Teacher accused of 'interactive praying' at school wins in dispute with district

By Jessica Mazzola | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on October 28, 2016

File photo of a 2010 protest outside the Newark schools headquarters.

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NEWARK — A teacher who was accused of multiple acts of misconduct, including "interactive praying" in a school hallway and throwing papers at an administrator, deserves the salary he missed when the district suspended him for the alleged behavior, an appellate court ruled Friday.

According to the written decision, which upheld a trial court decision made in the case last year, Charles Coleman's 12-year career at the Newark public school district has been "punctuated by a series of ongoing disputes" with his employer.

The issues came to a head in 2012, when district officials accused the teacher of multiple incidents of misbehavior, including one in which he allegedly went into a hallway and prayed in an "overt, interactive manner," disrupting students and other teachers. Coleman was also accused of being late to, and leaving early from, faculty meetings, and returning to work late from lunch, the appellate decision says. When Coleman received memos about his conduct, he allegedly ripped them up and threw the pieces of paper at the school principal, the document states.

In 2014, the district filed unbecoming conduct tenure charges related to the alleged 2012 incidents, and suspended Coleman without pay for 120 days, the ruling says.

Coleman denied all of the charges, saying that he had been kept waiting by the principal, and took the time as an "opportunity to engage in a brief prayer" that was silent, private, and unobtrusive. He also admitted to ripping up the papers, but said that he threw them on the ground, not at the principal.

He also argued the allegations were based on "bias and discrimination including antipathy to my religious beliefs and practices and retaliation for prior events, including my successful challenge to previous accusations of misconduct," the decision states.

When the two sides were referred to an arbitrator later that year to settle the dispute, it was found that portions of Coleman's personnel file, including security camera footage of the alleged paper-throwing incident, were missing.

The arbitrator ruled the documents were necessary to Coleman's defense, and that it had been the district's job to maintain the records, the document says. The arbitrator sided with Coleman, who asked to have the charges against him dismissed, citing "spoliation of evidence," – recklessly or intentionally misplacing evidence – and ordered that Coleman be reimbursed the pay that was withheld, the decision states.

Last year, a trial court judge upheld the arbitrator's decision, noting Coleman's entire employment history -- which included his making a sexual harassment charge against a vice principal and his successful challenge of a previous school effort to not renew his contract -- was needed to consider his argument.

Appellate judges Friday upheld the trial court's ruling.

"We conclude that the trial court's findings are supported by 'substantial credible evidence,' and we find no basis to disturb them," the decision reads. "Moreover, we discern no mistake of law by the arbitrator, who correctly determined that the district spoliated material evidence, and correctly fashioned an appropriate legal remedy."

It is unclear exactly how much back pay the state-controlled district had to dole out to Coleman, whose annual salary, according to public pension data, is $75,500.

According to Stuart Ball, who represented Coleman in the proceedings, the teacher is still employed by the district. Since these issues have been resolved, however, Coleman's employment remains a "very volatile situation," Ball said. The district is considering new charges against him, and Coleman has applied for disability retirement, he said.

But, despite the fact that Ball contends the district is carrying out an "ongoing crusade against him," Coleman has not wanted to work outside of Newark.

"It's his job. He's a teacher and he's dedicated to the kids," Ball said.

An attorney representing the district did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday.

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