Teaching Profession

School Workers Raise Money for Suspended Hartford, Conn., Teacher

By Sean Cavanagh — October 03, 2006 3 min read
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A Connecticut teacher suspended without pay after he allegedly used an anti-gay term in remarks to a student in class was the beneficiary of a controversial fundraiser last week, staged by colleagues seeking to help him financially.

Robert Williams, 50, a mathematics teacher at Quirk Middle School in Hartford, was suspended for a month at the beginning of this school year, after an investigation by the 24,000-student district. The alleged remark was made last spring; the suspension began Aug. 28 and is to last through Oct. 11.

Edwin Vargas Jr., a former president of the Hartford Federation of Teachers, arranged the benefit at a local restaurant to help support Mr. Williams while he is without a salary. He earns $72,000 a year, according to the district.

“It’s to help him and his family while they have no income,” Mr. Vargas said in an interview last week. “You don’t want to treat a colleague, when he’s down, like a leper, or shun him, or kick him when he’s down.”

But the fundraiser drew the ire of the student’s family, as well as a neighborhood activists’ organization, Hartford Organizing for Power & Equality, or HOPE. The community group has helped the family voice its complaints about the teacher to administrators in the district.

“I’m worried that they probably think Mr. Williams did nothing wrong,” Vimarie Quinones, the student’s aunt, said of the fundraiser. The event, she said, sends the message that if a teacher “slips up, someone is going to cover for him.”

Mr. Vargas, a union member who teaches English-language-learners in the district, said the teachers are not making a judgment about the classroom incident, but simply trying to help Mr. Williams financially. He said that he and other district employees, not the union itself, arranged the Sept. 27 fundraiser.

The current president of the 2,400-member Hartford affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, Cathy Carpino, said in an interview that it was not a union-sanctioned event, and that she would not be attending.

Early last week, a notice of the event was posted on the Hartford local’s Web site. Ms. Carpino, however, said that posting had not been authorized, and she ordered it removed.

Uneasy Environment

Mr. Williams was disciplined after the probe into remarks he was accused of making to the student, who was then in 7th grade, on May 30 of last school year. In a June 2 letter to the school board, the student said Mr. Williams had criticized the student’s hair and appearance in class, then said: “It makes me think you are a faggot.” The student said he left the class soon afterward.

“I did not want to come back to school,” the student wrote in the letter. “I never want to go back to his class.”

After an investigation, Gail P. Johnson, the district’s executive director of human resources, concluded in an Aug. 1 letter that Mr. Williams had “created an uncomfortable environment for this particular student” by speculating on his sexual orientation. The teacher’s conduct was “wholly unprofessional, inappropriate, and unacceptable,” she wrote in handing out the suspension.

A man who answered the phone at Mr. Williams’ residence last week would not comment.

Mr. Vargas said the fundraiser drew about 50 school employees, mostly teachers, raising about $3,000. He believed the episode had not been portrayed accurately by the media. The penalty for Mr. Williams was unduly harsh, he said, and “a failure of logic.”

In their review of the complaint against Mr. Williams, Hartford school officials also concluded that he had used school e-mail inappropriately, and cited a previous warning issued to the teacher over what district administrators considered to be unprofessional comments to students in class.

Terry M. D’Italia, a district spokesman, declined to comment on the details of the May incident and the fundraiser. “We think the consequence handed out was appropriate,” he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 04, 2006 edition of Education Week as School Workers Raise Money for Suspended Hartford, Conn., Teacher

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