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Should Asperger’s Teacher Lose His Job For Remark to Overweight Student?

Should Asperger’s Teacher Lose His Job For Remark to Overweight Student?

A Connecticut high school teacher faces the loss of his job after asking a student, who is overweight, if he had eaten his homework. According to the Hartford Courant, officials in the Brookfield school district want to fire Robert Wollkind who, they say, has made a “string of inappropriate remarks over his 32-year career.” Wollkind, a math teacher at Brookfield High School, was diagnosed in 2002 with Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder in which individuals have normal or above intelligence but struggle with social, communicative and sensory skills. Wollkind has been on administrative leave since the November 2010 incident.

Lawyers representing the school district says that Wollkind has “used abusive language to others, including telling one student that he hated him.” According to the News-Times:

The student, identified as “Student 21,” had been previously teased by peers about his weight, said the school district’s attorney Patrick McHale.

Wollkind’s personnel file also contains reported incidents of him screaming at a student, grabbing a student, and using “abusive and foul language” with students. 

Wollkind counters that “many of those incidents have been described inaccurately.”

A disciplinary hearing was held on Wednesday night and will continue on April 13. At the hearing, Superintendent Anthony Bivona said that, while he thought Wollkind had the ability to teach, he failed to “provide a classroom environment where students were physically and emotionally safe and felt respected.” After learning about the incident with ‘Student 21,’ Bivona looked in Wollkind’s personnel file and decided (without consulting previous superintendents, teachers, principals or students involved in the November incident) that Wollkind should be terminated. From the News-Times:

“I really have no choice. This has to end now,” Bivona said. “I don’t see any evidence that this behavior is going to cease.”

…Bivona said teachers in the district should not use sarcasm with students nor humor that “crosses the line.”

Wollkind said he uses humor in his classes and does not intend to harm anyone with it. “That’s (humor) supposed to be taboo around here.”

Bivona may well have concluded that Wollkind was a potential legal liability, and that ‘Student 21′ and his family might bring a lawsuit against the school district, charging that it had failed to protect the student’s rights and caused him to be discriminated against in his math class at Brookfield High School.

On the other hand, as Wollkind does have a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, it is possible that he simply did not realize the extent of his effect of his remarks on others. He had been a teacher in Brookfield for 32 years: Why had no one called him on his sarcasm until Bivona (who has been superintendent of the district for four years)?

At the hearing, Wollkind’s former students spoke on his behalf, the News-Times reports. And Dr. Jonathan Bauman, a psychiatrist and chief medical officer of Four Winds Hospital in Katonah, N.Y., who diagnosed Wollkind with Asperger’s Syndrome in 2002, said that he had recently re-evaluated him and thought that he had the ability to teach.

Hundreds of Brookfield residents have signed a petition in support of Wollkind.

 

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Photo by cayoup.

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120 comments

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9:48AM PDT on Jul 31, 2011

why not a co-teaching classroom? that way he would always have someone to touch base with. Just knowing help was available if he needed it would cut his stress by half which could lead to better choices. I have a feeling the administrator was looking for a reason to fire him. Is it possible the student was one who almost never had homework to turn in but always had excuses? The conversation could have been 'Well, did your dog eat it? Did your cat eat it? did a canary eat it? did you eat it?' we do not know...... however, if he has been teaching there for 32 years one should consider he is now teaching the children of his former students, if he were truly abusive do you think that would be happening? Would you allow a teacher that was abusive to you teach your child? I prevented a school psychologist from seeing my son, because I felt he had harmed me when I visited with him as a student. He asked how he could help and promised not to tell my father or my teachers what I said. He phoned my father to discuss physical and sexual abuse issues, and then told me I was delusional.

