Was Teacher Canned for Badmouthing Student in Angry Letter to Parents?
LAUSD teacher Lorcan Kilroy was suspended for writing to parents that their kid was "destroying the classroom environment."
Photo by Nanette Gonzales
Lorcan Kilroy was teaching art at Van Nuys High School in 2011 when a student whose headphones he had confiscated stood up, yelled "faggot!" at Kilroy, and stormed out of the room.
On its own, says Kilroy, the incident isn't that surprising. "Kids do all kinds of shit," he says. The surprising part is what followed. After he sent the student to the dean, Kilroy says, administrators ignored the incident.
"If you don't consequence this kid," he says, "then other kids are gonna see that. They will know, 'If you heckle Kilroy, the dean doesn't do anything.'?"
In frustration, Kilroy took matters into his own hands. After returning from winter break (the incident took place just before the break), another student misbehaved in his class, and Kilroy wrote an angry letter home to this student's parents.
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It read, in part, that the student "has been destroying the classroom environment by distracting others and rule-breaking."
But instead of being supported by principal Judith Vanderbok — "We are allowed to mail notes home," Kilroy says, "that's not forbidden at all" — he claims he was promptly suspended and ultimately removed from his position teaching art.
He now waits in uncertainty each day for a call telling him whether and where to report to work — as a substitute teacher in LAUSD.
Vanderbok, the now-retired principal, won't comment on Kilroy's suspension for writing the note to parents. She says Kilroy was displaced from his job based on union seniority rules and budgetary constraints.
"If you have to let someone go, it's always by seniority," she says. "I also had to let go of what we call our 'electives.'?" As an art teacher, Kilroy "was an electives teacher. ... That is what happens when the schools are not funded as highly as they have been in the past."
Kilroy isn't buying it. This year he filed a lawsuit against 11 LAUSD officials — including Vanderbok, Superintendent John Deasy and six LAUSD board members — claiming that Van Nuys High School administrators retaliated against him and treated him unfairly compared with other teachers.
In his fight to get his job back, Kilroy became something of a sleuth.
He uncovered other incidents at Van Nuys High School in which school employees behaved badly, including a teacher who allegedly shoved a student and then threatened the student's life.
Most of the incidents, Kilroy alleges, were met with little more than slaps on the wrists from LAUSD administrators.
"In comparison to other teachers," he says, "my discipline was overboard."
Kilroy began working as an art teacher at Van Nuys High School in 2002. "People loved him," says a former Van Nuys High School teacher who also was displaced, and spoke to L.A. Weekly on the condition of anonymity.
For his part, Kilroy says he loved his job and never dreamed of doing anything else.
But as he recalls events, in early 2010, special education students were suddenly funneled into his art class, an elective course, without being given a choice.
According to federal law, special education students are entitled to choose their own electives, as are all students.
Kilroy says that he "talked to the principal and another teacher about it," and Vanderbok told him, "We are gonna talk to [LAUSD higher-ups] and get [the special ed children] more choices.'?"
Instead, he says, the district kept placing in his room students who didn't want art. "They were just not happy with being in the class," he says. "They were frustrated. They wanted different electives. I just wanted to see them treated the same as kids that were not special ed."
Representatives from LAUSD and Van Nuys High School refused to comment. But Georgianna Junco-Kelman, an L.A. attorney who specializes in special education law, says LAUSD's clustering of kids with special needs into one teacher's classroom is "rampant."
"I have this exact scenario four to five times a month," she says. "The school might place these students with a teacher who is more veteran, or who can handle it. But [those teachers] don't have the resources to teach these kids."
Junco-Kelman says the schools are trying to escape the stiff price of providing for special needs students. For example, "The district is bound by law to contract with an outside agency if a student requires one-to-one [services]," she says. "But it's a very costly service."
In March 2010, Kilroy filed a complaint with the federal Office of Civil Rights, but it was dismissed due to insufficient evidence. The complaint reads in part:
"For the past several years I've had 8, 9 or 10 [special education] kids 'mainstreamed' into one class. ... This is 'dumping' of special needs kids into one room in violation of their right to a 'least restrictive environment.' It results in a delinquent environment, frustration, kids bouncing off each other's behaviors, etc. etc."
The U.S. Department of Education says the case is now closed.
But Kilroy says that after he filed his case, Van Nuys High administrators began retaliating against him by assigning him an inordinate number of students with disciplinary problems.
"All these kids were acting defiant ... and disturbing the class," he says. "When you put that many kids with problems in one room, that creates a hostile environment."
One of these students, Kilroy says, hurled the anti-gay slur at him.
Kilroy admits that sending a note to the parents of the next student who seriously misbehaved was rash, saying, "I probably shouldn't have sent the letter."
But he didn't expect to be called into a meeting with the principal and dean on Jan. 25, 2012, where he was handed an 11-day suspension. The next year, Kilroy was displaced.
Junco-Kilman says retaliation is "all too common" against teachers who stand up for special education students. "Teachers are few and far between who will come to bat for these kids," she says.
Hurrell Cantrall LLP, the firm retained by LAUSD in Kilroy's lawsuit, refused to comment, and some current employees at Van Nuys High declined to talk as well. One said that "shit trickles down" and he didn't want trouble by speaking to the press.
Even United Teachers of Los Angeles, the teachers union, to which Kilroy presented his case for support, refused to comment.
Kilroy isn't the only teacher at Van Nuys High who says he was displaced unfairly. The former teacher who spoke anonymously says, "My displacement was absolutely vicious ... and uncalled-for," and came after he advocated that children living in the area be placed in the same special magnet-school classes to which children from outlying areas are accepted.
In his lawsuit, Kilroy cites alleged incidents in which teachers at Van Nuys High acted inappropriately toward students but were not suspended and kept their jobs.
One teacher allegedly attacked a student, following the teen into another classroom and stating, "If you come back into my class, your life is in danger."
School officials reported the incident to the Los Angeles Police Department.
"The allegation was that the teacher shoved [the student] during an argument over class behavior," says LAPD spokeswoman Liliana Preciado. "The teacher ordered the student out of the classroom, then used both hands and shoved him in the chest." The student did not want to press charges, and the case was dropped.
Van Nuys High School officials confirm that the teacher is still there.
Kilroy says his mistake was in admonishing a child's parents — in writing. But the bigger problem, he says, is that administrators seem to target the wrong teachers.
"There are some good teachers at LAUSD," he says, "but it's just not right what some teachers are doing."
Reach the writer at email@example.com.
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