Middle school teacher testifies at abuse hearing

Weitzman maintains that district retaliated against her


Suspended Long Beach Middle School teacher Lisa Weitzman — who is alleged to have abused five of her special-education students between 2009 and 2014 — strongly denied the allegations at a disciplinary hearing on April 3, and claimed that district administrators retaliated against her after she pushed for more resources.

Weitzman, who previously testified on Feb. 1, continued to give her side of the story at a multi-session hearing that began more than a year ago. Closing arguments were expected to take place on Friday, but were postponed to May 22. Weitzman was hired by the district in 2007 and suspended in 2014, and continues to collect a $96,000 salary. The district is seeking to fire her. She requested that the hearing be open to the public.

She faces eight charges filed by the school district involving five of her severely disabled former students. She is accused of using her classroom bathroom as a “timeout” room, cursing at students, pushing one of them against a wall, digging a high heel into a student’s foot, threatening to use a zip tie to restrain them and binding a student’s hands with painter’s tape, among other allegations.

Christopher Powers, an attorney representing the school district, asked Weitzman at the latest hearing about the alleged use of the bathroom as a “timeout” room, which is against district policy. Weitzman testified that the bathroom door was never closed, and that she or one of her teaching assistants was always watching the students.

“My students always had a visual,” she said, asserting that no one was ever alone in the bathroom.

One student in particular, she said, used the bathroom to escape another, potentially aggressive, student and “self-soothe.” “He was never by himself,” Weitzman said.

She testified that she was trying different intervention techniques to determine which would work for him. “I experimented like I always did,” she said. “To me, it was my normal way of doing things. [Teachers] need to respect [students’] attempts to communicate through behavior.”

She also testified that she regularly used a “communication notebook” to interact with parents, and she tried to schedule a meeting with that student’s parents to discuss his use of the bathroom in this way.

Weitzman said she didn’t immediately inform his parents that she was allowing him to use the bathroom to avoid a classmate, but added that she intended to tell them during a face-to-face conversation.

She wrote to them in the communication notebook, she testified, and they ignored her requests at first, but eventually responded in Spanish, their native language. She sought a translator and wrote back to them in Spanish, but the three never met.

Weitzman also testified that when she and one of her teaching assistants, Lauren Schneider, used painter’s tape to affix latex gloves on the hands of a student who had feces on his fingers, he was entertained by the gloves. Schneider had also testified on Jan. 20 that the student “seemed entertained” by the gloves.

Powers pressed Weitzman over the alleged use of the bathroom as a timeout room, but she resisted and emphasized that the middle school did not have a designated timeout room. Debra Wabnik, Weitzman’s attorney, has said that her client is being retaliated against for advocating for her students. She claimed at the hearing that Powers’s questions were repetitive, and asked the hearing officer to interject.

At previous hearings, school administrators maintained that they disapproved of Weitzman’s actions. Vincent Russo, the middle school special-education coordinator and her supervisor, testified that he told Weitzman and her teaching assistants to stop isolating children in the bathroom.

Weitzman said that she had actively advocated for her students for years, so they could have the same rights as general-education students. She testified that her students did not have portraits in the 2007 school yearbook, and she aimed to change that.

Weitzman filed suit against the district last June, claiming that she was the subject of a malicious investigation. At the latest hearing, she said the district did not provide appropriate services and resources — such as a training session and more staff members — when she requested them. “I informed the correct people,” she said, noting that she felt ignored by the district.

Last year, the parents of five of Weitzman’s students filed a $25 million lawsuit against the 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 last April against the district, Weitzman, Schneider and Jean-Marie Lilley, another one of Weitzman’s teaching assistants.

Shirlyn Summers, the mother of one of Weitzman’s students, filed a lawsuit in Nassau County Supreme Court in February, alleging that Weitzman physically, sexually and mentally abused her daughter.

District officials declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation. Powers did not respond to the Herald’s requests for comment.