HACKENSACK — A middle school teacher whose tough love approach to students included calling them ugly will return to the classroom this school year with a cut in pay and a requirement to get counseling.

District officials tried to fire Eric Deering last year after getting into a confrontational shouting match with a seventh-grade girl.

Administrators said the incident was the final straw after a decade of reprimanding Deering for insubordination and inappropriate contact with students.

Administrators said Deering was a “disrespectful bully” who took his anger out on students and adults.

Even though an arbitrator in a state Department of Education tenure hearing agreed that Deering’s conduct was unprofessional, the arbitrator ruled this month that the district could not fire Deering because they had not provided him training after past mistakes.

The incident that prompted the tenure charges against Deering happened on Oct. 31, when Deering told a student in his math class that she looked “ugly with that face.”

A special education teacher who was in the same classroom testified that she had noticed the girl — who was not being disruptive and not talking to anyone — struggling in class and went over to help her.

Melanie Keenan testified in the arbitration hearing that Deering told her: “That is nice you are helping her but they need to learn for themselves. She is sitting there all ugly.”

The girl testified that she had been suffering from cramps and that her teacher’s comment hurt her feelings. She complained about it to friends at lunch.

Later that day, one of the girl’s friends was walking in the hallway near Deering’s classroom when he told her to go back to homeroom.

The second student said Deering told her: “You’re ugly.”

“Excuse me?” she replied.

“Why are you walking around with that ugly face? … I would pop you in the face … If there wasn’t a law stating teachers can’t hit students, I would,” the student claimed Deering said.

The two then got into a shouting match with Deering standing about a foot from the student.
This was witnessed by four other students as well as a science teacher, who said she came to see what was going on after hearing Deering’s – but not the student’s – shouts.

The student admitted to administrators that she was wrong to shout at a teacher but added that he had made her mad by calling her, and her friend earlier in the day, ugly.

When her parents met with the principal the next day, they said their daughter should accept responsibility if she is wrong but they were concerned about the teacher’s threats.

In his testimony, Deering said the second student had come to confront him about calling her friend ugly and he had to raise his voice at her to let her know that her behavior was unacceptable.

He claimed he told her: “Young lady, you are going to have to improve your behavior in the building because if you continue to do that you are going to get yourself in serious trouble or maybe even injured.”

Regarding the girl in his class, he testified that she had come into his classroom “mean mugging”. He said he told her, “Look there is no need for your face to be frowning. You are looking ugly in your face. You’re mean mugging.” He said it was something his mother and grandmother would to tell him when he was younger. The “ugly" was directed at her attitude, not her physical appearance, and he said it because he wanted to motivate her to succeed.

Deering testified that the district knew that his “hard love” approach in the classroom had produced “outstanding results from the majority of his students,” according to the arbitrator’s summary of his testimony.

He also argued that Assistant Superintendent Andrea Oates Parchment, had pushed for the tenure charges because he is a strong disciplinarian and she is “more of a coddler, which in the long run, doesn’t assist the students at all.”

The district countered that the fact that Deering considers it appropriate to call students “ugly” in any context means that it would be “abhorrent to public policy” to allow Deering to remain as a teacher.

The arbitrator, Gerard G. Restaino, agreed with the district in that regard.

“Mr. Deering cannot go to the level of student. He is the adult in the classroom and has to set that type of an example,” Restaino wrote in an Aug. 9 decision.

He added that the situation with the second girl “did not have to be a confrontation.”

“As it was being escalated by the students, Mr. Deering should have been the adult in that situation. He was not the adult,” Restaino said.

“The incident took place in a school setting, not at a ballgame. Therefore, his actions were absolutely outrageous and unprofessional and cannot continue.”

Still, Restaino faulted the district for not providing Deering training following earlier incidents, including a 2010 reprimand after he told a student, “You are lucky I don’t slam you against the wall,” and a 2014 reprimand after the principal received three requests by parents to have their children removed from his classroom within the first few months of the school year. Deering’s record included a reprimand for insubordination a year after he was hired, the arbitrator’s decision says.

Restaino said that firing Deering would be going too far. He ordered that he return to work from his suspension but without back pay or any step raises that he would be entitled to this upcoming school year. He also will have to undergo anger management training.

According to a DataUniverse.com copy of state pension records, Deering was earning close to $100,000 a year.

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Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email sergio.bichao@townsquaremedia.com.

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