A Teacher's Fall at a Turbulent School
The New York Times, February 15, 2006
by Samuel Freedman
On April 18, 2005, Evan Gordon walked into Brooklyn Technical High School, just as he had hundreds of times before. For a dozen years, he had been a substitute teacher at the school several days a week, becoming such a fixture he served as adviser to the student literary magazine.
Yet on that day, Mr. Gordon had not been inside for about six months, since he was barred from the school after an accusation, later discredited, that he had embezzled money from the magazine. He also had not been rehired for his usual job at a night school with informal ties to Brooklyn Tech.
Mr. Gordon returned this day to speak at a meeting between the citywide teachers' union president, Randi Weingarten, and faculty members critical of Tech's leadership. Participants recalled that Mr. Gordon asserted that he had been ''victimized'' and ''blacklisted'' by the principal, Lee D. McCaskill, and the assistant principal for English, Tracy Atkins-Zoughlami. Both his reputation and income had suffered, he said. This strain, he continued, had worsened his ' 'psychological state,'' by which Mr. Gordon's closest friends and colleagues knew he was referring to his bipolar disorder.
Half a year later, on Nov. 2, Mr. Gordon died of an overdose of valproic acid, commonly prescribed to treat manic depression. The New York City medical examiner ruled his death a suicide. He was 49.
No suicide yields readily to a simple explanation. Mr. Gordon had been treated for bipolar disorder since the late 1970's. A year before his ouster from Tech, he had broken up with his steady girlfriend. In his desperation to regain his night-school position, he telephoned the program's director, Jeffrey Harris, so incessantly that Mr. Harris had the police arrest Mr. Gordon in July 2005 on a harassment charge.
Still, people who knew Mr. Gordon best recall him as a popular, competent substitute teacher until the conflicts at Tech arose.
''He was infuriated and preoccupied by these forces that deprived him of working at a place he loved,'' said Richard Lubell, a teacher at Tech who knew Mr. Gordon since childhood on Long Island. ''It seemed he was cut loose for reasons that were out of his control.''
Iwona O'Brien, who was Mr. Gordon's girlfriend, and remained a close friend even after their breakup, said the events at Brooklyn Tech ''affected his moods.''
''He got more frustrated,'' she added. ''He sensed he was losing ground, and he couldn't face what was happening inside him.''
None of the administrators involved in the conflicts with Mr. Gordon would be interviewed for this article. And in a way, an era has ended at the school with the resignation of Dr. McCaskill last week in anticipation of a report by the city's special commissioner of investigation for the schools about the enrollment of his daughter in a Brooklyn elementary school while he lived in Piscataway, N.J.
Dr. McCaskill did not return telephone calls to his home. Mr. Harris said he would be interviewed only if the city Department of Education authorized it, which it did not do. Ms. Atkins-Zoughlami told this columnist in a telephone conversation, ''I have no intention of talking to any reporter about anything pertaining to Brooklyn Tech.''
Dr. McCaskill's departure also came after three years of reports in The New York Times, The Daily News and New York Teacher, the union's newspaper, in which veteran teachers charged that he and Ms. Atkins-Zoughlami had rated them as ' 'unsatisfactory'' in retaliation for their dissidence.
But even with Dr. McCaskill gone, his legacy remains. Ms. Atkins-Zoughlami continues to hold her position leading the English department. The teachers who received negative ratings have them on their personnel records or are engaged in lengthy grievance procedures. Several veteran faculty members have transferred out of Tech or have taken early retirement.
Mr. Gordon left in a different way.
He had begun teaching at Tech in the early 1990's as a graduate of the State University of New York and Brooklyn Law School. His interests ranged from Sam Shepard plays to Elvis Costello songs to German Expressionist art. An athletic six-footer, he had the physical presence helpful for keeping order in an urban high school.
In addition to subbing regularly at Tech, Mr. Gordon also taught for several recent years in the Region 8 YABC, a night program in Downtown Brooklyn for people ages 18 to 21 who are trying to complete their credits for high school graduation. Ms. Atkins-Zoughlami was a teacher and later a curriculum specialist in the same program.
