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Brookline students urge panel to rehire teacher

Brookline students filled the fifth floor room Thursday where the School Committee was having a meeting at City Hall in support of teacher Larry Chen. Jim Davis/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

BROOKLINE — Students of a popular middle school teacher who supporters say was fired for allegedly using profanity marched through a School Committee meeting Thursday night to press for his reinstatement.

Waving signs and wearing shirts that said “Save Chen,” about 20 students spontaneously began circling a table at Town Hall where the committee members sat, disrupting the meeting.

The students chanted “Larry Chen matters!” as they marched around the table in support of Chen, who parents said was fired in late September from his job teaching seventh- and eighth-grade social studies at the Michael Driscoll School, which serves pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

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After a few minutes, Acting Interim Superintendent Joe Connelly rose from his seat and asked the students to stop, while praising the “wonderful job” they have done voicing their opinions in recent days.

The students complied but pledged to return to Town Hall on Tuesday, when the next School Committee meeting will include a public comment period.

According to Chen’s supporters, he was fired after another teacher reported hearing him say “bull [expletive]” to two high school students after normal school hours. The students were participating in a Model UN program, which Chen advised, one parent said.

The reporting teacher’s account has been disputed, parents said, yet Chen was abruptly fired.

Outgoing Superintendent William H. Lupini, who did not attend Thursday’s meeting and has yet to formally sign off on Chen’s dismissal, could not be reached for comment.

Chen also did not attend and could not be reached.

The School Committee did not address Chen’s firing during the meeting, which was ongoing at press time. Connelly did tell the students, however, that Lupini was “still processing” information about the incident before he makes a final decision.

Prior to the meeting, students gathered outside Town Hall and chanted “Chen Again” during a brief, boisterous rally before they headed inside.

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“I think [Chen’s firing is] the most reckless and arbitrary action I’ve ever seen a school administrator take,” said Geary Sekhar, whose daughter Maya is a student of Chen’s.

In Chen’s absence, a second-grade teacher has subbed for Maya’s class, and the school has no plans for a permanent replacement, Sekhar said.

“Larry Chen ... is, I think it’s fair to say, the most exceptional and popular teacher” at Driscoll, he added.

Parents said they know Chen was fired for his alleged profanity because he waived his confidentially protections, so they were able to obtain a School Department notice laying out the reason for his termination.

That document was not immediately available on Thursday night.

According to Chen’s LinkedIn page, he began teaching at Driscoll in 2013 and studied at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Columbia University.

His LinkedIn profile includes a quote from the author Maya Angelou that reads, “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”

Sekhar’s daughter described Chen before the meeting as “a real piece of this school.”

“I think getting him back is pretty much our top priority right now,” Maya Sekhar said. “He is our universe.”

Driscoll’s principal, Heidi Cook, who parents said is on maternity leave, could not be reached for comment Thursday night.

Another parent backing Chen, Vanessa Kirsch, also criticized his dismissal during the rally. She said students and parents have spoken out against the firing in letters and a petition.

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The online petition had 302 signatures as of Thursday night.

“Larry Chen is a man of extraordinary talent and accomplishment,” the petition says

School Committee members and Connelly declined to comment on the incident after the meeting, citing rules against discussing personnel matters.

Officials said Chen recently had an administrative hearing, and Lupini must make a final decision on his status before he steps down later this month.

“I’m sure he appreciates the importance of making a decision as soon as possible,” Connelly said.

Some committee members, including Lisa Jackson, commended the students for demonstrating.

“It was very powerful,” Jackson said, adding that officials would “never discourage” students from expressing themselves.

Jessica Wender-Shubow, president of the Brookline Educators Union, which represents Chen, also declined to discuss specifics of the case but described Chen as “a guy with a lot of talent.”

She said she does not believe administrators have provided teachers with clear guidance on language use, or included them in discussions about what should be permitted.

“I’m very disturbed by that,” she said.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.