Bureaucracy Turns a Hero (Occupational therapist in NYC) Into a Rogue

Reprinted from the NY Times Oct. 3 2014 – Jim Dwyer

This is a story of an almost unfathomably mindless school bureaucracy at work: the crushing of an occupational therapist who had helped a young boy build a record of blazing success. The therapist, Deb Fisher, is now serving a suspension of 30 days without pay for official misconduct. Her crime?

She raised money on Kickstarter for a program that she and the student, Aaron Philip, 13, created called This Ability Not Disability. An investigator with the Education Department’s Office of Special Investigations, Wei Liu, found that Ms. Fisher sent emails about the project during her workday at Public School 333, the Manhattan School for Children, and was thus guilty of “theft of services.” The school system has proved itself unable to dislodge failed or dangerous employees for years at a time.

Ms. Fisher’s case seems to represent just the opposite: A person working to excel is being hammered by an investigative agency that began its hunt in search of cheating on tests and record-keeping irregularities. It found nothing of the sort. Instead, the investigation produced a misleading report, filled with holes, on the fund-raising effort.

By omitting essential context, the report wrongly suggested that Ms. Fisher was a rogue employee, acting alone and in her own self-interest.  In fact, the entire school, including the principal, was involved in the Kickstarter project, with regular email blasts counting down the fund-raising push. And the money was to be used not by Ms. Fisher, but by Aaron, who is writing a graphic book and making a short film about Tanda, a regular kid who is born with a pair of legs in a world where everybody else has a pair of wheels. Aaron has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair to navigate the world. Ms. Fisher has worked with him since kindergarten.  “It’s beyond measure, the greatness, of how she has exposed Aaron to so many things,” Aaron’s father, Petrone Philip, said.

Aaron writes a lively Tumblr blog called Aaronverse. He has addressed all the employees of Tumblr as a guest of David Karp, who created the platform. He was taken under the wing of Fred Seibert, the founder of a hugely successful animation studio, Frederator, who had mentored Mr. Karp when he was a teenager inventing Tumblr. On his blog, Aaron urged Good Housekeeping to make sure that its research arm included disabled children in its testing of toys.

All of this was possible because he is a powerful presence, and he had Ms. Fisher at his side, according to the boy’s father. “She goes above and beyond the call of duty,” Mr. Philip said.

During a brief period of unemployment for Mr. Philip, the family moved to a homeless shelter. Learning this by chance, Ms. Fisher began a relentless campaign to get them permanent housing in an accessible building. She helped set up swimming lessons for Aaron. Ms. Fisher, 55, is passionate and hard-driving; her phone calls and emails can be like buckshot. She and another therapist started “Master Arts” for children with disabilities, devising tools to help their painting efforts. She received a mayoral commendation.  Last year, when Aaron wanted to create the book and the film, he and Ms. Fisher realized he was too young to run his own Kickstarter drive. Instead, Aaron told the investigators, they created an organization to help children like himself.

“We are all very excited to share our partnership with ThisAbilityNotDisability.org,” P.S. 333’s principal, Claire Lowenstein, wrote in an email on Jan. 11.

The goal was to raise $15,000. The school’s office regularly sent out updates like these: “7th Grader Aaron Philip is Almost 2/3 of the Way to His Goal”; “Aaron Philip is $1,621 Away From His Goal.”

In the end, he raised $16,231. The school celebrated at a town hall session.

In the meantime, a co-worker with whom Ms. Fisher had had continuing disagreements made a series of charges against her. Ms. Fisher had complained that the co-worker was physically bullying and taunting her. The special investigators found that none of the serious allegations against Ms. Fisher were true, but said she was guilty of fund-raising for “her own charity.”

The report made no mention that the entire building had been involved with the effort, nor did it try to determine whether Ms. Fisher would profit from it in any way. She was suspended on Sept. 15 until the end of October.

The school disciplinary system is often said to be broken. The case of Ms. Fisher would seem to prove the point.

The Education Department did not comment on the case.

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