Suspension vote for high school teacher over 'student boundaries' issue

Suspension vote for high school teacher over 'student boundaries' issue

CUMBERLAND - The School Committee has voted unanimously to suspend a high school physical education teacher for two weeks after she was caught texting a student during school hours and violating policy by sharing a key to the wellness center with another teacher.

Thirteen-year Cumberland teacher Heather Bogossian has also been transferred from teaching duties at the high school to Community Elementary School gym classes, a move described as additional punishment by her attorney.

Supt. Philip Thornton is accusing her of "a gross lack of judgment" and saying he believes "Ms. Bogossian has issues with student boundaries."

Her attorney is characterizing her actions as "relatively minor infractions," and saying "this kind of overreaching is entirely inappropriate."

All attending last Thursday's regular school board hearing were privy to Bogossian's entire suspension hearing after she exercised her right to have a public airing.

Also suspended for one day, after a closed session hearing, was the unnamed teacher who improperly used the wellness center key.

Both hearings were only preliminary, as provided by Rhode Island state law, with more formal hearings anticipated after the Cumberland Teachers Association files grievances.

The school board's attorney, Stephen Adams, took the role of prosecutor during the hearing, beginning by telling school board members that a teacher may be suspended for good and just cause, that the board could consider any available evidence and should allow the teacher to respond.

In an opening statement, Supt. Thornton said he recommended the 10-day suspension "based on the violation of several school policies, the deceitful nature of her actions related to the investigation into her texting with another student and her past actions."

He noted she had been suspended for a day in 2005 after she called in sick and took three students to Boston for the day.

Christopher Cobleigh, an attorney for the state National Educational Association, represented Bogossian. Cumberland Teachers Association President Rod McGarry was also at her side. Bogossian's attorney told The Breeze his client requested the open hearing because, "Ms. Bogossian feels she has done absolutely nothing wrong" and she wanted the community, "not just the committee," to know "she's been a great teacher for 13 or 14 years."

He noted that in the course of events she allowed an inspection of her cell phone over the objection of union leadership, as well as perusal of her Facebook page.

An air of nervousness filled the meeting room in the Trans Building as School Committee members, unaccustomed to onlookers, found themselves in the position of smudging the reputation of one of their own faculty members.

Rhode Island law allows employees to request a public hearing when faced with disciplinary action, but few ever do.

Withheld from the public was a thick document distributed to the school board members that contained a transcript of the teacher-student text messages that reflect what members said was an unprofessional informality, hinted at by the one text that was read aloud by Thornton.

Responding to news that students had skipped her class while she was home sick, Bogossian had texted, "Nice LOL" adding "LMAO," - text-message shorthand for laugh out loud and laughing my ass off.

Still texting the student, she also referred to a guidance counselor as "jimmy boy."

Later in the hearing, Chairwoman Lisa Beaulieu said a review of all the cell phone messages showed Bogossian had "crossed the line between appropriate behavior. "It wasn't appropriate for a teacher to talk to a student from the way the texts read. I would expect more from our faculty."

The Breeze has filed a formal objection with the School Committee, saying the transcript of the messages is part of the public record and should be released.

Representing The Breeze, Boston attorney Robert Bertsche told the School Committee's attorney Adams, the denied document "is a matter of considerable legitimate public concern," and "it is in the interest of all parties for the public to know the facts, not rumors, about these events."

Bogossian began her teaching career in 2002 at the high school. She is a former high school sports coach who later helped organize the unified volleyball team for special needs students.

Last Thursday, she was not disputing any of the main points listed by Thornton. When asked, her attorney said his recommended punishment would be a two- to three-day suspension.

Bogossian had stayed home sick on Jan. 10, the day events unfolded.

Cumberland High School policy forbids student cell phone use during school hours.

According to Thornton's comments, a student's cell phone was confiscated while the student was texting in class. When she noted she was texting with a teacher, Assistant Principal Adolfo Costa was notified.

He requested the student's cell phone to review the texts and confirmed an exchange of messages between student and teacher during school hours on Jan. 7 and 10.

During a Jan. 14 meeting, Bogossian confirmed his findings, and she offered to allow administrators to review her cell phone, too, against the advice of her union leaders.

She called over to the Wellness Center faculty office and requested that another employee, "Teacher A," bring her phone to the superintendent's conference room.

At that point, she asked the Teacher A to "delete certain messages," said Thornton.

A review of the phone led to Bogossian being placed on administrative leave pending an investigation. That's when "several employees" came forward to report that messages had been deleted by Teacher A. Also coming to light was the violation of the key policy, since Teacher A shouldn't have had access to the Wellness Center office.

At a Jan. 17 meeting, Thornton said Bogossian admitted to asking Teacher A to erase a message and that she provided a duplicate key to Teacher A.

It was about that time, too, that Bogossian was reassigned to the elementary school gym classes.

Given a chance to respond during last Thursday's hearing, Bogossian told the school board that "jimmy boy" is simply a nickname and she wasn't talking ill of a co-worker.

Explaining the reason for her texting, she said the student is a family friend who has a medical issue and was counting on Bogossian during the day for support. "I told her she could come to me whenever she had a problem. She had headaches. She came to me many times."

Bogossian also said coaches are texting with students "on a daily basis and it does happen during school hours. I'm not the only person in the system who has texted a student."

About the one text read aloud, she said she was expressing sarcasm and later reprimanded the entire class for not behaving appropriately for a substitute.

She also visited the student's home, she said, to convey her displeasure.

About the deleted message, she said, "it's irrelevant. No one knows what it said. It was personal to me. You're implying it had something to do with the situation and it didn't.

"I'm being punished left and right. It's beyond me."

"I don't think this warrants a 10-day suspension."

