feel uncomfortable.”

Reilly felt the same about Levy's conduct with the third girl, whose testimony he called “clear and consistent throughout."

Once again, Levy’s version of the events “shifted” from what he told Linzenbold (“completely untrue” and “never happened”) to his testimony during the hearing, the arbitrator noted. And once again, Reilly wasn’t convinced that sexual harassment had occurred.

"Sexual and non-sexual"

In the end, Reilly found that Levy “committed serious misconduct” that warrants a “substantial penalty."

However, he ruled that “dismissal is not justified.”

Reilly said he wasn’t convinced that the behavior “constituted sexual harassment or was sexual in nature.”

The Board of Education “placed great weight” on its belief that Levy touched the students sexually, he wrote. That belief rested "entirely upon the location of the touch” and the girls’ gender.

Iasiello, in fact, “made his point made this point plain in his testimony when he acknowledged that the Board would not have pursued tenure charges against [Levy] if the touching had been limited to contact with the students’ hands,” Reilly added.

"No evidence was presented that [Levy] said or did anything in connection with this touch that indicated a sexual motivation,” Reilly wrote. “Likewise, the context in which it occurred does not suggest such intent."

This reduces “the gravity of his transgression” to a “failure to maintain appropriate boundaries” with the girls by "touching them and invading their personal space,” he ruled.

“In recognizing this distinction between sexual and non-sexual touching, I do not intend to convey that [Levy’s] established failings here are a minor matter,” Reilly noted. “Indeed, they are not.

“Quite the opposite, they represent a serious deviation from the professional standards with which [Levy], as a teacher, was obligated to comply.

“Indeed, I am satisfied that his actions, as established, were, no doubt, inappropriate and support a determination of unbecoming conduct,” the arbitrator ruled.

Instead of losing his job, Reilly found, Levy’s “established transgressions” required a “level of discipline that is sufficient to impress upon him the serious error of his ways, while affording him an opportunity to reform his behavior and demonstrate his ability to function as a positive and productive teacher.”

Levy is “capable of doing so,” he added, while emphasizing that any “repetition of the proven misconduct will in all likelihood result in the termination of his employment.”

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