From Martin Coren
About That New York Post Article
(HS principal hit for 'cover-ups' rebuttal)
On November 8, 2011, a scurrilous article appeared in the New York Post accusing me of cover-ups when I was founding principal of Brooklyn Theatre Arts High School and detailing my supposed malfeasance. I’ve created this website because I feel a strong responsibility to show, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the accusations are false. To prove this, I am including the report from the New York City Department of Education’s Office of Special Investigations on which the article is based, as well as my own, exculpatory documentation and related explanations. I would have presented my rebuttal much sooner but it made little sense to do so until I had first read the official report. Unfortunately, it took over five years - yes, over five years - including filing two Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests (my first was ignored), contacting the Public Advocate for the City of New York, and encountering repeated delays by the DOE's Office of Legal Services, before I finally obtained that official document on April 18, 2017.
When you read this material you will realize immediately that there were never any 'cover-ups'. Instead, there were, as usual, disagreements between a principal and teachers in some areas, misunderstandings in other areas, and the natural growing pains of a new, small school. These issues became the basis for anonymous allegations that led to an investigation and, eventually, the corrupt leaking of the investigator's report to the newspaper. I’ll now list the six allegations and disprove each one. References are to the investigator's report, which, along with an appendix of my own material proving the allegations are false, appear below. (Please note that in its report OSI redacted two additional allegations, including all related statements. Clearly, I cannot respond if I'm not permitted to know what the claims are or entail.) Following my "Accusations & Rebuttals," I'll tell you "The Rest of the Story," explaining how and why I worked tirelessly to ensure the report was in fact completed as well as why I believe it was then unscrupulously leaked.
Accusations & Rebuttals
1. Failed to follow the mandates of the students’ Individualized Educational Programs (IEPs).
As with many schools, this was a challenge in our small, recently founded school with limited resources - but it was officially resolved well before the allegations were even made. Let me repeat that. The issue was officially resolved well before the allegations were even made.
One area, noted by the High School Superintendent, was that students with Self-Contained classifications on their Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) instead were included in CTT classes. What does this mean? Self-Contained (SC) indicates that students must be taught in classes of no more than 15 students. (SC more recently is referred to as Small Class.) However, in most cases, high school teachers and administrators work with these students and their parents or guardians to transition the students into larger, integrated classrooms, called Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT), where students with IEPs learn alongside general education students and there are two teachers, one certified in the specific subject area (usually math, English, science, or social studies) and the other certified in Special Education. (ICT until recently was called CTT, for Collaborative Team Teaching, as the High School Superintendent called it.) This is done primarily because by the time students reach high school they must begin preparing for life after graduation, and the real world usually does not allow for self-contained living or working conditions, so moving students to a less restrictive environment generally makes good developmental sense. Also, although technically all New York City schools are required to provide whichever mandated services are listed on a student’s IEP, in truth not all schools, and particularly not all small schools, receive funding sufficient to serve students with SC classifications, due to the smaller class sizes that necessitate adding additional classes to the school-wide schedule.
The other area, also noted by the High School Superintendent, was that students with Special Education Teacher Support Services (SETSS) mandates were not being serviced. SETSS means students receive specially designed, non-credit-bearing instruction in small groups, beyond regular classes. Again, implementation can be a challenge for new, small schools with limited resources. However, in both cases – fulfilling SC and SETSS mandates – as the testimony proves, and my documentation supports, I collaborated with teachers and DOE central offices through a formal grievance process to ensure that the issues were resolved. These efforts included revising student IEPs as noted above to indicate a less restrictive environment, shifting funds in the school budget to hire an additional Special Education teacher, and seeking placement at other schools for two students we felt would continue to benefit from SC. I am proud of those undertakings and the successful results. A summary of the steps I took, with related emails, is included in the appendix (pages 2-25).
2. Ordered staff members to refrain from notifying School Safety Agents when students fought.
The UFT Chapter Leader reported that she received no complaints about this issue from teachers, and the School Safety Agent denied I had ever failed to take action when confronted by physical altercations between students. Teachers who claimed otherwise or stated that I told them to contact me instead of school security in response to fights were clearly using that word to mean not only physical brawls but also arguments, admittedly sometimes heated, between students. These teachers no doubt wanted students to behave appropriately and may have believed that punishing misbehaving students was always warranted. However, in cases involving nonviolent student arguments, I often preferred mediation or similarly positive approaches. This is a difference of opinion, not a breaking of rules. I would like to emphasize that I intervened to stop student fights several times, including once when my glasses were knocked from my face, and when necessary contacted school safety agents, as shown by Occurrence Reports included in the appendix (pages 26-29).
