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."