anniversary present

City moving to fire teacher who blogged his "rubber room" days

A screenshot taken Thursday afternoon of a calendar clock on teacher Francesco Portelos's website shows that it's been 365 days since he was in his classroom.
A screenshot taken Thursday afternoon of a calendar clock on teacher Francesco Portelos’s website protectportelos.org shows that it’s been 365 days since he was in his classroom.

On his one-year anniversary today of being pulled from the classroom amid allegations that he had misbehaved, Francesco Portelos learned that a team of investigators had not substantiated any of the most serious allegations against him.

Then, he found out that the Department of Education is planning to try to fire him anyway.

Portelos, a teacher at Staten Island’s I.S. 49 who became famous for blogging and live-streaming about his experience in the “rubber room,” learned about both developments in his case from the press.

“The DOE has not contacted me at all,” he told GothamSchools. “The union has not contacted me.”

The report that Special Commissioner of Investigation Richard Condon released today represented the conclusion of 35 separate allegations made by Portelos and his colleagues at The Berta Dreyfus School I.S. 49 against each other. Investigators found that Portelos might have violated city ethics rules by conducting personal business at school, but they determined that more substantial  allegations could not be substantiated.

They also did not find evidence to back up allegations that Portelos made against his principal, Linda Hill, or other administrators at the school. Hill first initiated the investigations when she complained to SCI that Portelos worked on his real estate business at school, had taken full control of the school website, and installed a pop-up on school computers.

Overall, the report paints the picture of a personality clash that spiraled out of control, with allegations that bordered on the absurd. At one point, to counter an accusation that he set a message, “Mr. Portelos’s class is fun,” to pop up on screens in a computer lab, Portelos “admitted that he had an image of an ostrich, with a picture of Portelos in its mouth, which acted as a block on the student’s computer screen,” the report says.

Condon referred his findings to the city’s Conflict of Ethics Board, which in the past has fined teachers thousands of dollars for mixing their side businesses with their work at the department, and to Chancellor Dennis Walcott.

Walcott will seek to fire Portelos, according to a spokeswoman, Connie Pankratz. “This type of behavior breeds mistrust and undermines the stability of schools,” she said.

Portelos said he would continue to document the department’s actions during 3020-a discipline hearings, if they indeed begin. The hearings, in which the city must prove its case against tenured teachers accused of wrongdoing, are closed to the press unless the teachers who are charged with misconduct open them up.

Already, the city has sunk tremendous resources into Portelos’s case. At least 10 investigators and an attorney at SCI handled the more than 35 allegations, which took almost a year and a half to investigate, according to the report. On top of investigation costs, taxpayers have also paid for Portelos’s salary for the past year while he was out of the classroom. (Sending teachers to rubber rooms where they are paid their full salaries cost the city $22 million in 2012.)

“The amount of man hours and taxpayer funds used for this investigation is probably astounding,” Portelos wrote on his website as he live-blogged his reactions to the report.

The complete report from Condon’s office is below.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede