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Lew-Port teacher fired for 'demeaning' students, colleagues

It takes a lot for a tenured teacher to be fired in New York State.

For a teacher at Lewiston-Porter Central School District, it took a documented history of being mean:

  • In one case, according to state documents, veteran middle school teacher Elizabeth Filocamo gave a girl a zero on a quiz because she used a spiral-bound notebook rather than a composition book.
  • Another time, she refused to allow a girl who was using a wheelchair and crutches after knee surgery to leave class five minutes early to get to her next class, despite permission from the school nurse. Instead, she let her leave 15 seconds early. Another student was denied a trip to the bathroom for asking an aide instead of Filocamo.
  • Filocamo also got into arguments in class with her aides, accusing one of feeding special education students answers to an assignment. She told an aide, according to documents, "Don't help them. They'll become idiots."

It was an unusual teacher discipline case in a state where it can sometimes take years to remove a teacher accused of bad behavior.

Less than 18 percent of the 862 disciplinary cases brought against tenured teachers in the last six years outside of New York City ever received hearings, according to the state Education Department. Since 2012, only 57 teachers, including four this year, have been terminated after hearings.

Lew-Port Superintendent Paul J. Casseri said this was the first removal hearing for a Lew-Port teacher in at least 25 years. He estimated the district spent $250,000 investigating Filocamo over the years, including $40,000 to $50,000 in legal fees for the hearing.

"We refuse anyone to denigrate, harass, demean or bully anybody," Casseri said. "Whether that's adult-to-student, student-to-student, it's just not acceptable."

Filocamo's file

After an eight-day, trial-like hearing in January and February, state hearing officer Ruth M. Moscovitch ruled that 30 charges and specifications against Filocamo had been proven, and decided that for conduct unbecoming a teacher and insubordination, "termination is the appropriate penalty."

"While each of the incidents charged may seem relatively insignificant by itself, the sheer number of incidents where (Filocamo) acted inappropriately and without sensitivity to the needs of her students is significant," Moscovitch wrote.

The Lew-Port Board of Education unanimously fired Filocamo March 13. The Buffalo News obtained the 84-page hearing report under the Freedom of Information Law.

"It was proven by the district that her pattern of behavior over the years was detrimental to students, detrimental to her relationships with her colleagues and detrimental to the educational process," Casseri said.

Filocamo also was found to have falsified evidence for the disciplinary hearing against her by changing a PowerPoint presentation on classroom rules to include material that wasn't there originally. The district proved that the original version didn't include rules about what type of notebook to use and who could give permission to use the bathroom.

Moscovitch, the state hearing officer, found Filocamo's "credibility was irreparably damaged" by the alterations.

No exceptions 

A reporter found Filocamo at her home Tuesday, but she said she was about to leave and couldn't talk then. She did not return calls seeking an interview.

But at the hearing, Filocamo testified that she believes in being strict and she was not at school to be the students' "buddy."

"Does that mean I'm disrespectful in any way? No," Filocamo said. "I want them to become successful men and women after school."

When it comes to enforcing rules, Filocamo testified, "I try not to make exceptions."

The superintendent said he tried to work out an exit agreement for Filocamo, but she refused.

"Generally, a teacher will see the writing on the wall and resign. But that's not her style," Casseri said.

For many years, Filocamo had been a highly rated teacher.

But at some point, she became a teacher who, according to testimony at the hearing, reduced some of her students, both boys and girls, to tears. Some headed to the principal's office to fill out complaints about her under Lew-Port's student dignity policy.

She was removed from science teaching for a while, but after her return there was immediate trouble, which led to her being placed on leave for two months. Filocamo was sent back to a science classroom in September 2016, but within three months she was placed on leave again.

She continued to draw a salary while the district investigated her and prepared charges. According to the website, Filocamo was paid $94,122 in 2017.

Lewiston-Porter Central School Superintendent Paul J. Casseri. (News file photo)

Nineteen witnesses testified at Filocamo's "3020a hearing," named after the section of state education law that governs such proceedings. They included students, teachers, aides, administrators, a parent and Filocamo herself.

After trial testimony, Moscovitch wrote, a picture emerged of Filocamo "as a teacher who I believe truly loved her profession, but was fixed and rigid in her idea of what good teaching means."