3. Allowed students to attend class while under the influence of alcohol and illegal substances.
This allegation concerned not "students" but one student in a single incident, and included nothing about "illegal substances" such as marijuana or other drugs but alcohol only, in spite of the investigator’s purposefully misleading choice of words. The student in question had a learning disability that entailed a consistent and pronounced slurring of her speech, accounting for that feature at the time of the supposed incident. To claim, out of personal animosity toward me, that this impediment was due to the student being intoxicated is nothing short of reprehensible. She did not have "bloodshot eyes" or an "unsteady gait." No bottle was found, although we conducted a search that included the garbage can where the student later told the investigator she had deposited the container. The assistant principal interviewed the student and was satisfied that she was not intoxicated. Like many aspects of school leadership, sending the student to class was a judgment call, and I stand by my judgment. That this student with special needs later “acknowledged” having been intoxicated means only that she was intimidated into changing her story when confronted by an investigator who, I prove below, was not above acting dishonestly. It is important to understand that I officially filed reports whenever students were found to be in possession of an illegal substance or even just accused of being intoxicated - including in this instance - as shown by Occurrence Reports included in the appendix (pages 30-31).
4. Personally used the student restrooms.
Early on I asked my coach from Office of New Schools about this very question. (Every founding principal was assigned such a coach.) As noted in an email summary of our discussions that I sent to the investigator, and have included in the appendix (page 32), my coach stated that in high schools male faculty may use the boys’ bathroom, and that doing so is inappropriate only in junior high and elementary schools. He added that nothing in Chancellor’s Regulations stated otherwise. Later, after the allegation had surfaced, my coach told me that he had spoken with colleagues and determined that, although no specific regulation existed against male faculty using the boys’ bathroom in high schools, there was general agreement that at this point it would be imprudent for me to continue doing so. I recalled these conversations after I had left the principal position but when I assumed the investigation was open and ongoing. As such, I immediately and responsibly forwarded the explanation to the investigator. When eventually he completed his report, he should have confirmed that I had not broken any regulation and then disregarded the accusation entirely. Instead, to my utter dismay, he did just the opposite.
Beyond this, as our guidance counselor indicated in her testimony, on several occasions I properly entered the girls' bathroom due to reports I had received of someone having scrawled threatening graffiti. At these times, I was accompanied by a female school aide, and opened the bathroom door, called out something like, "Hello? This is Mr. Coren. Is anyone in here?" and, hearing no reply, announced my intention to enter before doing so, thereby ensuring students were not present. These actions on my part were responsible and altogether appropriate. Indeed, as principal I was accountable for the safety and well-being of an entire school. I would have been negligent had I not investigated such potentially dangerous and at the very least highly inciting episodes. Occurrence Reports for two incidents, one with a photo showing graffiti we discovered about “blowing this school up,” are included in the appendix (pages 33-35).
5. Watched students fight without taking action.
This is related to the second allegation, above. As noted, the UFT Chapter Leader reported that she received no complaints about this issue from teachers, and the School Safety Agent denied that I had ever failed to take action when confronted by physical altercations between students. A teacher stated that “a student attacked Mr. Coren in his office.” I recall the incident, and I wasn’t attacked at all. Instead, a student repeatedly tried pushing past me to leave my office as I was standing in front of the door, but when I refused to move, the student eventually stopped, and the situation was soon resolved. I never felt in danger and certainly would never describe the incident as my having been attacked. The teacher was outside my office the whole time, trying to peer through the partially blocked office-door window, so I'm unclear how later she felt competent to report on what had happened. To reiterate, I intervened to stop student fights several times, including once when my glasses were knocked from my face, and when necessary contacted school safety agents, as shown by Occurrence Reports included in the appendix (pages 26-29).
6. Ignored the school’s policy regarding the security scanning of students.
Use of cell phones by students was, and still remains, an ongoing challenge in many schools. With that said, I never allowed students to use phones during school. Instead, as verified by the UFT Chapter Leader, I met students at scanning, collected their phones, and returned them at the end of the day. I went to great lengths to organize this system, in which I took upon myself the daily risk and responsibility of personally securing numerous student phones. The UFT Chapter Leader and our guidance counselor stated that I held phones arbitrarily, but did not explain why they believed so. In fact, there was nothing at all arbitrary about collecting phones and returning them at the end of the day while at the same time confiscating phones from students who refused to hand them over beforehand but instead were caught trying to smuggle them into the building. In these latter cases, I impounded the phones until parents or guardians could retrieve them. Occurrence Reports for incidents in which students were held accountable in this way for bringing phones into the building are included in the appendix (pages 36-44).
