Confusion in the Classroom

A science teacher at Rombout Middle School in Beacon has been reassigned following complaints about comments she made in the classroom. Photo by Valerie Shivel

A science teacher at Rombout Middle School in Beacon has been reassigned following complaints about comments she made in the classroom. (Photo by Valerie Shively)

What can a district do when a teacher spreads misinformation?

The mother said she first heard Laurie Malin’s name in the fall of 2021, shortly after students in the Beacon City School District returned to class full-time and in person (with masks) following the COVID-19 shutdown. 

On Sept. 13, Malin, a longtime science teacher at Rombout Middle School, had attended a Beacon school board meeting to protest New York State’s policy of testing unvaccinated teachers weekly for the coronavirus. That same month, an elementary teacher in Glens Falls who refused to be vaccinated or submit to testing had been suspended.

“We know that the COVID-19 vaccination does not prevent you from getting COVID or spreading COVID,” Malin asserted, before reeling off a litany of debunked conspiracy theories, including the allegation that PCR test swabs contained “a cancer-causing agent that damages DNA” and caused migraines and other ill effects. She also claimed that the tests didn’t actually detect COVID-19 but instead identified a coronavirus that causes the common cold. 

Calling out what she said was a flawed narrative around “a test that doesn’t tell us what we want to know,” Malin asked: “Why would we risk the health of students and employees for absolutely no reason?”

She turned again to COVID-19 vaccines, which had been rolled out at the beginning of the year. “It’s not a vaccine,” argued Malin, who, according to her LinkedIn page, holds a bachelor’s degree in biology, ecology and oceanography from Old Dominion University in Virginia. “It’s an experimental gene therapy that will alter your DNA, that has more deaths and adverse reactions associated with it—” 

Board President Meredith Heuer cut her off there, saying Malin had reached the four-minute limit for a public comment.

Malin, who has taught in the district since 2004 but is currently on leave, returned two months later, this time joining the board’s meeting by Zoom. She urged the district not to hold an upcoming vaccine clinic, one of about a dozen that it organized in partnership with Village Apothecary, a Woodstock pharmacy.

“All of the vaccines so far have proven to be very dangerous, which is supported by VAERS,” she said, referring to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, a platform that compiles unverified self-reports of side effects. The program, which is managed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, saw its data misrepresented by anti-vaccine groups during the pandemic. 

Noting that children are less likely than adults to suffer severe complications from COVID, Malin alleged that Pfizer, one of the companies to develop vaccines, was “using our little children as lab rats.”

“They have no idea what’s going to happen when they do this,” she said. “Well, that’s not true — they do have an idea. They know that a lot of children are going to die.”

That didn’t happen. The American Medical Association has called the vaccines “extremely safe” and said that, even in the event of a COVID infection, they strongly protect children from severe illness and hospitalization. 

Malin wasn’t alone in questioning public-health recommendations. During that school year, which saw the emergence of the highly contagious omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID-19, some parents offered comments at school board meetings expressing doubts about vaccines and mask requirements. In addition, Joy Bonneau, a special education teacher at Glenham Elementary School, spoke at several meetings, at one point accusing school board members of ignoring her repeated comments questioning the safety of the vaccines.

In an email this week, Bonneau said she has never discussed her views with her kindergarten students or their parents. “They were not my audience,” she wrote. “My audience was the policymakers of this district.”

Switching classes

Beginning late last summer, when students received their class schedules for the 2022-23 school year, the parents of 10 of the 95 students assigned to Malin asked the district to have their children moved to another science teacher’s class, according to district records obtained through a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request. 

Five parents recently told The Current that, after hearing Malin’s public statements about the virus, they had felt she was unfit to teach middle school science. The Current was also contacted by a parent who said she complained early in the school year about Malin but, after learning that others’ requests were denied, did not ask to have her child moved.

The parent referred to at the beginning of this article, whose name is being withheld so her child cannot be identified, said in interviews that she contacted Brian Soltish, the Rombout principal, about her child’s class assignment. (According to Superintendent Matt Landahl, he instructed administrators not to comment for this story. Public school officials typically do not discuss personnel matters.) 

According to the parent, Soltish said he was aware of Malin’s school board remarks and would closely monitor her classroom interactions with students. 

Early in the 2022-23 school year, reports began filtering from Malin’s students to their parents of misinformation they said the teacher was sharing in class.

In an email sent in September and shared with The Current, the parent wrote to Soltish that, according to her child, Malin had said in class that people are made to be in close contact with one another — to touch, shake hands and hug, for example. 

“When people do this, parasites pass between us,” Malin said, according to the student. “Normally, these parasite cysts pass right through us, but in the presence of hand sanitizer, the cysts are broken down and people get sick.” Other parents interviewed by The Current recounted similar conversations with their children, including ones in which the students said Malin questioned whether germs or viruses exist. 

The parent then contacted Landahl. “I was hesitant to complain,” she said in an interview. “My child is bright and will question conspiracy theory-minded nonsense, but I don’t know that every kid will.” The parent said she was worried that, without school district intervention, students were getting “an anti-science bias from their science teacher.”

The parent (and two others who contacted The Current) said they asked if a teacher’s aide could be placed in Malin’s classroom, but it never happened. In January, at least three children in Malin’s class told their parents that she had parroted a conspiracy theory claiming the polio epidemic in the U.S. ended after the federal government banned the pesticide DDT. In fact, vaccines stopped the spread of the polio virus. 

