A John F. Kennedy High School special education teacher was pulled from classrooms last week after authorities said he engaged in sexual misconduct with a child.
Thomas Gibbons, 59, was arrested at his Eastchester, N.Y. home on May 30, and charged with engaging a now-11-year-old female relative in sexual behavior during visits with his family in Patterson, N.J. between January 2010 and January 2011.
The Department of Education gave Mr. Gibbons a non-teaching assignment once officials learned of his arrest for endangering the welfare of a child, which could put him in New Jersey State Prison for up to five years.
The accusations sound all too familiar to the Department of Education. Marge Feinberg, DOE deputy press secretary, said the city tried to fire Mr. Gibbons when he was accused of sleeping with a student while working at William Taft High School nearly two decades ago.
Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott has used the case against Mr. Gibbons as leverage for a state law that would allow him to fire teachers without going through an arbitrator.
“We tried to fire him in 1996, in 1997, but the arbitrator threw out the case. We had to put him back in the classroom,” Ms. Feinberg said. “The new legislation, if approved, would have given the chancellor the ability to fire him and disregard the arbitrator’s ruling.”
The DOE had little information on Mr. Gibbons’ alleged affair with a student because the case was dismissed. However, a 15-year-old student at Taft accused Mr. Gibbons of snatching her by the hair, slamming her into a locker and thrusting a gun against her chest in 1995, according to published news reports.
The reports said Mr. Gibbons discussed having sex with the student and urged her not to press charges in recorded phone conversations. Eleven years later, the accusations reached arbitrator Margaret Leibowitz, who determined the evidence against Mr. Gibbons was insufficient, according to the reports.
Mr. Gibbons began teaching special education at JFK a year after the alleged assault at Taft, according to Ms. Feinberg. He spent the last 16 years of his 27-year DOE career at the Kingsbridge school.
JFK Principal Lisa Luft described the arrest as “distressing,” but said there was no indication Mr. Gibbons engaged in inappropriate behavior at JFK. She said the school “tackled” related concerns and is now “pretty normal.”
“We’re working with central [DOE offices] and taking it one step at a time. Although the students are distressed, most of them liked him as a teacher. We have supported their issues and their needs,” she said.
Guidance counselors have invited students to discuss the allegations. Most lead teachers in the five classes Mr. Gibbons co-taught have been teaching alone. Substitutes have been assigned to some of his classes, Ms. Luft said.
Sarah Garcia and two other JFK students described Mr. Gibbons as a teacher who encouraged students to stay on task.
“He tried to make us work. He’d be like, ‘Why aren’t you working?” said Sarah, a sophomore. “He seemed normal, so I wouldn’t expect that from one of my teachers who helped me with my work everyday.”
As for Mr. Gibbons’ past, Ms. Luft said he was hired “way before” she started at JFK and that her job is to support teachers, not judge them.
While the DOE argues the state legislation would prevent teachers like Mr. Gibbons from racking up multiple accusations of sexual misconduct, the teachers union says the bill goes too far.
The United Federation of Teachers released a statement saying that the legislation would give the chancellor “the power to ignore the evidence.”
“This proposed legislation would allow the chancellor to unilaterally find an employee guilty of sexual misconduct even though an independent hearing officer who has weighed all the evidence has determined otherwise,” the statement read. “The UFT believes in zero tolerance on the issue of sexual misconduct with children. That’s why our contract already includes the toughest penalty in the state — automatic termination — for any teacher found guilty of this offense.”