Letters, Meetings, and Protests: How the school community has responded following allegations of sexual misconduct at Townsend Harris

Letters%2C+Meetings%2C+and+Protests%3A+How+the+school+community+has+responded+following+allegations+of+sexual+misconduct+at+Townsend+Harris
HTML tutorial

Three weeks after news reports came out about allegations of sexual misconduct against former teacher Joseph Canzoneri, groups in the school community have responded in various ways. The reactions include a tense senior meeting, a series of guidance-related sessions for students, a question and answer session between Principal Brian Condon and PTA members, and a public letter of demands from the Alumni Association.

Senior Meeting Question Session

A day after the student sit-in held to protest Mr. Canzoneri’s reinstatement at THHS this fall, tensions were high at the November 24 senior meeting. Although a Thanksgiving movie was originally planned to be shown, Assistant Principal of Guidance Veronica York and student union (SU) leaders decided that given the circumstances, students should be given the opportunity to discuss the situation and ask questions. 

During the meeting, students expressed frustration over issues of confidentiality that both prevented Ms. York from being able to answer specific questions and prevented the administration from providing a statement to the whole school. 

“I think that a formal statement will come out. Everything has to be cleared through legal,” Ms. York said. 

As the meeting went on, some students began applauding others for speaking out and other students began leaving the meeting. Soon, Principal Brian Condon was called down by Ms. York to join the conversation. 

“We’re not going to gain anything by attacking each other,” Ms. York said at one point.

After explaining that how much he could reveal was limited by legal restrictions and that the administration was awaiting counsel from a team of legal advisors, Mr. Condon said he could not provide too much detail but mentioned he would “try [his] best” to answer student questions.

Senior Isabella Sicilian, one of the organizers of the protest, disputed the value of having a conversation with such confidentiality rules, saying “[this] is not going to work…if we’re going to have a conversation, it needs to be transparent.”

In a statement to The Classic, the protest leaders, seniors Isabella, Audrey Chou, and Alyssa Figueroa, described the November 24 senior meeting as “a disaster,” and called for the administration to communicate a clear plan of action to students. “The entire student body must be apprised of what the administration will do next (whether announcements, an assembly, or an email) to protect us,” they said. On a newly launched Instagram page and in their statement, the protestors said they’d received “radio silence” in response to their demands from the DOE, UFT, and the THHS administration.

I admire the students for not sitting idly by, but taking action by organizing a peaceful sit-in,” said THHS UFT Chapter Leader Kevin McDonaugh in a statement to The Classic. “I think it was an important action to not only help process the traumatizing news, but to bring certain things to light about proceedings regarding sexual assault and misconduct, and how they are unjust– it is vital that students’ voices are not only heard, but heeded.”

In response to the protest leaders’ calls to address the rest of the student body beyond the senior class, Mr. Condon told The Classic, “We’re going to address it with other parts of the population, we are just looking for the proper setting and the proper time to do it.”

In the weeks since the senior meeting, the administration has engaged with students in three different settings: through open conversations with the school social worker, a speaker series event on Zoom, and by having guidance address underclassmen about “healthy relationships” during classes.

Zen Den Healing Space

Last week school social worker Alison Harris-Chauvet (known as Ms. Harris) held an open forum for students on multiple days to “offer an informal healing space for [students] who would like to vent about the collective betrayal, disappointment, anger, and distrust [they] all must now feel.”

In an email to The Classic, Ms. Harris said that there were some sessions where students did not come but “students who did participate did highlight the hurt and anger some in the community are still experiencing.”

Senior Jaedyn Clark attended one of the sessions and said that “Ms. Harris really listened and sympathized with us rather than trying to defend any actions that were taken.” 

“I truly hope that it was cathartic for the students who participated,” Ms. Harris said.

Equity and Access Speaker Series Event

Ms. York also hosted the newest installment of the Equity & Access speaker series on December 3. The meeting featured Sherry Hakimi, Executive Director of genEquality, a non-profit organization that advocates for gender equality. Over the course of the session, Ms. Hakimi documented her personal experiences as a sexual assault survivor and emphasized the need for greater awareness and accountability of such issues within schools. 

