Thursday, July 20, 2006

This Highschool Teacher Is My Hero

By J.D. Leichtman
C & G Staff Writer

ROCHESTER — Former Stoney Creek High School teacher Ben Clevenger “utterly failed” to enforce a no-drinking rule and “repeatedly permitted situations to develop that presented serious threats to the health, safety and welfare” of 86 students who attended a Spring Break trip to Italy and Greece.

That’s according to a Rochester Community Schools administrative report calling for Clevenger’s dismissal.

The five-page report, which the Post obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, was addressed to the RCS Board of Education and is the culmination of a district investigation that reviewed statements from chaperones, parents, students and others involved with the non-school-sponsored trip.

The report specifically stated that, among other things, Clevenger:
• repeatedly “condoned, fostered and facilitated” student alcohol consumption;
• failed to secure a sufficient number of chaperones for the trip;
• created “vague, inconsistent, ineffective” ad hoc rules while in Europe;
• spent a significant amount of time attending to family members and friends on the trip, as opposed to ensuring the welfare of his students; and
• upon the group’s return to Michigan, provided less-than-accurate and, at times, outright false information to RCS school administrators about events of the trip.

The RCS administration concluded that Clevenger “convincingly demonstrated his unfitness to continue as a teacher with the Rochester Community Schools.”

“Mr. Clevenger’s conduct not only constituted a breach of his promise to parents resulting in their complete loss of confidence and respect … he has also lost the similar respect of his teaching colleagues who attended the trip,” read the report.

Clevenger has appealed the administration’s decision, and the subsequent Board of Education approval, to terminate his contract. His hearing is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. July 24 at in the RCS Administration Center. It is open to the public.

Chaperone sightings
RCS administration received written accounts of the 10-day trip from chaperones Todd Vince, Paul Carlin and Ali Hamka, teachers at SCHS. In those reports, also obtained through FOIA, the chaperones provided consistent descriptions of student drinking and partying, incidents that threatened student safety, Clevenger’s reluctance to properly address problems that arose during the trip, and a general lack of communication between Clevenger and the other chaperones.

According to the chaperones, several members of Clevenger’s group of students were visibly intoxicated upon arrival in Civitavecchia, Italy, the first stop on the trip. That evening, while drinking continued, several students climbed out of a second floor hotel window and onto the balcony, where it was later discovered that they were throwing jellybeans at people below, and heckling and mooning local Italians. Two beer bottles were also dropped from the roof that night, shattering a Volvo’s rear windshield.

Reports also state that students drank and partied on an overnight ferry trip, at a disco club, in a hotel lobby during a “euchre night,” and in hotel rooms on the final two days of the trip.

During the “disco night,” witnesses reported seeing lap dances performed between students and adult members of Clevenger’s family, including, allegedly, Clevenger’s cousin and girlfriend.

On the ninth day of the trip, a student punched a hole in a hotel room’s bathroom door after taking prescription pain medication and consuming alcohol, the report states. Hotel staff charged 250 Euros to fix the door. The following day, during a scheduled free day, students took turns visiting the broken door and, thinking they’d “bought it” with the 250 Euros, destroyed it until their fists were bleeding and “anyone could have walked through the hole,” wrote Hamka.

The hotel staff threatened to call police, but settled on charging an additional sum for the damage.

Vince, Carlin and Hamka claimed that they repeatedly tried to curtail drinking and raucous behavior.

Following an investigation to find out who dropped beer bottles onto the Volvo, Vince addressed the students and attempted to relay the importance of properly representing themselves as Stoney Creek students and American citizens.

The chaperones reported that they tried to speak with Clevenger about instituting a zero-tolerance drinking policy on multiple occasions. At one point, Clevenger gave the chaperones a set of instructions he had written in an attempt to rein in rowdy student behavior. It included a rule allowing students to drink alcohol only while inside their hotel rooms.

According to reports, however, Clevenger never supported the chaperones’ attempts to enforce this rule.

“It did not seem like Mr. Clevenger ever confiscated anything when I was around and [it seemed] that all of the rule setting and enforcement was left up to the three of us (Hamka, Vince and myself),” wrote Carlin.

Any chaperone efforts to halt drinking and insubordinate behavior did little to stop students from drinking, wrote one student in a parent e-mail addressed to RCS Superintendent Dave Pruneau and SCHS Principal Dan Hickey.

“Many students drank uncontrollably throughout the trip,” wrote the student. “Mr. Clevenger did little if anything to stop the drinking … I am ashamed to say that all of the hotel staff and tour directors witnessed a poor representation of our school and country for that matter.”

Student support

A group of students who supported Clevenger and felt he was given a bad rap held protests on the corner of Rochester and Tienken roads in June. They carried signs and shouted slogans supporting Clevenger, or “Clev” as he is known.

Eight SCHS students stood up for Clevenger when they spoke at a June 5 Board of Education meeting. Several described Clevenger as a kind, fun, attentive teacher who cares about students’ goals and dreams. They praised him for successfully implementing an interactive curriculum that goes above and beyond normal expectations.

Some said Clevenger should not be held responsible for student actions during the spring break trip. The individuals who got into trouble should step up and take responsibility, they said.

“As young adults, you need to learn that you do certain things and you need to step up and say, ‘That was my fault, I was the one committing the action,’” said Jeff DeMoss at the meeting. DeMoss was a SCHS senior who attended the spring break trip.

“I, personally, today will take responsibility for not stepping up and saying to my peers and to my fellow students that what they were doing was wrong.”

Clevenger could not be reached for comment at press time.

Resignation or termination?

When rumors of what happened on the trip began to surface, Clevenger turned in a letter of resignation dated May 18.

He withdrew that letter on June 2 after receiving support from students.

Clevenger was officially released from the district on June 12, and the Board of Education approved his termination June 26. He was a second-year social studies teacher and was still in the probationary phase of his contract.

Jim Munroe, director of the Rochester Education Association, could not be reached for comment at press time.