She also objected to Thornton's raising an incident from 2005.

Bogossian said the other teacher had a key because the two of them routinely work out at Planet Fitness and then return to the school to shower in Bogossian's office before starting the school day. She didn't want the teacher locked out on days when she's not there, she said.

And she said the key was shared before the key policy was put in place in 2006.

Bogossian's attorney summed up his counter argument this way: "She's being subjected to a 10-day suspension for responding to a text, for not doing enough to discipline a student, and refusing to allow administration to see a private message on her phone that could have been from family, friend or whatever."

Cobleigh went on to say that the loss of two weeks' pay is "clearly excessive."

He also argued that transferring her to Community School is "punishing her twice."

"She's been in the high school her entire career. She has no experience with elementary kids and her elementary replacement has no experience teaching high school."

He argued that she was transferred before the hearing was held. Calling it "relatively minor infractions," he said "this kind of overreaching is entirely inappropriate."

Members of the committee later noted that the public was seeing a side of their work that's almost never made public, although announcements about the outcome of unidentified employee hearings are routinely reported during public session by Chairwoman Beaulieu.

Cobleigh confirmed for The Breeze that a grievance would be filed, but unknown is whether the next Bogossian hearing will be open to the public. If not, the results will be only cryptically announced when the School Committee reports executive session votes involving, for example, "Teacher B."

In a statement later released by Thornton, he said, "Our community deserves more from its teachers and I demand more from my teachers. We have zero tolerance for teachers who do not meet the expectations of our community."

Comments

It fair to say that, those who take matters into their own hands will always have a plausible explanation for why they broke the rules. Rules and regulations just restrict the way that some get results. The fact that this teacher is taking the time to make an argument in her defense and is not apparently humble and contrite explains that SHE is the boss here. SHE is the one that KNOWS best. SHE is the one that makes her OWN rules. How dare anyone try to come between HER and her students! The sad part is that I have found that MOST of the teachers feel the same way. Pompous, arrogant, egotistical, condescending and superior are some of the adjectives that describe MANY of these teachers. The NEA and the CTA will get her back in the gym soon where she can continue to "rule over her kingdom", with no ramification or consequence except to have to go through the process that apparently means absolutely nothing when it comes to consequences. Who represents the students in all of this? Where are the parents?

I cannot begin to tell the citizens of this community of the number of disciplinary and teacher dismissal hearings I sat in on during my 3-terms on the Cumberland School Committee during the 90's.

What, many times, got to me was not always the teacher's violation....more-so the Teacher's Union Representatives (both in the system and NEA Headquarters) and the union attorney coming in and defended the teacher and her/his conduct, despite the obvious wrongs and violations that he/she perpetrated, to the high-heavens.

Especially frustrating were the fact that, for an alleged professional association, rather then admonish the teacher (as would be the case with REAL Professional Associations - I.E.: Doctors, The Bar Association, Accountants, Architects, etc.) they go overboard to protect the violators and the wrongs they commit!

The most flagrant and abusive hearing I ever attended took place where the local union president, representatives from the NEA, and the NEA Union, tried to negotiate a settlement with us on a teacher's dismissal, along with demanding a 'Generic Letter of Recommendation'.

WHY: In order for them to drop the defense of said teacher....and that teacher 'gracefully resigning'!

What was that teacher's violation you ask?

He was caught having a very long time sexual, very intimate, liaison with one of his "16-year old students"!

All very legal as she was the age-of-consent....but also highly unethical, immoral, etc.

But, did the union care?

NO.... they did not.

All they cared about was protecting the teacher from dismissal and his reputation not being ruined!

Tom Letourneau

In response to the first comment, I respectfully request that you please not take one bad teacher and assume that they are all like this. Teaching is a noble profession and most teachers are in it for the love of children and the love of being part of a child's learning process. Every profession has a few bad apples, and Heather Bogossian is clearly one of them, but most teachers are dedicated professionals who work hard for little compensation, care about their students, respect and maintain boundaries, work overtime, and respond gracefully to an ever changing and demanding profession. Please do not sterotype.I agree with everything you said about Heather B., but it was very wrong of you to clump all teachers into that category.

Parents - the next time you don't feel like enforcing rules and boundaries in your house, or you want your children to have "freedom" to do whatever they want, please consider that when they become adults, they will be just like Heather Bogossian. This is clearly a woman who feels she is above boundaries, that the rules don't apply to her, and that she can do whatever she wants. As an adult, she now will learn the hard way (about 30 years too late) that no, she cannot do whatever she wants. And yes, there are consequences. She should be thanking the Supt. for not firing her. It is good that they have separated her from these students, but I now worry about what she is going to pull at the elementary level. Thank God she is not at my son's school. What a spoiled brat!

Mr. Letourneau, as a very old man still living in Cumberland don't we already know that teachers back in the 90's are similar to the teachers today? Well they are. Does anyone reading this article really believe that this arrogant teacher from CHS will not contact those high school students she was close to in the future? That's something I'm very afraid of and I really think Community Elementary School is the best place her. Why, because those parents are going eat her alive.

My stereotypying comes from dealing with literally 100’s of teachers in the last 40 years, both as a student and a parent. I am not wrong in stating my opinion that MOST teachers are just like her. From my interactions and observations, I would estimate that approximately 1 teacher in 4 is a caring professional that has the student’s best interest at heart. Your comment that most teachers “work hard for little compensation” tells me that you MUST be either a teacher, a teacher’s advocate, a teacher’s spouse, or just plain nuts. I will concede that teaching is a tough job, but so are many MANY others that don’t pay NEARLY as well, with as many benefits. You are entitled to your opinion and we can agree to disagree, but please do not tell me I am wrong…because I’m not.