Day 4 of public hearings to determine the fate of GHS band teacher John Yoon, who is fighting to hold on to the position he has had for 23 years leading the band at Greenwich High School, took place on Monday in a crowded conference room at Havemeyer.
The faces of those in attendance have become familiar after four full days of testimony beginning on July 14, with GHS headmaster Dr. Winters testifying.
On day 2, July 15, band parents wearing Bring Back Mr. Yoon buttons showed up again to hear testimony from recently retired Human Resources Director for Greenwich Schools, Dr. Robert Lichtenfeld, and the hearing was moved to the spacious gym at Glenville School.
On Day 3, Aug. 10 again at Glenville School, Michael Mossman, a renowned musician said he had coached hundreds of high school bands including GHS. Reacting to the Superintendent’s attorney Thomas Mooney question about making decisions like removing a student from a post as section leader “on the fly,” Mossman said, “That’s why you are there. Music is all about the moment.”
On Aug. 10, the father of Student A testified that he was upset his boy learned he had been relieved of his job as section leader during a Monday morning rehearsal.
On day 4 of the hearings, Aug. 31, the hearing was long – starting at 10:30 and ending at 4:30 – but the testimony was fast-paced.
In fact, Student P, an articulate GHS 2014 graduate headed to Princeton in coming days had to be stopped at multiple occasions in order for the stenographer to keep up.
Student P characterized Student A as disrespectful toward Mr. Yoon. “He wasted everybody else’s time. … In rehearsals he came across as arrogant and insubordinate, often defying requests. He slouched in his chair, he came unprepared and brought the wrong instrument. He played vibrato,” he said, explaining that means fluctuating pitch rapidly. “Also, he conveyed his disrespect with his body language and it became clear what his feelings were.”
Of Student A’s behavior in band, Student P said appropriate behavior was spelled out in detail in the Band Handook that parents and students sign in September. He said the time commitments and field trips, festivals and competitions were also provided in September. “It was frustrating and demoralizing to all of us who had made commitments to put our A -game on every time,” he said of Student A. “The rest of the band suffered,” he said adding that Student A’s behavior negatively influenced the behavior of a younger trumpet player who looked up to him.
As for Student A having been relieved in-the-moment from his section leader post, Student P was dismissive, playing down the significance of both the leadership position and the manner in which the decision was relayed.
“You get no extra credit and you don’t even put it on your college application,” Student P said of being a section leader. “It’s a bit of a chore, actually. It’s like herding cats.”
As for Student A’s ability as a section leader, Student P said other students complained that he was often absent. “It’s hard to lead if you’re not there,” he said.
Early in his testimony, Student P said, “There is no one more fair and reasonable than Mr. Yoon. He said Mr. Yoon was sometimes loud, sometimes raising his voice, but he drew the line at losing his temper. “Have you seen him lose his cool?” Student P was asked. “Never,” he replied. “He is very seasoned in not losing his cool.”
Of Student A’s Junior year academic and extra-curricular commitments including 4 AP classes, “We the People” and a science fair, Student P, who took 12 AP classes over his four years at GHS himself, did not mince words.
“You can fill out override forms,” he said of undertaking more than the suggested work load. “My parents would not have let me. It’s like working two full time jobs. Something has to give… From what I knew it would be very difficult to meet all of his commitments.”
Student P, who stopped playing squash, quit Stamford Youth Artists, and said he declined to participate in We the People, added, “If I added it to my plate I knew I’d be stretched thin. I knew I would not be able to meet my other commitments.”
As he talked about paring down his activities in order to live up to his band commitment, Student P said Mr. Yoon’s band was, “The Marine corps of band.”
Though he likely meant it as a compliment, Thomas Mooney, the attorney for the Schools Superintendent, seized on the remark.
Student P insisted that the comparison simply reflected that the band commitment is greater than that of peers in other groups.
Mr. Mooney asked Student P if it should be incumbent on a teacher to use other techniques to get cooperation rather than raising his voice? Student P replied that Mr. Yoon simply could not get Student A to behave.
“You can lead a horse to water,” P said. “But you cannot make him drink.”
Later, Mr. Mooney asked Student P if he was aware that teachers have the right to “remove a student.” Student P said he knew teachers sent students to the office, but was not aware it was their right.
