Whatever the outcome of hearings to determine whether band director John Yoon will retain his job, the presence of his supporters during nine full days of hearings has been a constant.
Identifiable by their “Bring Back John Yoon” buttons, the regulars included volunteers in local government including former Board of Education Chair Sandy Waters; BET chair Bill Finger; former teacher, district communications director and P&Z member Louisa Stone; retired attorney Fred Whalen; RTM District 8’s Chris von Keyserling; attorney Don Marchant; retired band director Carmel Signa; retired teacher Dick Campbell; and former Board of Education member Nancy Weissler.
On Thursday, Oct 8, Day 9 of the hearings, four people testified: Carol Sutton the Greenwich Education Association president, Marie Shimchick (GHS media specialist), Student E and Student F, who returned to be cross-examined by the Superintendent’s attorney, Mr. Mooney.
Student E, a GHS senior who is both tri-captain of winter track and president of the China Club, recalled how at first she thought Mr. Yoon was sick when he had actually been suspended.
When she read an article in the media, she said she figured out who Student A was. She subsequently sent an email to the Board of Education members describing Student A’s misbehavior. She said her email was not intended to hurt Student A, but, “only intended to help the Board of Education get a better idea of the other side.” She said she shared the letter with her three closest friends and did not share the letter on social media, as had been suggested at an earlier hearing by Dr. McKersie.
Student E said GHS Headmaster Dr. Winters requested a meeting, “to talk about this email and how it essentially was a mistake,” she said. “He said I should not be naming Student A and that it was an insult and he was pretty much criticizing me for it.”
Student E said she subsequently was called into a meeting with Greenwich Schools Superintendent Dr. McKersie. “He said the email was inappropriate and I should have sent a letter,” she recalled. “It was a bit intimidating,” she said, of being called to meet with Dr. Winters and Dr. McKersie separately.
A memorable moment came when Student E, tried to describe Mr. Yoon’s teaching style.
After saying that being removed as section leader was “not so much” a big deal, and describing Student A as “constantly absent,” and having an “incredibly poor” attitude, she said, “Mr. Yoon pushes us but not to the point of bullying. He gives us drive,” she said very softly.
After being asked to repeat her last sentence, Student E began to shake and broke into tears. Several women spectators also began to cry. After she rose from the witness stand, she crossed the room and embraced Mr. Yoon in a hug.
After being granted a break, Student E returned to the stand. Mr. Mooney asked whether she recalled Student A participating actively in a conversation in band about an Earth Wind and Fire song? She said she did not remember that.
Student F, who had given half his testimony at the previous hearing, returned after school ended to be cross-examined by Mr. Mooney.
Student F recalled testifying that he had been fearful of retribution both from Student A, who might “feel contempt,” and feared retribution from the administration for talking openly about Student A, though he acknowledged he could provide no basis for that fear.
Mr. Mooney asked Student F if he would describe Mr. Yoon as “intense.”
Student F asked Mr. Mooney to be more specific, to which Mooney replied, “Intense is a word in the English language.”
“He has an intense dedication to the band,” Student F replied.
“You have a healthy self-image?” Mr. Mooney asked student F.
“I am comfortable with some situations that a very introverted or shy student might not,” he replied. Mr. Mooney replied that at the May 21 Board of Education meeting the boy had described having a “very uncomfortable experience with Mr. Yoon and that he had been made to play a piece over and over,” he said, and that it was “very traumatic.”
Student F said, “It was because I was not used to being put on the spot. It was not a manifestation of mistreatment of Mr. Yoon,” he continued. “I described it as traumatic because I was not used to playing music for people listening to me.”
He said he had considered quitting band, but Mr. Yoon had apologized for hurting his feelings.
“You said, ‘Mr. Yoon goes too far,’” Mr. Mooney recalled of Student F’s comments at the May Board of Ed meeting. “Did he go too far in that instance with you?” Mooney asked.
“No,” student F replied.
“You said ‘Mr. Yoon goes too far sometimes?’” Mooney asked.
“Yes, I did,” F replied.
Mr. Mooney asked Student F if it was true that Mr. Yoon “scolded” Student A in every class.
Student F pointed out that Student A was not present in every class due to his poor attendance, but that, Mr. Yoon, “reminded” Student A in every class that he attended that he should have better posture and play more loudly.
Ms. Sutton, the GEA president since 2013, said her teaching career began in Darien Public Schools in 1982. She taught for a time at Stamford Catholic before coming to Greenwich Schools in 1987. Since then, with the exception of one year at Western Middle School, she has taught every year at Greenwich High School.
Sutton brought Names Day to GHS in 2000, a popular annual anti-bullying program of the Anti-Defamation League.
Mr. Yoon’s attorney Daniel Young questioned Ms. Sutton first, beginning with questions about how the investigation of allegations of bullying by parents of Students A and B.
“I believe that if an allegation would arise, that the administration had a responsibility to investigate fully before making any decision about discipline,” she said.
Regarding a memo criticizing Mr.Yoon that was sent to then Human Resources Director Dr. Lichtenfeld on GEA stationery, Mrs. Sutton said that contrary to Dr. McKersie’s testimony, the letter writers did not have the authority to write on behalf of the GEA. “I believe it was a misuse of the letterhead,” she said. The memo was written just after the Last Chance agreement was signed by Mr. Yoon.
