View Full Version : All NYC Firing of a popular but polarizing teacher at Ethical Culture Fieldston prompts outcry

10-19-2011, 09:24 PM
From N.Y. Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/20/nyregion/firing-at-ethical-culture-fieldston-school-prompts-outcry.html) by Jenny Anderson:

There are perhaps few schools in the nation with as progressive a pedigree as Ethical Culture Fieldston School, where students are not only expected to live the values of tolerance and inclusion, but also to make the world more tolerant and inclusive. Half those in the school’s kindergarten classes this year are minority students, with Fieldston leading a push for diversity among New York’s elite private schools. The new head of school, Damian Fernandez, an openly gay Latino, began the year promising a deeper commitment to the school’s liberal roots in ethical learning.

So when a popular but controversial history teacher made remarks to his ninth-grade students last month that some perceived to be racist, Dr. Fernandez quickly moved to fire him, saying in a Sept. 16 letter to parents, faculty members and students that “everyone should be treated with respect, dignity and compassion.”

But the ouster has riven the Fieldston community and revived debates over sensitivity and boundaries in an era of South Park humor.

Nearly 350 of the 592 students at the upper school, in the Bronx, have signed a petition to have the teacher, Barry Sirmon, reinstated, and the union that represents Fieldston’s 325 teachers has protested what it says was a lack of due process. (A union arbitration is scheduled for December.) The upper-school principal, John Love, who was expected to retire soon, announced not long after the firing that this would be his final year; Dr. Love, who Mr. Sirmon said opposed the firing, did not return phone calls.

“A lot of the teachers are worried that his firing will chill their speech,” said Emily Kling, 18, a senior who designed the petition with another student. “It doesn’t make for a better learning environment at Fieldston.”

At a meet-and-greet with Dr. Fernandez on the evening of the firing, the topic dominated conversation, with some parents dismayed at the seemingly abrupt removal of a veteran faculty member and others relieved that someone with a reputation for inappropriate comments had finally been called to account.

“He is a very anti-P.C. guy in a very P.C. school,” noted one mother who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of angering the administration. Still, she said: “I wouldn’t condone this in the workplace, and I’m not a prude. Words matter.”

Neither Mr. Sirmon nor Dr. Fernandez would repeat the comments, citing the pending arbitration. Several parents interviewed said that Mr. Sirmon, on his first day of class this fall, joked with two black students, “I hope I’ll be able to tell you two apart.”

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