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June 6, 2014

‘Pops, Patriots and Fireworks’

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Fox Lane teacher is terminated, deemed ‘undue risk’ to students

By DON HEPPNER AND R.J. MARX

A Fox Lane English teacher was terminated from his position last month after concerns as to his mental condition, attempts to purchase guns, and emails and social media postings which aroused the attention of the FBI, state and local police.

Disciplinary charges were first filed against Adam Heller by the Bedford Central School District on June 21, 2013. Mr. Heller taught English at Fox Lane High School from 2002 to 2013. In the termination letter, Mr. Heller was charged with misconduct and conduct unbecoming of a teacher, as well as incompetence to work as a teacher due to mental illness, including “delusions of thought control, feelings of helplessness and anger, thoughts of suicide, with the possibility of an acute risk to the safety of others,” according to superintendent Dr. Jere Hochman.

In the letter Dr. Hochman said that Mr. Heller lied to therapists and failed to cooperate with medical personnel in accordance with state education law.

After a New York State Education Department review, on May 12, 2014, the New York State Department of Education confirmed the district’s decision to terminate Mr. Heller.

Hearing officer Jeffery Michael Sherman’s report stated that Mr. Heller exchanged 540 emails with a friend between Dec. 7, 2012, and January 10, 2013. Some of the emails written by Mr. Heller “express paranoia about government controlled weather catastrophes, economic collapse and poisonous snow, ultimately causing chaos and ultimate doom.”

Mr. Sherman’s decision supported the district’s claim that it complied with every aspect of its responsibility to Mr. Heller. “The respondent, apparently motivated by false empowerment from bad guidance, thwarted every effort to resolve the issues that threatened his tenure,” Mr. Sherman wrote in the May 12 decision.

The hearing officer said this was sufficient cause to terminate his tenure and that Mr. Heller’s “defense of his gun and ammunition purchases lacked credibility and rational judgment.”

He added that the record “leaves me no choice” but to “impose the penalty of discharge.”

Following the education department’s decision to terminate Mr. Heller, Mr. Heller’s attorney, Michael Sussman, filed papers in New York State Supreme Court on May 22 to vacate the hearing officer’s decision.

In his filing, Mr. Sussman names the Bedford Central School District as defendant and states that Mr. Heller cooperated with evaluators. According to Mr. Sussman, the charges “lack a sound basis in fact.” Mr. Heller seeks to remove the order and “grant such further relief as is proper and equitable.”


District’s first suspicions

On Jan. 8, 2013, Pound Ridge Police Chief Dave Ryan, members of the Bedford Police Department, the FBI, New York State Police and the Joint Terrorism Task Force met in response to concerns about the nature of Mr. Heller’s emails and postings.

Pound Ridge and New York state police were also concerned that Mr. Heller had “two long guns and ammunition,” possibly in violation of federal and New York state law. In addition, Bedford police reported they had received information about Mr. Heller and Internet postings on Facebook, YouTube and social media sites indicating possible suicidal threats and anti-government postings.

Following the Jan. 18, 2013, meeting, FBI agents conducted surveillance on Mr. Heller as he left Fox Lane High School and visited Precision Armory, a gun store, in Carmel. At the store Mr. Heller tried to purchase a folding .22 caliber rifle, “which can be carried in a backpack,” according to an FBI report filed a year later, on Jan. 29, 2014.

On Feb. 25, 2013, Dr. Hochman issued a directive ordering Mr. Heller to undergo a medical evaluation conducted by Dr. Alexander Lerman, a Chappaqua doctor.

In the June 21, 2013, letter terminating Mr. Heller, the district elaborated charges against Mr. Heller by presenting emails and medical testimony. According to Dr. Hochman, Mr. Heller failed to schedule a medical examination within the specified time. “You failed to execute and return the release forms in a complete and timely manner,” wrote Dr. Hochman.

The June 21, 2013 letter stated that when he did submit to an examination by Dr. Lerman, on April 5 and May 9, 2013, Mr. Heller “intentionally made false statements” to him regarding his condition.

The New York State Education Department reviewed the termination decision, conducting a hearing in White Plains on Dec. 2, 2013.

Testimony at the hearing states that Mr. Heller took a personality test at Dr. Lerman’s office, he “intentionally” gave false information and he “failed to cooperate with the procedure.”

According to Dr. Lerman at the hearing, Mr. Heller made a statement that Newtown killer Adam Lanza “and other mass killers ‘might be programmed and then programmed to kill themselves.’ … Mr. Heller might think that this goes on and thinks that this applies to him.”


Lawyer says charges ‘unsupported’

Michael H. Sussman, of Sussman and Watkins located in Goshen, is representing Mr. Heller, a Pound Ridge resident. In a phone interview Tuesday Mr. Sussman said the charges against Mr. Heller are not supported by the record and the hearing officer’s decision with respect to those charges “fails the applicable standard of review.”

Mr. Sussman said the hearing officer’s decision to fire Mr. Heller should be vacated because of “his evident partiality” and the imposed “penalty by the hearing office is not proportionate and is otherwise arbitrary and capricious.”

Mr. Sussman said that Mr. Heller is a high-functioning individual without any illness. “He was discharged after being committed, in 12 days, with a clean bill of health from the medical practitioners at Westchester County Medical Center,” said Mr. Sussman. “He wasn’t found to be mentally ill. He was found by this hearing officer to have not cooperated in the proceeding, as I understand it, and made it impossible for there to be a determination as to whether he was or was not mentally ill, to be precise.”

According to the Westchester Medical Center’s Behavioral Health Center report presented by Mr. Sussman, Mr. Heller has been compliant with his medication regimen and has been regularly attending his scheduled monthly appointments at the center.

In a document submitted by Mr. Heller to the New York State Supreme Court, doctors at the center wrote: “Mr. Heller does not appear to have a severe depressive disorder or thought disorder, and currently does not appear to be a danger to self or others.”

“We are challenging the ruling and we think it is entirely ridiculous,” said Mr. Sussman. “Unfortunately, this is entirely defamatory of Mr. Heller.”

“I think that Mr. Heller entertains thoughts that are not conventional, that’s true,” Mr. Sussman said when he characterized the emails. “But we don’t engage in thought control in the United States. We look at people’s job performance.”

According to Mr. Sussman, the hearing officer “went way beyond the record in the case, which is the narrow issue we are litigating in Westchester Supreme Court. Rather than relying on the record, the hearing officer relied on his information about guns and weapons, which were never a part of the record of this case and were never subjected to cross examination, and may or may not be true and accurate.

“We are appealing, as the law allows, within 10 days of the board’s action,” Mr. Sussman said. “That is where we are. We filed. We need to get a response from Bedford Central, and then we will respond to their response.”

Administration members and lawyers for the Bedford Central School District did not respond to requests for comment.


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