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Fired Philly teacher calls on Ackerman to testify in civil rights suit

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

It’s not every day that the superintendent of the School District testifies in federal court, but that is where Arlene Ackerman was last Friday. She was there for a hearing regarding the firing of Kensington CAPA High School teacher Radha Singh, a 10-year veteran with the District.

Singh, who received tenure in 2004, was terminated earlier this year based on allegations that he used corporal punishment against students.

Seeking reinstatement, Singh denies ever using corporal punishment, and his suit charges the District with violating his right to due process by not allowing him to talk to students about the incidents that led to his firing.

Singh also accuses the District of violating his First Amendment rights, alleging that his firing came in retaliation against his complaints that the school’s English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program failed to comply with legal standards.

“When I arrived at Kensington CAPA, the ESOL program was in complete disarray,” Singh said.

He produced emails indicating that early in the year he had informed the school’s principal, Debra Carrera, that the ESOL program was in violation of the Y.S. stipulation. This court decision requires that the District provide equitable service to English Language Learners (ELLs), including sufficient books, up-to-date student records, and putting students in the correct ESOL level. Singh contended on the stand that Carrera turned a deaf ear to these concerns.

But in her testimony, Carrera maintained that she was supportive of his efforts to improve the program.

Carrera and District officials say that Singh was cited three times for using inappropriate physical contact to control his students, including one incident in which he allegedly grabbed a student’s arm and another in which he was accused of striking a student on the head. The termination letter also refers to an incident in which Singh is claimed to have spoken to other school employees in a disrespectful and threatening manner.

Singh’s lawyer, William C. Riel, recognized in his remarks that the evidence that his client was fired for raising concerns about the ESOL program was “primarily circumstantial.” But he argued that Carrera undermined Singh’s credibility as a teacher by refusing to meet with him to develop a strategy to put the school’s ESOL program in compliance with the Y.S. stipulation.

Singh’s complaint against the District asserts, “As a result of the disagreement between Principal Carrera and teacher Singh, the principal engaged in a campaign to have Mr. Singh disciplined, suspended, and fired.”

When questioned on the stand about her authorization of Singh’s firing, Ackerman said that she was not familiar with the content of the Y.S. stipulation, nor could she remember the charges that had been filed against Singh or the District’s definition of inappropriate physical contact.

“By the time the termination letter gets to me, the evidence has been reviewed by people on a number of levels of the District staff. I have no reason to believe that Mr. Singh wasn’t given due process,” Ackerman said.

Ackerman acknowledged that while she reviews ESOL programs across the District, she did not have any specific knowledge about the standing of Kensington CAPA’s program, though she assumed that it was in accordance with the law.

Ackerman, who arrived at the courtroom around noon, was followed by testimony from Singh, Principal Carrera, Kensington interim Principal Jose Lebron, and Linda Brown, who works in the District’s Labor Relations office and was present at Singh’s disciplinary hearings.

Singh is seeking a preliminary injunction ordering his reinstatement. Following the testimony, Judge Joel Harvey Slomsky said he would render a decision late this week.

A separate hearing on a motion by the District to dismiss the case is still pending.

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