Helping Special Education Students, and Paying With His Career
There was no particular moment when Harris Lirtzman decided to blow the whistle, and so close the door on his teaching career.
A former deputy state comptroller, he had decided to give public school teaching a midcareer whirl. In 2009, he landed a job as a special education math teacher at the Gautier Institute for Law and Public Policy, a Bronx high school.
He describes that first year as a cross between a hurricane and a tornado, learning his craft in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. He came to love his work.
But in September 2011, school administrators placed uncertified teachers — and a conga line of unemployed teachers who came for one-week stints — in classrooms filled with special education students, which is to say those children most in need of expert help.
This violated federal regulations.
Mr. Lirtzman, 56, decided to speak up. As he was not yet tenured, he stepped gingerly.
“I am NOT trying to cause problems,” he wrote in an e-mail to his assistant principal, but, he added, “we’re violating” court-mandated educational plans for students.
Mr. Lirtzman, unwittingly, became sand in the school’s gears.
He had received nothing but satisfactory evaluations. But in December, he said, the principal, Grismaldy Laboy-Wilson, said that she would not recommend him for tenure. The next day, she told him to leave immediately.
Mr. Lirtzman took his allegations to the Office of Special Investigations, an in-house unit at the Department of Education. An investigator asked for proof.
Mr. Lirtzman handed over 20 student programs, all of which showed that administrators placed students in classrooms with uncertified teachers. The investigator informed Mr. Lirtzman that these were confidential documents.
Now I am opening an investigation of you, she told him. It would be enough to bring a smile to the lips of Kafka.
“These are the most vulnerable kids, the ones no one really looks out for,” Mr. Lirtzman said. “This wasn’t a gray legal area. This was black and white, and the Department of Education decided that I was the problem.”
The Department of Education portrays Mr. Lirtzman as disgruntled at his failure to get tenure, and the principal declined to comment on his allegations.
New York City does not shoulder an easy burden trying to care for its tens of thousands of special education students. More than 18,000 teachers are dedicated to special education. Each student is required by law to have an individual educational plan, or I.E.P.
It’s also true that the city, over many administrations, has failed many of these students. Therapy is in too short supply; students — who wrestle with emotional and learning disabilities — are crammed in classrooms that are too large; and administrators sometimes conspire to push out troubled children. Graduation rates for these students are vanishingly low.
As Kim Sweet, executive director of the nonprofit Advocates for Children of New York, said: “We see cases of schools violating I.E.P.’s all the time. Our phones ring off the hook.”
Mr. Lirtzman acquired a crash course in these multiple neglects. And, although he does not phrase it so grandly, he also helped rescue a few of these children.
One such teenager, Derek Chestnut Jr., had more or less thrived in middle school, but ran upon the academic shoals at Gautier, where he was stuck in classes with a changing cast of uncertified teachers. One day, Mr. Lirtzman talked to the student’s father, Derek Chestnut Sr.
“He kept hinting something was wrong, and finally he told me there were rotating aides and teachers,” Mr. Chestnut recalled about their conversation. “The administrators told me otherwise, and I really didn’t appreciate when they tried to pull the wool over my eyes.”
Mr. Chestnut took his case to the upper reaches of the education bureaucracy. Quickly, without the usual resistance, he obtained an unusual legal letter that entitled him to place his son in a private school for special education children, all paid for by the city.
“They admitted off the bat that my son’s I.E.P. was being violated,” he said. “I owe this to one honest man, Mr. Lirtzman. He became an advocate not just for my son, but for all special education students in that school.”
Mr. Lirtzman acknowledges that he burns hot. The Department of Education now says Ms. Laboy-Wilson filed a harassment charge against him after he sent her several particularly heated e-mails. Mr. Lirtzman, who showed me dozens of his e-mails, insists his correspondence included no threat.
He has worked at high levels in city and state government. He was not intent on career suicide.
“I wanted to be a teacher; I wanted to get tenure,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to commit kamikaze so that I would feel good about myself.”