The Rest of the Story
During the summer following my second full year as principal, I was summoned to the superintendent's office and told that, for the good of the school, I should resign. This decision was painful for me because I had invested so much effort and so much of myself in the school I had founded. However, despite clearly having legal recourse, with the cloud of accusations over my head, and considering the highly public and even political nature of the principal position, I realized that I had no choice, and resigned. I believed that this outcome would not stop the truth from emerging through the DOE's investigation, where clearly I would be found innocent beyond a shadow of a doubt. Regrettably, as I describe below, I discovered later, to my astonishment, that the investigator had no interest in honesty.
After all these years, I feel great relief to have finally been able to publicly share the above explanations, and to include the report on which they are based as well as my own documentation, because of the damage these false allegations did to my reputation, as an educator and playwright, and the emotional impact they had on my life. It is critical to note that the report itself never would have been completed had it not been for a chance encounter. Less than a year after resigning from the principal position, I was teaching at another school, still waiting to receive the official report from the DOE, when I bumped into the investigator from the case, who had come there to investigate an administrator. I asked the investigator when the report about me would be finalized because I was anxious to be exonerated. He replied that because I was no longer a principal, the report would be left open indefinitely, or, in his words, “put on the bottom of the pile” of reports, due to there being other, more pressing cases. To say the least, I was shocked, having waited patiently to be proven innocent.
Subsequently, I did some checking and discovered that an open report of this kind would preclude my ever again becoming a school-based administrator. As I fully intended to return one day to school leadership, and because I knew that I had only ever behaved honestly, I was determined to see the report finalized. I emailed the Director of the Office of Special Investigations, kindly requesting that the report be completed, but I never heard back. Eventually, I met with a representative of the Public Advocate and explained my situation. Not long afterwards, the scathing New York Post article appeared. I believe someone at OSI, perhaps the Director herself, was angry that I had actively pursued the closing of the investigation, more so because I had utilized outside channels. It is no secret that some people within the DOE strategically use the New York Post to hurt and embarrass others, and, again, I suspect this is why the report was irresponsibly leaked.
Please understand, also, that during the investigation I gave the investigator copies of all the documents that are included in the appendix below and would have proven my innocence beyond a shadow of a doubt. Inexplicably, he did not refer to any of them in the report, except to note that I had already taken the necessary steps to ensure students with IEPs were receiving mandated services. I've struggled to understand why the investigator would do this. Perhaps he considered the need to complete an old report a nuisance and therefore made no effort to include evidence beyond the verbal statements. Or, maybe, he, too, was angered by my persistence and what he perceived as my going over his head, so he retaliated by ignoring evidence that plainly exonerated me. Whatever the cause, the investigator's approach was egregiously unprofessional and flagrantly dishonest.
A final issue must be addressed. At the end of his report, the investigator concluded that all the allegations against me were “substantiated.” This clearly is not true. To cite just one example, detailed above, that I failed to follow mandates of the students’ IEPs, the report correctly noted that this dispute already had been resolved through the DOE’s authorized grievance procedure. However, to then falsely claim, as the investigator did, that the allegation was substantiated, is to ignore completely that same official process and its formally recognized resolution. As I’ve clearly shown, the other allegations likewise were in no way substantiated, or, in the case of using the boys’ bathroom, did not constitute misconduct in the first place. During my entire time as principal, and throughout the investigation and its long aftermath, The Office of Special Investigations committed the only wrongdoings, including illegally and immorally leaking its official report, and the only 'cover-ups,' by not including my clearly vindicatory evidence. In all areas, I behaved with absolute integrity.
To the Reader:
I shared my website and the related documents with two separate lawyers because I was concerned that making even heavily redacted DOE records public could put me in legal jeopardy. Both lawyers warned me that, indeed, this is the case; and so - distressingly - I'm unable to post the OSI report and appendix of material, which I had intended to do in this space. I'm truly sorry I cannot share these documents. Although this situation to a certain extent undermines the very purpose of my website, under the circumstances I have no choice.
I intend to keep this website up and, when the time comes, present a hard copy of the text and documents to my daughter, who is only seven but one day will search her father's name online and be confronted by scandalous allegations that I behaved unethically. I would never allow that to happen without being able to show her proof the whole thing is a lie. Most of all, I will stress to her how grateful I am, despite everything, to have been given the privilege of founding a school, and how much I rejoice in the good and essential work I was able to do.