(CN) - New York City's education officials should not have fired the "dean of discipline" in a gang-infested middle school after he put one child in a headlock and threw another into a wall, a state appeals court ruled.
Though the appellate division agreed that Peter Principe was guilty of two counts of corporal punishment, it said the penalty of losing his job was too harsh, affirming the decision of the Manhattan Supreme Court.
Principe was in charge of keeping control at IS 218 in Brooklyn, a school in which "many of the students belong to criminal gangs," according to the court's April 5 opinion.
The New York City Department of Education fired Principe after a pair of incidents that took place three days apart in April 2007.
In the first incident, Principe was accused of putting an 11-year-old student in a headlock and swinging him around. Principe said he had taken the student out of the lunch room and restrained him from re-entering after breaking up two fights involving the boy.
In the second incident, Principe was accused of throwing a 13-year-old student against a wall. Principe said the boy had been shouting threats at his homeroom teacher, and he had been trying to escort the student out of the room when they lost their balance and fell into the wall.
A school security guard who had been watching the second incident in real time on a live video feed testified that he "couldn't believe" what he saw and reported it to the school principal.
Finding that the incidents occurred as the students and the officer described, and that Prinipe had asked the three to retract their statements about the incident, a hearing officer found Principe guilty of two counts of corporal punishment. It ordered the Education Department to fire Principe.
The education department brought its unsuccessful appeal after Judge Alice Schlesinger vacated that penalty in May 2010.
Both courts decided that the hearing officer who recommended termination showed bias against Principe by discrediting all of the dean's testimony. The officer had done so because Principe admitted that he had once filed for bankruptcy and because the Department of Education had mischaracterized a portion of his testimony.
"The hearing officer failed to consider all of the circumstances, including the disciplinary histories of the students involved, the context of the threatening environment in which the two incidents took place and that, at the time of the two incidents, petitioner was, as he testified, 'only fulfilling the demands' of his position as dean of discipline," according to the majority's unsigned opinion.
"Given the all of the circumstances, including petitioner's spotless record as a teacher for five years and his promotion to dean two years prior to the incidents at issue, we find the penalty excessive and shocking to our sense of fairness," the majority added.
The appellate court also noted that Principe "has a proven record of genuinely connecting with his students and making a positive impact in their lives." Schlesinger had relied on evidence of this in vacating the penalty, according to the majority. She had emphasized that the 13-year-old from the second incident "made clear that he really liked [Principe] and that he felt [Principe] understood him and was really kind of rooting for him and helping him with his difficulties." (Brackets in original.)
On remand, the hearing officer must determine a less severe penalty.
In a dissenting opinion, two justices said the firing was warranted.
"Petitioner showed no remorse whatsoever for his actions and instead either denied or attempted to explain away his behavior," Judge Rosalyn Richter wrote. "Making matters worse, in an attempt to interfere with an ongoing investigation, petitioner inappropriately asked one of the students to retract his complaint."
"Although acting as the dean of discipline at a city school may present its challenges, in light of the egregiousness of petitioner's repeated misconduct, the penalty of termination should not have been disturbed," Richter added.
Justice David Friedman joined Richter's dissent.