"She also had a loud voice that, by her own admission, could sound like she was yelling at students. Over the years, her students complained about feeling belittled or picked on by (Filocamo), and she was counseled to change her approach," the hearing officer commented.

"Rather than demonstrate that she is open to change and can be rehabilitated, if anything, she became more insensitive to her students in the last year she taught," Moscovitch wrote.

Long history

After her hiring as a science teacher in 1989, Filocamo received only positive reviews from supervisors. She was granted tenure in 1992, meaning she couldn't be removed without a hearing.

But the hearing record shows that things started to change in 2006-07, when Middle School Principal Vincent Dell'Oso gave Filocamo a negative evaluation and ordered her into a teacher improvement plan.

Dell'Oso wrote that parents were complaining about Filocamo "constantly picking on" their children, who "do not want to come to your class anymore, in fear of being embarrassed in front of their peers."

After a year of the improvement plan, Dell'Oso gave Filocamo positive evaluations until 2010.

But in June 2010, 10 of Filocamo's fellow teachers signed a letter decrying Filocamo's alleged unfairness to students, negative attitude, poor participation in team teaching activities and frequent lateness for school.

Because of the hostile atmosphere, Filocamo testified, she requested and received a transfer to the high school, where Casseri was then the principal.

After observing her class on May 8, 2012, Casseri warned her about her "tone and attitude," saying that her interactions with students "might be perceived as harsh or accusatory."

Filocamo replied that the trouble was caused by one student who was chronically unprepared and disrespectful. Casseri gave her a positive year-end evaluation.

But in 2012-13, Filocamo accused a teaching aide of doing a special education student's work. Casseri investigated and decided that the accusation "was blatantly false and further had negative impact on the student's overall emotional well-being."

For 2013-14, Filocamo was reassigned to the middle school, where she was eventually assigned to the in-school suspension room.

Piling up charges

In December 2015, a seventh-grade science teacher went on leave and Filocamo filled in. Trouble soon followed.

According to the testimony, Filocamo yelled at a male special education student on Dec. 11 for not skipping every other line on his homework paper, as Filocamo preferred.

The defense contended the only evidence for the yelling was the word of an aide who some years earlier became so upset in a discussion with Filocamo that the aide "flipped her the bird."

On the same day, Filocamo got into an exchange with a female student and allegedly made her sit in the front corner facing the blackboard. Four days later, Filocamo allegedly accused the same girl of smirking at her and again made her sit in the front corner.

Filocamo testified she was trying to break up a noisy group of students and asked them to move, and the girl chose a desk that was already against the front wall.

Later in the day, the girl said Filocamo confronted her in a hallway and accused her of not placing a magazine back on the pile. Filocamo followed the girl back to the room and watched her pick up the magazine.

The girl testified that she started crying after both incidents. On Dec. 16, 2015, she filled out a student dignity complaint form, writing, "I want to be treated with respect."

That same day, Filocamo was placed on administrative leave for two months, and on her return, she was reassigned to the in-school suspension room.

"You can discipline, or you can manage a classroom, and not have to degrade and demean a student," Casseri said.

Arguments in class

Staff retirements put Filocamo back in a middle school science classroom for the fall of 2016. Then-principal Dean Ramirez testified that he tried to encourage her to be more of a "kids' teacher, building rapport with kids."

Ramirez said Filocamo commented, "Maybe I'm just not made up that way."

On Dec. 7, 2016, Filocamo got into an argument with a teacher aide who said the students were confused about a graphing assignment. Filocamo said they should know how to do it.

Witnesses said Filocamo told the aide, "I don't need to be reprimanded in front of the students. If you think you can teach this class better, go ahead and do it." Then Filocamo got up as if to leave, one student testified.

The next day, with students still confused, Filocamo and a consulting teacher argued during class. Testimony showed the consulting teacher left the classroom, saying, "If you're not going to help us, I'm going to go find someone who can."

Filocamo admitted having disagreements with the aides, but said they were conducted "politely."

Three students went to the office to complain about Filocamo, who was placed on leave the next day – for the last time.

Casseri said Filocamo has not appealed the verdict against her.

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