The Department of Education of the City of New York had one of its pedagogues arrested for practicing free speech in the form an obviously humorous article. That really actually happened.... NYCDOENUTSUFT Ex Bd Meeting, Jan. 13, 2020 as reported by Arthur at NYCEducator:
Mike Schirtzer—Proud to have worked defending union rights with so many members. Many have been asking me about an email they received from PERB about a member. What should we tell them about this email?I posted the Portelos story the other day with documentation:
Barr—Sometimes you have a situation where DOE needs to be held responsible. We try to do that every day. In this case, this member was found to have been harassed and targeted after identifying financial irregularities. DOE lost case, In settlement, DOE was supposed to notify people in 2017. PERB sued DOE and won. Went to Supreme Court. Because they were resistant, court said it had to be sent to 120,000 people. Kudos to PERB. Tell members what happened.
Schirtzer—New contract has protection against harassment and retaliation. What should members do?
Barr—First, contact CL, who can work with DR. Must keep those responsible involved and informed. It’s case by case.
Below is a must read by DOENUTS, one of my buddies who faced the same kind of personal attack by the vicious dogs at the DOE for practicing free speech outside his school activities, just like Portelos. I never really heard the full story before because he was closed mouth about it but to me its even scarier than Portelos' case because this is a fairly not in your face guy while Portelos attracted enormous attention. So that it can happen to anyone is very scary.
If Mike Schirtzer hadn't brought it up the other day, would the UFT had made any comment at all? I don't think you will be reading about the Portelos story in the NY Teacher.
Now I will say that as an advisor to Portelos at the time, after having attended over a dozen of his hearings, I urged him to be quiet until the hearing officer came through with a decision because I came out of the hearing thinking he wouldn't be fired despite the 42 charges against him. The HO seemed somewhat sympathetic, he had a great NYSUT lawyer and the DOE lawyer was a vicious unlikable dog.
When he published his piece claiming to have hacked the DOE payroll I was not happy because I thought it might affect the ulitmate decision of the HO. And maybe it did - he was given a heavy fine.
I still think he didn't need to do it for a joke. There are more serious things to write about to fight the DOE over. But to be arrested was so far over the top.
I don't know if free speech exists for teachers or anyone employed anywhere. Maybe it's a myth - the first amendment.
Now it's important that Portelos kept asking for a remedy and never stopped. I admit that at times when I was on the other side of him I found that he never let go like a dog with a bone was annoying and I know from insiders at the DOE and the UFT he drove them nuts and the word "hate" was used more than once. But they are people in power and there should be limits and the union's job is to enforce these limits no matter what they think of you.
Well it's happened. It took a long time and it followed a windy path but the DoE was finally forced, through yet another court order, to send notice to every one of it's employees that Francesco Portelos will no longer be a target for any of his actions.
It is somehow impossible for these folks to inform every single employee in the system that their paystub is ready for viewing, but it sure as heck notified all of us that Portelos will no longer be a target.
I've seen much confusion and one or two rolling eyes at this notice. By in large, folks feel like they should not have to be seeing this kind of notification at their workplace. They don't. In fact, I would wager that, if you asked Francesco, he would say those folks are right! They shouldn't!! In fact, he would probably say that was the whole point. Department resources should not have to be spent on things like this notice precisely because department resources should not have been spent on straying from the law to go retaliate against an employee in the first place.
Among other things, Francesco sued for a letter of acknowledgement from the department that he had, in fact, been a target of their reprisals and for an attestation -a simple statement- saying that he would and should no longer be targeted by them or by their subordinates. When some people sue, they sue for money (and I hope he did that as well). This guy sued for a letter -a letter- and he brought that old Captain America I can do this all day attitude to his lawsuits and stayed with them through their conclusion -eight years.
And for those folks who may be reading and rolling their eyes (or thinking about some crap he may have done to them somewhere along the line), Stop. And read this story I have to share:
My story isn't quick. It happened almost eight years ago. and it requires a lot of context. I was being put through a 3020 by the DoE for a harmless article I wrote for a blog I was connected with at the time. I had never been in trouble in my entire career up until that very point. I had thirteen letters of commendation in my file from various supervisors across various schools. I was well liked by colleagues, by parents and by my students and was, by almost every measure, a model pedagogue. I even wore a jacket and tie to work every day! And yet, there I was, having my entire career, and life, turned upside down because I had published something to a blog and had worked with folks to help mitigate and work against Bloomberg and his wildly destructive education policies.
It was a clear retaliatory attack, but what could I do? I'm just a doofy little teacher and you can't fight city hall. At that time, the real City Hall influenced all of the newspapers. The DoE didn't like the blogs so, at some point, it was decided to find them (us) and go after them. Another blogger was just starting a similar very long, and very painful, process of his own during this time and although the DoE swore it had nothing to do his blog, we knew it was retribution for writing. Writers who didn't have important friends to protect them were all a focus of *that* DoE. We had to just weather the storm as best we could.
