August 13, 2013
IN THE MATTER OF THE TENURE CHARGES AGAINST MADHUMITA CHAKI, FRANKLIN TOWNSHIP BOARD OF EDUCATION, SOMERSET COUNTY.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted December 12, 2012
On appeal from the Commissioner of Education, Docket No. 25-2/11.
Bergman & Barrett, attorneys for appellant Madhumita Chaki (Michael T. Barrett, of counsel and on the brief).
Parker McCay, P.A., attorneys for respondent Franklin Township Board of Education (John E. Collins, on the brief).
Jeffrey S. Chiesa, Attorney General, attorney for respondent Commissioner of Education (Beth N. Shore, Deputy Attorney General, on the statement in lieu of brief).
Before Judges Sapp-Peterson and Haas.
Madhumita Chaki appeals from a final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Education (the Commissioner) terminating her from her tenured teaching position with the school district of Franklin Township for conduct unbecoming a teacher. We affirm.
Chaki was hired by the Franklin Township Board of Education ("Board") in September 2006 and received tenure in September 2009. The charges at issue in this case arose out of a classroom incident in Chaki's first-period Honors Chemistry class. In an attempt to illustrate a chemistry concept, Chaki made inappropriate comments about Caucasians, Hispanics, Asians and African-Americans.
Following an investigation, Chaki was suspended without pay and tenure charges were filed with the Commissioner and transmitted to the Office of Administrative Law for a contested hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). During the hearing, two students testified who were present in the class at the time Chaki made remarks about ethnic groups, including her characterization of African Americans as lazier than anyone else although they had a lot of potential, her statements that Caucasian people could no longer afford to live in New Jersey, her comment that Spanish people were working class, and her contention that Asian people are in the sciences and, therefore, making money. In addition to testimony from the two students, the school officials who participated in the investigation testified. Fifteen students signed statements specifically attributing the use of the word "lazy" to Chaki during that classroom discussion. Those statements were also considered by the ALJ.
In her testimony, Chaki denied making disparaging ethic remarks. She admitted that she used ethic demographics to illustrate a chemistry point, namely, whether a sample of isotopes collected from a location would remain constant all of the time. By way of analogy, she testified she told the students that the community where she lived had been entirely Caucasian, but they had grown old and moved out for many reasons, and the people buying the homes in her neighborhood were Asians because "high tech" jobs were in the area. She explained to the students that she bought a house in that area because she's Asian.
When asked during cross-examination what she said about "black students, " she stated:
I told [sic] I never use the word black in the classroom. I always use African-American. And whatever I told, it was a reprimanding tone. I told the students not to laugh about the African-Americans because I have seen always the smartest students in my class were African-Americans, and I also see a lot of African-Americans in lab chemistry classes, they're very smart, they should be in honors had they worked hard. That's the comment I made in the meeting. And I also said, I kind of complimented them that they're smart. That was my emphasis.
In his findings and conclusions, which were set forth in a comprehensive written decision dated October 25, 2011, the ALJ found that Chaki made "stereotypical and derogatory racial and ethnic remarks, " which included the following characterizations:
African American students, and African Americans in general, as "lazy, " or words to that effect; Hispanics as a labor force, or words to that effect; Caucasians as having average or inferior industry and means, or words to that effect; and Asians as an intellectually and economically superior "brainpower, " or words to that effect.
He also made additional findings:
Chaki also made reference to her personal economic status as being superior to others.
Most if not all of the students were shocked and offended by Chaki's statements.
The statements were entirely inappropriate in a classroom setting, and completely insensitive to the students.
Chaki intended the statements to be relevant to her lesson regarding percent abundance of isotopes rather than derogatory stereotypes.
The ALJ concluded Chaki did not uphold the standard of good behavior expected of one who "stands in the public eye" and "blatantly made stereotypical and derogatory racial and ethnic statements . . . ." He reasoned that Chaki's intention to enhance her science lesson did not "cure the shock and upset felt by her students[, ]" and that the students' written statements, which were produced during the hearing, "were sufficiently corroborated" by testimony from two of the students who were present in the classroom when the comments were uttered.
However, the ALJ did not find that this single incident was sufficiently flagrant to warrant removal. He reasoned:
Ultimately, however, her conduct was a severely "misguided" attempt at a "teachable moment." . . . It is worth noting that her students were older than relatively more impressionable middle-school children. It is also significant that Chaki has made steady progress as a teacher, received many high evaluations, and has no prior disciplinary history.