Though multiple adults were present, only one student (besides a Classic reporter) attended the entire meeting and engaged in an active discussion with Ms. Hakimi. One other student joined part of the way through the session but left soon after. 

“I think there was a real missed opportunity there for people,” Mr. Condon said, regarding the low attendance. “There was an opportunity there to speak to someone who had suffered sexual assault and I thought provided some really helpful advice for students in terms of what they needed to look for, for what they needed to be aware of, what some of the issues are and where they can direct their energy to make changes.”

The event was advertised with one day’s notice and was held on a Friday afternoon. Mr. Condon said, “The email was sent out to all of our students, [and] about 75 percent opened their email.”

Mr. Condon stated that the administration intends to continue working with Ms. Hakimi to develop the best resources for handling issues of educator misconduct. 

Underclassmen Guidance Lessons

Speaking to The Classic, Ms. York said that guidance visited freshman and sophomore classes this week and last week. 

During the sessions students received a handout called “How Does a Healthy Relationship Grow?” One section of the handout asks students to describe three ways in which students can “pursue a healthy relationship” with family members, friends/peers, and teachers/coaches. The handout contains resources like links to the National Dating Abuse Helpline, the CDC’s Dating Matters guide, and GirlsHealth.gov, a site that provides information on teen dating.

In addition to interactions between the student body and the school administration, the Townsend Harris Alumni Association and the PTA have both addressed the issue in recent weeks.

Alumni Association Releases Letter of Demands

The Alumni Association released a letter to the Mayor, the DOE and several elected officials on November 29. The letter demanded an apology from the DOE for returning the teacher to THHS, an offer of crisis counselors for current and former students, release of records on teachers removed from THHS, a review of existing state law on teacher reinstatements, and a DOE task force to address sexual violence in DOE schools.

“We strongly feel that these are only the first steps that should be taken in order to address the underlying issues that resulted in this terrible situation at Townsend Harris High School,” wrote Alumni Association leaders Craig Slutzkin, Lara Traum, and Selina Lee.  

In the letter sent by the Alumni Association, they called for the additional student and educator training over educator sexual misconduct.

Condon Addresses the Parent-Teacher Association

On December 1, Mr. Condon addressed the PTA and answered questions asked by parents in attendance. Offering an overview of the events of the fall, he stated that near the beginning of the school year he received a communication from the DOE’s Department of Human Resources that Mr. Canzoneri was to be given “a full Teacher Program” and was additionally to be “eligible for per session activities, and coaching as well, which had been previously denied.” Mr. Condon said he alerted the Superintendent and made the decision to not assign the employee any classes until press reports led the DOE to reassign the teacher.

“I’m very upset that it took the fact that student journalists had to learn about this to get the DOE to move,” he said when asked about the role of The Classic’s reporting. “Without them, that man would have been here longer. Although it’s not their job to do this, and I would prefer they did not have to, the pressure that their reporting created forced the DOE’s hand.”

Throughout the session, parents asked a range of questions related to how the school plans to protect future students, how parents will know if anything like this happens again, and what Mr. Canzoneri was doing in the building if he was not assigned classes to teach.

“This is a disgusting situation, and it is a situation that should never have occurred and should never occur,” Mr. Condon said at the conclusion of the meeting. 

In a statement to The Classic, PTA co-president Greg Prasad said, “Our plan is to partner with [the administration, school leadership team, and alumni] to ensure training is provided to students and faculty to help identify these situations in the future and prevent them from reoccurring. We also plan on working with the Alumni Association on providing training for parents to assist with speaking with their children about this as well.” They also said that their intention is to use the letter sent by the Alumni Association as a template for contacting the “DOE and several elected officials.”

Additional reporting by Elliot Heath, Janna Habibulla, and Victoria Siebor, Managing Editors

Photo by Victoria Siebor

close