And we each weathered that storm in our own way. I have a mortgage and children, and had a principal who was very confused about being "told" to sign off on a 3020. He, as a matter of consequence, had decided to help me get past the ordeal. So I did what he suggested and I kept my mouth shut throughout the entire process. I eventually got off with a slap on the wrist and was allowed -permitted, I believe, was the actual term from the attorney- to go back and serve the children of New York. (He was right. It is a privilege to do what I do. I shrugged it off as best as I could and got back to work). My other friend fought back. His struggle was long and painful but he would eventually go on to uncover evidence that there had, in fact, been a conspiracy against him. This helped him fight off the lawyers and save his job.
And it was within this political climate that Francesco decided to publish his now famous humor piece about how to hack the DoE!. I have to admit, when I first read it, I put my head down and asked "Why Francesco. Why?". But then I quickly realized something: None of this should have been happening to any of us anyway. We, and many more of us, were all caught up in some bizarre totalitarian-like retaliation policy -and none of us had important friends to help protect us. We were, what you might call, low hanging fruit for the machine -and that machine was hungry.
You see, during the last few years of the Bloomberg administration, the unwritten rules in the DoE were very very clear: If you spoke out, you were retaliated against. If you spoke out in your school, your school retaliated against you. If you had the testicoli to speak out beyond your school, then the part or the whole system came after you -and it is a very, very big system. Hell, different people in that system might trip over themselves in hopes of being the first to come after you if you were able to draw an audience wider than your school.
So clear were these rules that, once I was charged, a friend in my school renamed me "the dead man walking" -and everybody knew what he meant.
That was the world -the DoE world anyway- in which we all worked and lived. Thank goodness it is a different world from today. THAT world was like a Kafka novel -a poorly written and very predictable Kafka novel -and none of it should ever have happened-but it was what it was.
Public resources -resources that had been intended to teach children- had been used to silence any voice that spoke against any arm of its more sinister policies in any biting or meaningful way. Bloomberg folks defend this, by the way, even to this day (not folks from legal or any other area but Bloomberg folks generally). They'll say that public approval was a requirement for their policies and some of the voices may have threatened that a bit.
Which brings me to why Francesco dropped that humor piece!. In hindsight, it seemed that he was daring them to do the wrong thing and go after him for nothing.
And, well, they did. 😂😂😂😂.
In the middle of my ordeal, I got a call from Francesco. It was just one night, out of many, where I was at home -afraid about what might happen to me in my trial. Apparently, a detective wanted him to "come in" so they "could talk" about the humorous piece he had published. Earlier in the day, Francesco had learned that this was NYPD code for "Look, I'm going to arrest you but I don't feel like driving to you. So why don't you just come in like a good guy instead, Okay?" As it so happens, a DoE official had gotten creative, tripped over some other DoE official's attempt to retaliate and just filed a complaint with the police. Francesco -a teacher- was set to be arrested for practicing free speech.
I need to write that again, don't I? That's OK. It sounds crazy just typing it!
The Department of Education of the City of New York had one of its pedagogues arrested for practicing free speech in the form an obviously humorous article. That really actually happened.
We spent about 2 1/2 hours on the phone that night, both of us perplexed about how they had been enabled to go so far. I remember hearing the fear in his voice as we spoke (I also remember hearing the fear in my own voice that night. These experiences back then were pretty scary!!). But I also remember -clearly- hearing a tone of resolve from him. And it was a strong resolve. At one point, I heard him say "look. I'm probably have to go through this. It is what it is. But this shouldn't be happened and, you know me so you know this isn't going to be the end it. It just isn't". As best as I could tell, he was resolute the night before he was arrested, as well as scared, as well as perplexed at a DoE that would do this. But resolution was the feeling I remember sensing from him the most. (This is his rendition of what happened to him during hiss 33 hours in jail. You should read it. You should be taken aback about how a DoE employee could make this happen over a harmless, funny little article). And now, eight years later, that resolution has found its way to reality in the form a section three of the letter that we have all received.
But just know, he was scared that night, as any of us would be.
And just to be clear, there is a hero in this story. It isn't any of the guys or girls who took to blogging or protesting during the Bloomberg Administration. It certainly isn't me. It's the guy who never ever stopped trying to get things set right for himself. I mean, I'm proud to be the guy who shut up and tried his best to not upset my employer again (...as instructed, Madam Hearing Officer! As instructed... ). But I'm also the guy who will now enjoy the remainder of my career free -completely free- from that type of viciousness and retaliations which we all witnessed and which some of us experienced. And, I have to say, Portelos is why I'll enjoy that freedom.
And, unless I'm advertising his robotics club or program he's running at his new school, that is ALL I'll have to write about Francesco Portelos!