Asked about the Last Chance Agreement, Sutton said neither she nor Mr. Yoon were aware of the allegations from Student A or B before a notice of the first disciplinary meeting was received.
She said that when Dr. Lichtenfeld relayed the allegations during a disciplinary meeting and that Mr. Yoon at that point, asked that the allegations be investigated by speaking with teachers including music teacher Ben Walker, science teacher Andy Bramante, students and guidance counselors.
At a second disciplinary hearing, held on May 6, with Mr. Mooney and Dr. McKersie present, Mrs. Sutton testified that Mr. Yoon again denied the allegations and asked that an investigation be conducted. Sutton said Attorney Mooney agreed that an investigation should be conducted.
When the last Chance Agreement was signed, “Dr. Lichtenfeld assured us that the situation would be investigated fully before any discipline,” Sutton said. “An investigation involves gaining multiple perspectives on a topic and I don’t believe that happened.”
Sutton recalled Dr. McKersie testifying that the Greenwich School policy is not to involve students in investigations. She said this past academic school year 4th graders had been interviewed about an incident and an entire 5th grade class was interviewed about another incident. She said quite a few students were interviewed about a statement a music teacher supposedly made.
“No, they were not reluctant to interview students,” Sutton said of a supposed policy not to involve students in investigations. “In fact they did it in an expedient manner.”
Sutton commented on Dr. Winters’ notes from his March 12, 2015 meeting with Student A’s father. “He had an obligation to raise them immediately (the father’s allegations.)” Mrs. Sutton said neither she nor Mr. Yoon learned about Student A’s father’s accusations for seven weeks.
“If there is an allegation about a teacher, the faster you get to the bottom of the accusation, the better,” she said.
Of avoiding “conduct that prompts a student to cry,” Mr. Young asked Ms. Sutton if that was a standard applied in Greenwich Public School system?
“No,” she said. If any teacher was held to that standard, it would be impossible to talk to kids,” she said. “Even teachers cry,” she added, to a round of laughs from spectators.
Of the Superintendent’s assertion that a teacher has to tell a student of the exact form of discipline before imposing it, Mr. Young asked Ms. Sutton, “Have you heard that?” No, she replied.
“Because a student has an emotional response, doesn’t mean the teacher did anything wrong,” she said, adding, “Teaching is an emotional business.”
Ms. Sutton said a grievance was filed when Mr. Yoon learned items had been placed in his personnel file without his knowledge.
Ms. Sutton was asked whether Greenwich Schools have a policy of not dropping a course at GHS without receiving an F. This question was significant because Student A and his father had agreed to Mr. Yoon’s suggestion that he drop out of band, but Headmaster Winters insisted that was against policy. Ms. Sutton said she as aware of students dropping a course “to lighten their load” without penalty.
“I believe there is leeway in that,” she said, of the policy not to allow dropping a class without incurring a Fail grade.
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In her capacity as leader of the Names Day anti-bullying program, Sutton said that although it is a program “for students, by students,” that upperclassmen selected as leaders of the program practice sharing stories in advance, and the group selects which stories will be shared with the freshman class.
When Mr. Mooney questioned Ms. Sutton, he asked if Names Day conversations included any stories of teachers being bullied. “It could come up,” she agreed.
She acknowledged that teachers can be bullies, but, she said allegations of bullying by teachers should be investigated before they are disciplined. Sutton acknowledged that when Mr. Yoon signed the Last Chance, she and Mr. Yoon felt it was the best deal they could get at the time. She said he acknowledged he had made some mistakes and was remorseful.
Mooney asked Sutton if she knew the CEA has three attorneys on staff. In previous hearings Mr. Yoon said repreatedly that he had “union representation” in the form of Ms.Sutton, but not an attorney of his own.
Mr. Mooney reminded her that she she had not objected to the Superintendent having his own attorney (Mr. Mooney) present at those disciplinary hearings. She agreed, acknowledging that she knew the CEA had attorneys on staff.
Marie Shimchick, a 30 year teacher, took the stand after Carol Sutton. She said she had been a music and theater teacher before coming to Greenwich High School to teach music.
Shimchick said she created a course called “Musicianship” which was later renamed music theory. Shimchick is also coach of the Golf team at GHS, and the team has won 5 of the last 6 FCIAC championships.
She said she’d had no issues with Mr. Yoon, that he treated her professionally and that she’d never seen him be verbally abusive or behave unprofessionally toward students.
She’d hoped to collaborate with him on bringing to GHS a program she’d done at Eastern Middle School called the Renaissance Banquet. Ms. Shimchick added that she is is no longer a teacher in the GHS music department, and is now a media specialist.
In the afternoon, after Student E and F both testified, the hearing ended when Mr. Mooney had no further questions. The hearing officer clarified the timeline. The two attorneys have a deadline of November 5 to finish their briefs. Nov. 16 is the deadlines for the attorneys to swap hard copies of their briefs with one another. Dec. 8 is the deadline for the hearing officer, Mr. Webber to make his recommendation. From there, the Board of Education has 15 days to make a final decision on Mr. Yoon’s termination.
Email news tips to Greenwich Free Press editor Leslie.Yager@GreenwichFreePress.com
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