Later, Mr. Young pointed out that sending a disruptive student the office was not an option during a 5:30pm rehearsal.
Mr. Mooney asked Student P many questions about his role in organizing students to defend Mr. Yoon. He asked if he socialized with or was friends with Mr. Yoon. To both questions, Student P replied, “No, he is my teacher.”
When Mr. Mooney asked Student P if requested other students write letters criticizing Student A, he replied that he had not known the identity of student A when he helped organize the Facebook group “Bring Back Mr. Yoon, 2015” and, in a Change.org petition, he said, “We blocked comments that mentioned names or were hurtful. We know from Superintendent McKersie there are privacy concerns,” Student student P said.
Mr. Mooney asked how many times he had talked to Mr. Yoon’s attorney before the hearing. Student P replied he had had one conversation with Mr. Young, but had corresponded by email. Mr. Mooney asked the email be printed out and brought into the record and the arbitrator, Mr. Webber agreed. When Student P said he was uncomfortable with that, the arbitrator was unsympathetic.
After a five minute break, Student P came back to the witness table with a box of tissues, and Mr. Mooney withdrew his request for the emails.
Mr. Mooney asked Student P about possible double standards and whether Mr. Yoon might have singled out Student A last winter at the Jazz festival in Darien. Student P said Student A made his entire team’s bus late to the festival. And while Student A’s dad did not ask until the day of the event whether his son could leave the festival early, Student P had asked a week earlier if he could leave early to participate in SRO. Student A said his outcome was different. “Beyond asking if it was truly necessary, there was no negativity,” Student P said, adding that he made up the time.
Of one incident when Mr. Yoon had his head in his hands as he repeated, “Again,” over and over to get Student A to hit a high C, Mooney asked Student P if that was humiliating.
“He also gave him a mouthpiece to help him hit the high C,” Student P said. When Mr. Mooney asked if he’d seen students cry during band rehearsal, Student P thought a moment before saying he had seen kids tear up. “I’ve teared up myself, but no, I have not seen anyone cry in band class.”
Student P said he’d cried once in 7th grade when he got a 54% on a math test, and again in junior year when he got a 72% on a calculus test.
Mooney pushed Student P about his motives in writing a four page follow-up email to the Superintendent after he and a peer had a meeting with him. “It’s just proper procedure right?” Student P replied. “Why wouldn’t I?”
After discussing the words castigate and the phrase “getting called out,” Student P admitted that he did not know whether Student A had met with Mr. Yoon privately or whether he had permission to miss rehearsals, he said he only inferred there was no such permission based on the reaction of Mr. Yoon to the absences. “It’s tough to have a rehearsal without everyone there,” Student P said. Mooney asked Student P if he had been critical of Student A. “I was intending to relay the facts as I inferred them. “We (Student P and his peer in band) wanted to provide our perspective.”
When Dr. McKersie was sworn in as a witness, he listed an impressive 30 year career as an educator with independent, public and Catholic Schools, as well as two major foundations, advanced degrees, plus an O93 certification in Connecticut and its equivalent in Massachusetts, that qualifies him to be superintendent.
“I am responsible for discipline,” Dr. McKersie said, adding that he is the final decision maker in terminations. McKersie, who said he found the extent and depth of Mr. Yoon’s discipline record to be “very severe,” answered questions about the Last Chance Agreement.
The Schools Superintendent said he had backed the Last Chance Agreement because he felt Mr. Yoon deserved a chance to “turn it around.”
He pointed out that Mr. Yoon had been apologetic and remorseful in 2014 after a confrontation between himself and another music teacher.
“I took him at his word,” McKersie said adding that, “part of the agreement was for Mr. Yoon to engage in the services of therapists to develop an understanding of how his colleagues perceived him.”
“The confrontation with his colleagues was so serious that it had to be his last chance,” McKersie said, adding that afterward the colleagues were troubled by the Last Chance Agreement. At that point music department colleagues got the state teachers union involved to try to get them to intervene with the local union. “They were convinced that the other members of the music department had not been fairly represented and felt their physical safety as at risk,” he said. “But we declined to be involved.”
