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After allegedly posting offensive content on Facebook, Bronx principal faces investigation

The New York City Department of Education headquarters in Lower Manhattan.
David Handschuh/Chalkbeat

The education department is investigating the principal of DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx for allegedly posting offensive content on his private Facebook page that referred to immigrants as “illegals,” suggested a transgender woman isn’t a woman, and spread false information about COVID.

The posts that allegedly appeared on Principal Pierre Orbe’s private page were reported to the department’s Office of the General Counsel last week and “will be thoroughly investigated,” education department spokesperson Katie O’Hanlon said.

Separately, a teacher at the school reported the posts on June 8 to the office of the Special Commissioner of Investigation for city schools, known as SCI, according to an email that teacher shared with Chalkbeat. Regina Gluzmanov, a spokesperson for SCI, confirmed that the office has received a complaint about Orbe. SCI has also assigned a case number to the complaint and has received screenshots of the posts, according to an email obtained by Chalkbeat. However, Gluzmanov said she could not say if the office had opened an investigation.

Screenshots and screen recordings of the posts, dating from late March through the first week of June, were shared with Chalkbeat by two teachers at the school. They are posts of videos or reposts from other Facebook users’ pages and not Orbe’s own words. Still, the posts were so offensive in nature that shocked faculty members began sharing them with each other, and students caught wind of the controversy in recent weeks, according to three teachers and two students who spoke with Chalkbeat on condition of anonymity because they fear retaliation.

Some of the posts had been flagged by Facebook as false information, including one about the origins of the coronavirus. One opposed the Black Lives Matter movement, while another questioned the need for Black History Month, according to the screenshots obtained by Chalkbeat.

Sources at the school worried that the posts had the potential to alienate Clinton’s diverse community of 1,100 students, which is 31% Black, 53% Latino, and includes undocumented and transgender students. Teachers said some students already told them they were upset by some of the posts.

One of the posts that raised concerns is a meme that contains a picture of U.S. Assistant Health Secretary Rachel Levine, a transgender woman, and a gun, saying: “If this is a woman, then this is a fishing pole,” referring to the gun.

“In my opinion [that] was a violent post — just knowing that I personally have trans students in the building, was just painful,” said one teacher.

One student, a senior who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, discovered the posts last week from classmates after they circulated on the social media app Snapchat. That student said it’s Orbe’s right to post his opinions, “but he is in a leadership position. He is a figure that people should look up to because he is a principal.” That student, who identifies as nonbinary, said they felt threatened by the anti-transgender posts about Levine.

Orbe did not return multiple emails and phone calls for comment. Craig DiFalco, spokesperson for the principals and administrators union, said the organization cannot comment on matters under investigation, but was “prepared to protect his due process rights.”

The Facebook posts are no longer visible through the hyperlink where sources said the screenshots came from, and the profile name now says “Amado Carillo.” However, a previous cover photo of Orbe is still visible on the page. The hyperlink to the page also contains Orbe’s first initial and last name.

O’Hanlon, the education department spokesperson, said Monday that schools should create a culture that respects all students and fosters “an understanding of all identities, including transgender and undocumented students.” The attorneys in the department’s Office of the General Counsel, which is investigating the social media posts, can probe potential misconduct, verbal or physical abuse, discrimination, and sexual harassment among employees. If allegations are substantiated through an investigation, the office pursues disciplinary action.

“If true, there is no excuse for any DOE employee – especially those in positions of senior leadership – to make hateful comments that result in our students feeling unsafe in their school,” O’Hanlon said in a statement. “Comments like these can erode a school community’s trust and undermine a principal’s ability to effectively lead a school. These social media posts have been reported and will be thoroughly investigated.”

Orbe has worked in New York City’s public schools since 2001, and he became principal of Clinton in 2017. Under his leadership, the school has dramatically improved its graduation rate from 67.3% in 2018 — already 17 percentage points higher than the previous year — to 85.4% last school year. That’s higher than the citywide average, which has also been on the rise. The state considers Clinton a struggling school specifically because of poor academic outcomes for its students with disabilities.

But this is not the first time questions have been raised about Orbe’s leadership. In 2018, the New York Post reported that Clinton staffers were concerned that Orbe was allowing students to pass without showing up to class. Orbe was cleared following an investigation.

The teachers who spoke to Chalkbeat said they believe the Facebook posts go against the idea of equity and inclusion of all students — a concept that the education department often touts — and one teacher said a student in the LGBTQ community was upset about an anti-transgender post. Two of the screenshots shared with Chalkbeat refer to immigrants as “illegals.” One said, “What sense did it make to have had Americans locked up, out of work, socially distanced masked for a year, to then open the borders to unAmerican, unemployed, untested, unlimited illegals?”

The teacher who reported the posts to SCI said Orbe is aware that there are undocumented students in the building.

A second student who spoke with Chalkbeat, who is also a senior, said she discovered the posts after a teacher told her and some peers that he was quitting his job because of the Facebook page. For that student, the most concerning posts were ones that appeared to oppose Black Lives Matter and immigration. She worried about whether those posts speak to how he approaches his leadership as principal. She is Black, and her parents are immigrants.

She worries about whether younger students, like her little brother, will feel welcome at the school next year.

“It ... made me question his leadership,” she said.

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