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East Harlem School Parents Confront DOE About Teacher's Removal

 Dozens of parents stand outside the city's Special Commissioner of Investigation to protest the removal of a well-respected teacher.
Dozens of parents stand outside the city's Special Commissioner of Investigation to protest the removal of a well-respected teacher.
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Dartunorro Clark/DNAInfo

LOWER MANHATTAN — Dozens of parents staged a sit-in Tuesday to protest the controversial removal of a well-respected teacher from East Harlem’s Central Park East I school.

Wearing “Save CPE 1” buttons, protesters crowded outside the office of the Special Commissioner of Investigation for the city’s school district at 80 Maiden Lane to deliver a 41-page binder full of testimony from parents of students currently and formerly taught by Catlin Preston.

Preston was removed from the school March 14, just a few weeks after he signed an open letter criticizing the principal.

“We feel like this teacher has been disappeared and our kids are suffering,” said CPE 1 parent Jacqueline Thaw, who organized the protest.

Preston taught combined second and third grade classes at the school for the past nine years. Parents said they have been told not to contact him directly to discuss the case.

Roughly 2,500 people have signed an online petition calling for the removal of the principal, Monika Garg, in the past month — including about 65 percent of families currently at the school on Madison Avenue, near East 106th Street. 

Parents said the investigation into Preston has been shrouded in secrecy and it is unclear what incident triggered the suspension or who filed a claim against him.

Parents have alleged that it involves a corporal punishment charge, but many who spoke with DNAinfo gave glowing reviews of Preston, who they said is passionate about teaching.

“Because all of this is confidential no one knows what’s going on,” said Pam White, whose son, a fifth grader, was once taught by Preston.

“It’s left many of us feeling really hopeless. You want to support him and there’s been so little we could do.”

A spokesman for the city Department of Education declined to give specifics about the investigation.

“It’s very hard to imagine he deserves this,” said Kerwin Tesdell, who has a son in Preston’s class. “He is very dedicated and committed.”

Garg, the principal, joined the school in summer 2015 in an interim position. Since then, many parents have questioned her commitment to the school’s progressive education tradition and many believe that Preston’s removal is linked to his signing an open letter calling for her removal.

“We’re suspicious of the principal’s motive,” said Ben Raikes, who has a second-grader in Preston’s class. “We think she’s trying to clean house and make it more like a traditional test-taking school and it's ignoring progressive tradition.”

Garg has declined previous requests for comment from DNAinfo and did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Michael S. Bisogna, an investigator, met with parents Tuesday individually in his office and had additional investigators transcribe the verbal testimonies of each parent. However, Bisogna informed the group that his office was not the appropriate venue for their concerns.

Bisogna informed the group that his office investigates the Department of Education and that the office that would most likely handle an investigation into a teacher was the department’s Office of Special Investigations, located in Brooklyn.

The group was barred from entering that building Tuesday and police officers were summoned.

“We so obviously weren’t a threat,” Raikes said. “They were obviously waiting for us.”