Slapping fifth-graders across the face. Creeping up behind students in class and whispering, “I will hurt you.” Putting 10-year-olds in chokeholds. Threatening a colleague, “Cash me outside, I will cut you, bitch.”
A tenured New York City public school teacher was recommended for termination by Board of Education (BOE) officials after an internal probe found him guilty of—among other things—corporal punishment, excessive physical force, inappropriate contact, neglect of duty, and conduct unbecoming his position. But when an arbitration hearing officer gave Christopher Nickelson of Brooklyn’s Elijah G. Stroud Elementary School little more than a trivial rebuke over his alleged wrongdoing, the BOE sued to have the decision vacated and Nickelson fired.
“[T]he only rational penalty to be imposed is termination or another penalty matching the severity of the misconduct,” BOE lawyers said in a court petition filed Friday and obtained by The Daily Beast.
More than 1,000 pages of exhibits were filed with the petition, and include things typically off-limits to public review, such as BOE investigation reports, transcripts of arbitration hearings, and handwritten student complaints, offering a unique window into the goings-on behind the scenes of the city’s public schools.
Reached on Monday for comment, Nickelson’s attorney, Deena Mikhail, referred all inquiries to his union, the United Federation of Teachers. A union spokesperson told The Daily Beast of the BOE’s petition to overturn the ruling, “An independent arbitrator heard all the evidence and determined the BOE failed to prove its case.”
Nickelson, who has 20 years of experience in the classroom, first came under suspicion during the 2019-2020 school year for four separate incidents, according to the BOE petition. The first occurred on Jan. 17, 2020, when a fifth-grade boy accused Nickelson of slapping him twice. That same day, Nickelson was also accused of grabbing another fifth-grader around the neck, after which the BOE says he “forcibly pushed him into his classroom.”
Ten days later, Nickelson allegedly confronted another teacher who had seen him grab the student and reported it to the administration, telling her outside her classroom that if he saw her outside, he would “cut” her.
Three teachers who witnessed the exchange say Nickelson muttered some version of, “Cash me outside, I’m going to cut you, bitch,” according to internal investigation documents filed by the BOE. (There is some dispute as to the exact wording of Nickelson’s alleged threat, with others claiming he said, “I will cut you, bitch,” the documents show. The teacher who said she was targeted told investigators she heard Nickelson say, “Cash me outside,” but didn’t hear him say he’d “cut her, bitch.”)
Nickelson “had a serious expression” on his face when he said it, and then walked away,” another teacher who witnessed the interaction said in a statement filed in court by the BOE.
Nickelson “seemed surprised” when school officials confronted him about the accusation, claiming it was “not that serious,” and “all a joke,” according to the documents.
“Mr. Nickelson then began to grow angry[,] used profanity and informed us that he is on an anti-depressant and that the school is ‘racist and dysfunctional,’” state the minutes of the meeting, which were submitted as evidence by the BOE.
On March 5, 2020, the school contacted the BOE’s Office of Special Investigations (OSI) about four new allegations that students and teachers had lodged against Nickelson. That day, the BOE court filings say he was accused of slapping a young girl, putting two kids in “a chokehold/headlock,” pushing a fifth-grade girl so hard that a desk fell and injured her, and yelling at another student, “Have you lost your damn mind? You need your ass beat.” One sixth-grader said Nickelson “went crazy” and threw a chair at a student, missing her head “by a few inches,” according to the BOE documents.
The student who was slapped said “she cried and that the slap felt like a burn, and the slap left a red mark on her face,” the BOE complaint states. At least one of the children said she was scared of Nickelson, and requested a transfer to a new class. Yet, others described what had happened as “play fighting” or “slap boxing,” and downplayed the severity of the exchange, according to BOE documents. (Nickelson was also accused of trying to pressure the girl he allegedly slapped into changing her written statement about the incident to say he was just “playing around.”)
On March 9, the mother of another student complained to the school after her child said Nickelson walked up behind them and whispered in their ear, “I will hurt you,” the BOE documents say.
Nickelson denied hitting anyone, and told investigators and school administrators that he and his students enjoyed “joking” and “playing around,” according to a deposition transcript filed by the BOE. He liked to “roughhouse” with his kids, and the school principal described Nickelson to police—who referred the cases to child protective services but declined to pursue criminal charges—as “very playful with his students.” A NYPD detective who looked into the allegations found they fell short of any criminality, according to the OSI investigation.
“There is no instance in which it is acceptable for a teacher to put any student, especially those as young as fifth graders, in a headlock, playful or not,” the BOE complaint states.
An internal investigation by the school’s vice-principal found all of the allegations to be substantiated, according to a report filed in court by the BOE. An OSI probe was a mixed bag, with some corporal punishment allegations substantiated and others not. Nickelson did slap at least one child, was “excessively forceful” with another, but his statements about a kid needing their “ass beat” did not “rise to the level of verbal abuse,” according to OSI. Still, Nickelson exhibited “poor judgment” by using such language with children, the OSI investigator wrote in her report.
An arbitrator was brought in earlier this year to review the facts and decide on a punishment. The BOE said Nickelson was “not fit to teach.” Nickelson said his rights were being trampled, and the case against him based on half-truths and misunderstandings, say the normally-secret arbitration documents and arbitrator’s decision, which were submitted to the court as exhibits by the BOE.
On Oct. 10, the arbitrator handed down her decision. She found each one of the claims against a “remorseful” Nickelson to be unsubstantiated, and said the evidence against him was unconvincing. However, “just because [Nickelson] meant no harm does not make his behavior acceptable,” the arbitrator wrote in her decision. “He showed very poor judgment in putting his hands on his students, even though it was meant as a playful joke. It was unprofessional and inappropriate conduct as referenced in the Specifications. Accordingly, corrective action is warranted.”
She also ruled that saying, “I’ll cut you, bitch,” to a coworker amounted to “sarcastic and unprofessional banter with a colleague... but did not rise to the level of official misconduct.”
The arbitrator imposed a penalty far short of termination, which the BOE was hoping for. Nickelson was ordered to pay a fine of $1,000, to be taken from his paycheck in 10 installments. He will be allowed to return to the classroom upon completion of a “classroom management course to be selected and paid for by DOE,” the arbitrator wrote in her decision. The arbitration ruling will serve as a “written warning” to Nickelson, but, it says, “All references to the allegations of harassment, corporal punishment and verbal abuse shall be removed from [Nickelson’s] personnel file.”
On Oct. 20, the BOE filed its petition asking that the decision be vacated, calling it “irrational in light of the evidence presented.”
“The nominal penalty imposed, was also in derogation of the strong public policy in favor of protecting minors, [sic] students against corporal punishment and inappropriate physical contact,” it states. “... The penalty indicated in the award cannot legally be imposed and is shocking to the conscience, and therefore should be vacated.”
Lawyers for the BOE did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment on Monday.