The ALJ recommended suspension without pay, forfeiture of increments and remedial training as the appropriate penalty.
On December 11, 2011, the Commissioner accepted the ALJ's factual findings and concluded that the tenure charges were supported by the evidence but rejected the ALJ's proposed penalty. The Commissioner concluded that "certain facts in the record . . . indicate[d] that [Chaki] fails to understand the nature of her preconceptions and their significance." The Commissioner noted that he was "struck, for instance, by [Chaki's] assertion that she believed that she was bestowing a compliment when she characterized African American students as smart but insufficiently motivated." The Commissioner found most important "that the content of the remarks in [Chaki's] lesson — as reported by her students – was not demographic reporting, but rather stereotyping" and questioned how Chaki "could believe that group stereotyping could be of any value in any lesson delivered to impressionable young people." Consequently, the Commissioner not only upheld the tenure charges but also the penalty of termination sought by the Board. The present appeal followed.
The sole point advanced on appeal is that the penalty of removal is too extreme under the circumstances. We disagree.
We conclude, from our examination of the record and the applicable law, that the Commissioner's decision is "supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record as a whole" and Chaki's arguments to the contrary are without sufficient merit to warrant extensive discussion inba written opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(D) and (E). We affirm substantially for the reasons stated by the Commissioner with the following comments.
"In light of the executive function of administrative agencies, judicial capacity to review administrative actions is severely limited." George Harms Constr. Co. v. N.J. Tpk. Auth., 137 N.J. 8, 27 (1994) (citing Gloucester Cnty. Welfare Bd. v. N.J. Civil Serv. Comm'n, 93 N.J. 384, 390 (1983)). "Appellate courts must defer to an agency's expertise and superior knowledge of a particular field." Greenwood v. State Police Training Ctr., 127 N.J. 500, 513 (1992) (citing Clowes v. Terminix Int'l, 109 N.J. 575, 587 (1988)).
Generally, "an appellate court will reverse the decision of the administrative agency only if it is arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable or it is not supported by substantial credible evidence in the record as a whole." Henry v. Rahway State Prison, 81 N.J. 571, 579–80 (1980). In determining whether the agency's action is arbitrary or unreasonable, we consider: (1) whether the agency's decision offends the State or Federal Constitution; (2) whether the action violated express or implied legislative policies; (3) whether there is substantial credible evidence in the record to support the agency's findings; and (4) whether the agency clearly erred in reaching a conclusion unsupported by relevant factors. George Harms Constr. Co., supra, 137 N.J. at 27 (citing Campbell v. Dep't of Civil Serv., 39 N.J. 556, 562 (1963)).
The deferential standard to which we adhere "applies to the review of disciplinary sanctions as well." In re Herrmann, 192 N.J. 19, 28 (2007) (citing Knoble v. Waterfront Comm'n of N.Y. Harbor, 67 N.J. 427, 431-32 (1975)). The test for reviewing an administrative sanction is "whether such punishment is so disproportionate to the offense, in light of all the circumstances, as to be shocking to one's sense of fairness." In re Polk License Revocation, 90 N.J. 550, 578 (1982) (internal citation and quotation omitted).
In the present matter, the Commissioner's determination that Chaki's conduct during her Honors Chemistry class was unbecoming conduct is adequately supported by substantial credible evidence. Moreover, we agree that Chaki's behavior, albeit a single incident, was sufficiently egregious to warrant termination. While "progressive discipline is a worthy principle . . . it is not subject to universal application when determining a disciplined employee's quantum of discipline." In re Herrmann, supra, 192 N.J. at 36.
Chaki consciously introduced stereotyping into her lesson plan, which was negatively perceived by her students. Her racial stereotyping was contrary to the expressed legislative policy promoting tolerance as essential to cultural diversity: "New Jersey is proud of its enormous cultural diversity. The teaching of tolerance must be made a priority if that cultural diversity is to remain one of the State's strengths." N.J.S.A. 18A:35-27(c). The penalty imposed here was neither "illegal or unreasonable, let alone 'shocking' any sense of fairness[, ]" to warrant judicial intervention. In re Herrmann, supra, 192 N.J. at 39.