Despite the impermanent nature of substitute teaching, Mr. Gordon impressed a number of students and colleagues. ''He really liked working with kids,'' said Thesanica Marcos, now a sophomore in the honors program at Adelphi University. ' 'He was very agreeable. He wasn't disturbed at all.''
In the 2003-4 academic year, Miss Marcos edited the literary magazine, Horizons, when Mr. Gordon advised it. He was so committed, she said, that he came to Tech for editorial meetings even on days he was substituting at different schools.
AT the end of that year, several Tech teachers recalled, Mr. Gordon told them that Ms. Atkins-Zoughlami had begun to insist that he write lesson plans and assign homework. He told these colleagues that he could not comply because Tech did not call subs until about 6 a.m. and he might cover a different teacher in a different department each day. When Mr. Gordon had the same class for an extended period, Miss Marcos recalled, he did teach formal lessons and assign homework.
At the outset of the 2004-5 school year, Mr. Gordon was not rehired as he had expected to be by the night-school program. He told friends that he believed that Mr. Harris, the program director, had acted at Ms. Atkins-Zoughlami's request.
The loss of the job cost Mr. Gordon about $700 in weekly income, the bridge between his substitute's pay of $128 a day and his living expenses in Park Slope. As Mr. Gordon's former girlfriend and colleagues recalled, he tried to telephone Mr. Harris, the program director, for an explanation. The more often his calls were refused, the more he persisted in demanding an answer.
''Evan had this streak that if you were being dishonorable or underhanded with him, he would resist you,'' said Rick Lezama, a former Tech teacher who is now an assistant principal at the Queens High School for Sciences.
Later that autumn, in November 2004, Ms. Atkins-Zoughlami accused Mr. Gordon of having embezzled about $2,000 from the literary magazine, according to Education Department records. This allegation was investigated by the department.
Miss Marcos said that the accusation was preposterous, because school rules did not permit the Horizons adviser and staff to handle more than small amounts of money. One day in the fall, Mr. Gordon demanded an explanation from Ms. Atkins-Zoughlami; it became a loud argument with her and Dr. McCaskill. They ordered guards to remove him from the building. On later occasions, guards shooed Mr. Gordon off the sidewalk outside Tech when he was waiting to meet faculty friends after school, said Anastasia Visbal, a teacher.
Although the Education Department ultimately dismissed the embezzlement complaint as ''unsubstantiated,'' according to department officials, Mr. Gordon was never again called for substitute duty at Tech, and he told friends he feared that other schools would be reluctant to hire him. ''He was distraught,'' said Joseph Cocchiarelli, then a colleague at Tech and now an assistant professor at John Jay College in Manhattan.
Over late 2004 and early 2005, Mr. Gordon grew increasingly abrasive in his telephone messages for Mr. Harris of the night school. Last summer, the administrator went to the police, who arrested Mr. Gordon on July 25 on two counts of aggravated harassment in the second degree. The police complaint, based on Mr. Harris's statements, claimed that Mr. Gordon had told him that he should ''watch his back.''
Mr. Gordon spent a night in jail. On Sept. 13, a judge adjourned the case in contemplation of dismissal and issued an order of protection forbidding him to have any contact with Mr. Harris.
As Mr. Gordon could feel himself growing phlegmatic and reclusive through the summer and fall of 2005, Ms. O'Brien said, he went off his medication, hoping to regain energy. Instead, she continued, his mood swings intensified. Although he continued to substitute at various high schools, he had lost the structure Brooklyn Tech and the night school provided, she said. He worried about running out of money for rent and groceries but felt too ashamed to ask his parents for assistance.
On Oct. 31, Ms. O'Brien found Mr. Gordon lying on his bed in a coma. He died two days later.
One of Mr. Gordon's closest friends in the English department at Tech, Andrew Silverman, asked Dr. McCaskill for permission to attend the funeral, but the principal refused, saying he did not have enough substitutes to cover the classes, Mr. Silverman said. When Mr. Silverman went anyway, Dr. McCaskill placed a formal letter of reprimand in his file.