4:17AM PDT on Jun 26, 2011

Anthony Bivona decided for everyone to by pass red tape and protacol to sack this guy. It seems to me that it is ok to bring forward and talk about this teachers Asperger's Syndrome as it is a problem, but it is not appropriate to talk about a students weight problem, do me a favour and remember Asperger's Syndrome is something you have to live with and cannot do nothing about it , being overweight can be rectified. By the way why did it take 32 years to come to the decision that the teacher was not fit to teach, seems to me someone needs to feel important or has a knife in the teachers back. However taking everything aside this teacher has given lots of young people with Asperger's Syndrome a goal in life....to be normal whatever normal is

1:07PM PDT on Jun 25, 2011

No he shouldn't lose his job. The more kids are exposed to all types of people the stronger they will become

6:50PM PDT on Jun 9, 2011

A filter needs to be put in place. If this teacher can NOT censor himself he should not be in the classroom.

8:46PM PDT on Apr 12, 2011

I'm sorry, but based on the article, I don't see anything that can conclusively be ruled as "inappropriate," since taking things out of context is very rarely fair to the speaker, and in any case, asking even an overweight student if he "ate his homework" absolutely should not be deemed as "discrimination" when it wasn't even followed up with "and that's why you're so fat?" or any comments specifically pertaining to the student's weight.

All of the other comments referred to, provided without any context, are impossible to judge. Certainly students should never feel afraid or discriminated against in the school environment, but they also shouldn't be over-protected from having their feelings hurt by things they should be able to take for sarcasm and to laugh off. Some of my best high school teachers had biting sarcasm, made up names for the students, and had other behavior that isn't usually in the classroom, but taught us well, kept us interested and comfortable, and we knew to take it for what it was. By high school, students should be able to start to learn what's worth getting upset about, and not have every boo-boo of their feelings kissed and coddled and followed by a threat of a lawsuit to the teacher who dared treat them like an adult. Although it's possible that the teacher in this case did make comments that made a student feel unsafe, threatened, or truly discriminated against, absolutely nothing in this article shows this, or warrants bashing the teacher.

10:58AM PDT on Apr 10, 2011

Asshole teacher should be so fired so fast without any compensation - stay the hell out of teaching our children if you do not have compassion and a high degree of moral values! Useless piece of shit passing off as trying to educate students and making them feel good about themselves - I am sick of this abuse in schools and nobody does a dam thing!

1:26AM PDT on Apr 5, 2011

There is behavior therapy these days to help anyone with social problems. I know a few people with Asperger's Syndrome, and none of them are offensive in any manner at all. They're blunt, and you take them or leave them. I get along with them just fine. I think this teacher is hiding behind his autism as an excuse to be inappropriate. Own up & shut up & stop harassing children.

3:03PM PDT on Apr 4, 2011

Sorry, but even my daughter's sixth grade teacher continued to insult her even AFTER I asked him not to. He affected my daughter's view of school. So yes, if this teacher has Asperger's, then he/she should not be teaching. Sorry. But it's hard enough for kids to deal with all the BS of the school system.

1:30PM PDT on Apr 3, 2011

Reguardless of his Asperger's Syndrome, a teacher is suppose to educate the students and help to get a solid foundation instilled in them so as they mature and grow into adults, they can meld into college life, and then into the world and make a place and a life for themselves and their family to be.

Laughing at and ridiculing is not part of a teachers job. If he is unable to control his Asperger's Syndrome, he has no business teaching at any level. That folks is not part of his job.

Do you want your kids to be taught in this manner? This man has been fired. But obviously is still going to be allowed to teach, and find another teaching position in another location....maybe it will be your child in his next class room. It is not impossible.

7:38AM PDT on Apr 3, 2011

I'm surprised he's still employed if he did, indeed, grab a student at one time.

As someone who's been in physical and virtual classrooms for almost two decades (and who has accomodated students with a variety of disabilities), "being able to teach" is distinctly different than teaching *well*.

An accomodation for this teacher could be to move him to a position--online teaching, one-off/one-time review sessions, online tutoring, etc--where he would have less opportunity to insult students.

One of the biggest challenges here is that he believes his comments are only gentle "sarcasm."

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Kristina Chew Kristina Chew teaches ancient Greek, Latin and Classics at Saint Peter's University in New Jersey.... more
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