Fracas erupts over petition at English High

January 5, 2007
By

JOHN RUCH

STONYBROOK—A substitute teacher circulating a petition outside English High School to get Headmaster José Duarte fired was allegedly assaulted and bullied Dec. 15 by a group of students before fleeing by driving through a human wall of teenagers who surrounded his car as Duarte looked on.

“This guy’s a lunatic,” the teacher, local resident Jeffrey Herman, told the Gazette, alleging that Duarte appeared to instigate the attack.

A witness and a man involved in the incident told the Gazette that Herman deliberately tried to run students down with his car. But they could not explain clearly why the students were trying to stop Herman. They said they discussed the incident immediately afterward with Duarte, who gave them Herman’s name.

Herman claimed he was punched in the face, and three people involved claimed Herman “grazed” them with his car. According to a Boston Police report, no one had visible injuries, and all declined medical attention. No one has been charged with a crime, though Herman said police have told him they’re considering false imprisonment charges against the group that blocked his car. The police department did not respond to a Gazette request for information.

Herman already had a pending free speech lawsuit against Duarte, who allegedly banned Herman from the school for speaking out against school military programs. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Boston Teachers Union (BTU) are also plaintiffs in the suit.

ACLU attorney Sarah Wunsch told the Gazette that she likely will add more claims of civil liberties and civil rights violations by Duarte to the suit as a result of the incident.

“It sounds like [Duarte] set those kids in motion to do his bidding,” Wunsch said. “They’re his agents in a way. This is the head of a public school. He’s supposed to be teaching kids about the Constitution, not violating it left and right.”

Herman said he is also filing a complaint with the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

An English High assistant speaking on Duarte’s behalf told the Gazette, “He has no comment for the Gazette.”

Boston Public Schools spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo said he was not aware of the incident. However, he said, Duarte had previously complained about Herman collecting petition signatures on the public sidewalk near the school.

“I heard [Herman] was out there and José wanted him gone, but it’s clearly his right to be out there,” Palumbo said. “It’s sort of ironic we’re talking about his First Amendment rights again.”

Palumbo said that school police had checked on Herman and made sure he was collecting his signatures in a public place.

Herman said that happened, but described it as harassment. He said one school officer told him to move across the street, and threatened to call Boston Police if he didn’t.

“I said, ‘Go into the school and read the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights,’” Herman said, noting that anyone can collect signatures on any public sidewalk.

Herman said he was allowed to stay, but that the officer refused to give his name or badge number.

Herman said that Duarte previously asked to see the petition’s signatures, which reportedly number more than 200. Herman said he refused, but did show Duarte the text of the petition. He acknowledges goading Duarte by saying, “Did I spell ‘incompetent’ correctly?”

Wunsch said those earlier petition incidents also likely will be added to the suit.

Herman began circulating the petition last May as a result of his banishment from English High, then dropped it once the lawsuit was filed.

Asked why he would start doing something so provocative again in the middle of a lawsuit, Herman said he is worried about the recent report that English High may become a pilot school after being deemed “chronically underperforming” on test scores by the state Board of Education. Under a pilot school program, the headmaster could have even more authority.

“I was appalled to think this headmaster, who I thought was atrocious, would be given additional powers,” Herman said. “I don’t want him to remain headmaster of a school that is in failure because of his incompetence.”

“My lawyer has told me not to go back at this point,” Herman added. “It’s just too incendiary.”

Confrontation
Early in the morning of Dec. 15, Herman was collecting signatures from students on the sidewalk near the school’s main entrance. Duarte was standing under the school’s long covered entryway, talking to some students and “looking at me,” Herman said. “Some people wouldn’t sign because he was watching,” he said.

Two of those students then approached Herman. He said they made comments including, “‘Duarte’s the man. Why are you doing this?’”

They then pretended to want to sign the petition, but only scribbled on it. According to the police report, one student, identified as Julio Figueroa, acknowledged writing an obscene insult on the petition. Figueroa did not return Gazette phone calls for this article.

Then, Herman said, “They took my clipboard, threw the papers up in the air. One of them hit me on the side of the face.”

Herman said he hurriedly gathered up the scattered petitions. But then about six more students approached him.

He said the students demanded to see the petition and made such threats as, “‘You’re not going to get out of here.’”

Herman fled to his car across the street and got inside. But the group of students then stood in front of the car, joined by a man. That man, Edwin Pizzaro, is a former English High student whose fiancée, Stephanie Firicano, attends the school. Pizzaro told the Gazette he was there to drop off Firicano and then got involved.

There appears to be no dispute that the group blocked Herman’s car for some time while telling him to get out of the car. But there are two versions of what happened next.

Herman said he slowly backed his car back and forward until the students stepped out of the way, then sped off. He said he didn’t intend to hit anybody, and doesn’t think he did.

He then drove home and called the police, filing an assault and battery report. While talking to the police officer, he was informed that a call had just come in from English High, where the group of students had made their own report.

Pizzaro and Firicano, who watched from nearby, described a much more violent incident. They both said Herman suddenly accelerated rapidly. Another witness named in the police report, Nelson Miranda, told the Gazette he would call back later, but did not.

“He just presses on the gas,” Pizzaro said. “He hit me and he hit two of my friends.” He said Figeuroa is one of those friends, and said he doesn’t know the name of the other one.

“He hit the students instead of talking to them,” Firicano said.

Pizzaro said he was “not that seriously injured,” merely putting some ointment on his leg and staying off it for a couple of days. But, he said, his friends were “really injured” with bruising and later went to the hospital. Firicano said one of them is now using a cane.

“I’m not going to press charges,” Pizzaro said. “[Herman] was in the heat of the moment. I look at it [as] I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.” But, he said, his friends may press charges later.

It is unclear where Duarte was during the clipboard incident. But, Pizarro and Firicano said, he stood outside watching the car incident.

“The principal from the school was in front of the school and he seen everything that happened,” Firicano said. She said that after Herman fled, the group approached Duarte, who gave them Herman’s name and license plate number.

Asked why the group was standing in front of Herman’s car in the first place, Pizzaro and Firicano said they heard that Herman had stolen something. Pizzaro said he joined in simply because his friends were involved.

“The students was trying to get the piece of paper [Herman] took from Mr. Duarte,” Pizzaro said. “He wouldn’t give it back to them.” When asked what the paper was, Pizzaro said he isn’t sure and said uncertainly, “The petition paper.”

“I really don’t know that,” Firicano said about the origin of the stand-off. “I guess the teacher took something that belonged to the principal.”

Pressed for details, Firicano acknowledged knowing about the petition. But, she said, it’s not true that it was about firing Duarte, but instead was for “the substitute teacher not to get fired.” When told the Gazette has a copy of the petition and that it is clearly only about firing Duarte, Firicano acknowledged she hadn’t seen the petition.

Pizzaro and Firicano also said that Herman reportedly had violent tendencies before.

Pizzaro said other students told him Herman was “real rude” and “violent” as a teacher, and suggested that spilled out in the car incident. “The substitute teacher had got fired and he didn’t want to leave,” Pizzaro said. “He got mad and he just took it out on the students.”

“I had him as a substitute teacher for two classes,” Firicano said. “He would swear at kids, yell at them. It was despicable. I think he’s got some mental problem or something.”

“Absolutely untrue,” Herman said. “I would have [been fired] years before if I had a reputation like that in the school.” Instead, he said, he was given pay bonuses and more responsibilities.

Wunsch said she stands by Herman. “The guy doesn’t lie,” she said. “My concern is when you get a group like that going after somebody, they can all make up tales about what happened.”

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