The Long Beach Board of Education voted at a special meeting on Tuesday to fire special-education teacher Lisa Weitzman, five years after faculty members and school staff alleged that she abused five of her students, including using a bathroom as a “time out room,” cursing at them, threatening to use a zip tie to restrain them, digging a high heel into a student’s foot, pushing one of them against a wall and binding another’s hands with painter’s tape.
Following a lengthy public disciplinary hearing that began in 2016, an independent arbitrator who investigated the case released a report on Monday recommending that the school district terminate Weitzman.
School board Trustees Dr. Dennis Ryan, Perry Bodnar, Tina Posterli and Maureen Vrona voted 4-0 at the meeting, in the district’s administration building. Trustee Sam Pinto was absent. Weitzman did not attend the meeting.
A State Education Department arbitrator, Hearing Officer Robert Grey, reviewed 29 days of testimony given by Weitzman, teaching assistants and other staff members in a series of public hearings that began in 2016 and lasted 14 months. School officials said in a statement on Monday that the state sided with the district, which had sought to terminate Weitzman after the allegations were made.
“The safety and well-being of our students is the district’s top priority,” board trustees said in a statement on Monday, “and we are grateful that this matter has been concluded for the benefit of our children.”
Weitzman was suspended in 2014 after facing eight allegations of abusing five of her severely disabled students between 2009 and 2014.
Weitzman, who was hired by the district in 2007, has strongly denied the allegations, and requested that the hearing be open to the public. She filed a lawsuit against the district in 2016, claiming that she was the subject of a malicious investigation and that administrators retaliated against her after she pushed for more resources for her classroom.
Debra Wabnik, an attorney representing Weitzman, did not respond to a request for comment as the Herald went to press on Wednesday.
Grey’s 128-page decision, dated March 31, found Weitzman guilty of three of the charges. The first charge states that in 2014, she used the classroom restroom as an inappropriate and unauthorized “time out room” in response to the student’s behavioral outbursts.
In her testimony, Weitzman argued that placing the student in the restroom protected him from another student who was experiencing violent episodes. Her decision to confine the student there, Grey wrote, created an obvious risk of injury.
The second charge states that Weitzman grabbed another student, pushed him and held him against a wall to restrain him in March 2014. The third charge states that Weitzman gave Motrin to another student when she believed he needed it for headaches during the 2013-14 school year.
“[Weitzman] is proven guilty of misconduct, neglect of duty, and conduct unbecoming a teacher, for her culpable conduct as to [the three charges],” Grey wrote in the decision. “The district has just cause to discipline respondent . . . the penalty is dismissal.”
Trustees sent at least two letters to the State Education Department voicing their frustration with the slow progress toward a decision following the hearing, which ended in May 2017.
“We’re grateful that it’s over,” Ryan told the Herald on Monday. “We did send a couple letters to get the state moving in terms of this, because of the expense and because of the duration of the entire case. It was an exercise in patience, so we’re grateful that it’s been resolved, and I look forward to . . . moving on.”
The district did not immediately disclose the amount it has paid in legal fees to cover the investigation. Weitzman was suspended in 2014, and continued to collect her annual base salary of $96,000. According to Newsday, she has been paid more than $540,000 in salary and benefits since she was suspended.
The lack of a decision prevented lawsuits filed by parents of the students from moving forward. In 2016, the parents of five of Weitzman’s students filed a lawsuit against the school district in Nassau County Supreme Court, claiming that district officials failed to act on complaints made by several teaching assistants.
Additionally, the parents of one of the students filed a federal lawsuit in 2016 against the district, Weitzman and two of her teaching assistants. Another parent, Shirlyn Summers, filed suit in Nassau County Supreme Court in 2017, alleging that Weitzman physically, sexually and mentally abused her daughter.
The parents have subsequently joined forces in a single lawsuit, and the case has moved to the federal level, Jim Mulvaney, an investigator hired by the parents, told the Herald on Tuesday.
Gerard Misk, an attorney representing the students and their parents, said he planned to review Grey’s report and move forward with the suit.