In a June letter to Mr. Yoon, Dr. McKersie said the band teacher was hereby warned that antagonizing, bullying or rudeness toward students or parents would not be tolerated. McKersie referred to the professional code of conduct, which he described as required by law.
Asked when he was first made aware of behavior that was not professional after the last chance agreement, McKersie said two students complaints arrived in rapid succession — on in March and a second in April, that of Students A and B.
He said the criticism of Student A, a boy with no removals, suspensions or expulsions on his record, was “unfortunate” and could have “chilling effect” on other students who might hesitate to come forward about unprofessional behavior of a teacher.
“It’s an extreme interpretation,” McKersie said of P’s characterization of Student A, a boy with a strong academic record. “It was the parent who filed the complaint, not the student.”
McKersie said there should have been a lot of interactions with A’s parents and administrators before the issue came to a head with Student A being removed as section leader.
“I do not find it credible.” – Superintendent McKersie on of P’s characterizations of Student P’s testimony.
Dr. McKersie said student P’s account was not credible, adding that he’d gotten his information from Student A’s father and from GHS administrators. “How student A behaved was immaterial,” he said, to which Mr. Young replied, “But Mr. Yoon’s past behavior is relevant?” Under further questioning by Mr. Young, Dr. McKersie said he had only had one brief conversation himself with Student A, in addition to presenting him with an award.
Asked if he had already made up his mind about terminating Mr. Yoon before the paid suspension, McKersie demurred adding that neither Mr. Winters nor Mr. Lichtenfeld had prejudged Mr. Yoon in late April. At a May 6 closed hearing with attorneys, Mr. Yoon, Mr. Lichtenfeld, GHS administrator Jason Goldstein, Carol Sutton of the GEA and union representation from the CEA to discuss complaints of Student A and B, “He took no responsibility,” McKersie said of Mr. Yoon. “This is an older student, so you can talk to them and tell them before disciplining them,” he said referring again to Student A and the section leader post.
“It’s not that he removed him. It’s how,” McKersie said more than once about the section leader removal. “To learn about it by seeing another kid get the job. It emotionally puts you at risk, there’s a sense of humiliation,” he continued. “The ‘How’ did not meet our standards.”
Mr. Young asked a series of questions on the timeline of deliberations, Greenwich Time Freedom of Information Requests for Mr. Yoon’s disciplinary record, and the point at which a decision was made to terminate Mr. Yoon, and asked if Dr. McKersie believed Mr. Yoon deserved due process.
The superintendent insisted that although he had determined with certainty that the district would have to end Mr. Yoon’s relationship with Greenwich Public Schools, “We wanted it to end amicably.”
Dr. McKersie said the district had considered having students testify against Mr. Yoon, but, he said, “We didn’t want this made public,” referring to the chilling effect it would have on students speaking against a teacher in the future.
“We thought this would be too unhealthy an environment,” he said. “Dr. Winters had several conversations with students but it was not in the best interest of the students,” he said.
“We rarely go to other students,” Dr. McKersie said, when asked how administrators review teacher’s treatment of students in class. “We try not to have students pulled into situations with other students,” he said, citing privacy reasons.
But, when Mr. Young asked whether this year an entire class of 4th graders had been interviewed about a comment a teacher made, the superintendent replied, “Yes.”
Asked whether GHS students were questioned about a comment Mr. Walker made, the Superintended acknowledged that other students were questioned.
Dr. McKersie acknowledged that as recently as Friday he had considered having a student testify as a witness against Mr. Yoon.
The Superintendent added that at the May 21 Board of Education meeting, when dozens of parents and students spoke in favor of Mr. Yoon, the outpouring did not give him pause.
“In fact, it underscored that it was the right decision,” McKersie said, referring to one student’s story about being brought to tears in band and Mr. Yoon apologizing afterward.
Dr. McKersie again said Student A was put at great emotional risk and that the professional educators are supposed to encourage participation of families in the education process. He said Mr. Yoon had humiliated the boy and not respected his dignity.
Dr. McKersie had the last word on Monday. “It’s not about whether Student A is a problem, but How it was handled,” he said. Referring to ’emotional abuse,’ he said, “Dragging a student down to the point of tears” does not align with the code of professional conduct.
Day 5 of the hearings is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 1 at 10:30 at Havemeyer, with the final hearing scheduled for Sept. 9.