The parent said she felt exasperated. District officials “were responsive” to her concerns when she reached out, “but that was kind of it,” she said.

Landahl and Heuer each declined to comment. In addition, Malin did not respond to multiple emails sent to her district address or a letter mailed to her home, and Christina Dahl, a social studies teacher at Beacon High School who is president of the Beacon teachers’ union, did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Other parents’ stories

Another Beacon parent pulled his child from Malin’s science class and into an independent study period. The parent and his wife had heard about Malin’s statements to the school board and let their child decide whether to remain in the class. “[The child] doesn’t really suffer fools and was not interested” in staying, the parent said. 

That student joined an afterschool STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) club — organized by another parent interviewed for this article — in conjunction with Clarkson University’s Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries (BIRE).

The eight-session club, held at the BIRE facility at Dennings Point in Beacon, cost $130 for the parents of each of the 10 students who participated. A parent spoke about the program at a Parent-Teacher Organization meeting but it was not publicized at Rombout. The parent invited Rombout teachers to observe the club or recommend other students to participate but said she got no takers.

After speaking with Soltish, another Beacon parent kept her child in Malin’s class but said his grades fell. According to the parent, Soltish said there was no way to move her son out of the class, nor could the teacher be easily or quickly replaced.

Almost daily, the parent said, her son would come home and report “all the disparities and neglect of science” he heard in Malin’s class. “He was not motivated,” the parent said. “He didn’t believe what she was saying. The stories just piled up.” 

The student also struggled with social skills and what his mother called “constant” bullying from classmates, which led his parents in December to decide that he needed to leave Rombout. “We’ve always been advocates of public education, but, at some point, even he said, ‘Maybe I’m ready,’” to leave, the parent said. 

The student will finish middle school at the private Manitou School in Philipstown and then plans to attend Beacon High School.

On Feb. 7, according to three children’s accounts to their parents, Malin assigned students to make “slime,” a common science experiment that typically involves glue, baking soda and an activator. According to the parents, who each spoke with The Current, their children said Malin told them that day that adding a quarter-teaspoon of Borax, a household cleaner, to water and drinking it “would be good for their bones.” (One parent said her child was told the mixture had “medicinal properties.”) 

Three days later, on Feb. 10, Soltish said in an email to parents viewed by The Current that Malin was taking a leave of absence. The principal provided no other details but said that Tristyn Koren, a certified science teacher who had been working at Rombout as a special education teacher in inclusion science classes, would be taking over. 

On April 17, the school board approved making Malin a “teacher on special assignment” through June 30. According to the district, her assignment is data analysis.

Teacher discipline

When a district receives complaints about a teacher, it can trigger a process outlined in contracts with the union that represents educators. If the Beacon district receives a complaint, its contract with the Beacon Teachers’ Association requires it to notify the teacher within five days. In the most serious situations, such as a criminal conviction or those that involve what the state calls a “serious question” about moral behavior or a threat to a child or school, the district cannot discipline or terminate a tenured teacher without what is known as a 3020-a hearing (a reference to state education law) before an independent arbitrator agreed upon by the district and union. 

The state Education Department suggests that, in other cases, parents or others with complaints start by contacting the local school district. In its online FAQ, the state Office of School Personnel Review and Accountability says it does not handle complaints that involve “incompetence, negligence or dissatisfaction with teaching style or philosophy.”

In May 2022, Malin, who has tenure, received a letter of reprimand from Landahl, but it was not for allegedly spreading scientific misinformation in the classroom. Instead, in an effort to quiet down her seventh-grade students, Malin was reported to have told them to “pretend they were Jews in the Holocaust hiding from the Germans.” 

This allegation, and others related to comments made by the teacher, apparently did not rise to the level where the district initiated a 3020-a hearing. In response to FOIL requests, the district said that 3020-a records for Malin from the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years “do not exist.” 

Landahl noted in the reprimand letter, which was obtained through a FOIL request, that he had received unspecified complaints from students about other inappropriate comments. The letter indicates that Malin agreed to participate in sensitivity and classroom-management training before her return to the classroom.

“Should there be a repeat of similar conduct, the district will seek more severe disciplinary action,” the superintendent wrote. 

In response to a wide-ranging FOIL request, the district did not provide any documents related to scientifically inaccurate comments Malin allegedly made to students. 

Another case

At least one teacher in New York has faced discipline for allegedly sharing inaccurate scientific information about COVID-19 with students. 

According to a ruling issued by the state Education Department, Adrianna Rickson, a high school criminal justice teacher who was hired by the Capital Region Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) on a probationary basis in 2019, was fired in 2022 after she offered students extra credit if they listened to an episode of The Joe Rogan Experience podcast featuring an interview with Robert Malone, a scientist who was banned from Twitter for disseminating vaccine misinformation.

BOCES placed Rickson on administrative leave and then fired her for, according to a letter from the superintendent included in legal documents, using “controversial materials” that had no curricular purpose, using BOCES resources to promote misinformation and failing to follow the approved curriculum. 

Rickson appealed to state Education Commissioner Betty Rosa, who ruled that the termination letter was too vague and sent the issue back to BOCES. After BOCES fired her a second time, Rickson appealed again.

This time, Rosa ordered that Rickson be reinstated with back pay, ruling that BOCES had “materially modified” its reasons for firing Rickson in its second termination letter and that firing her for a single extra-credit assignment violated her “right to academic freedom” — a concept which the commissioner explained holds that “teachers are not neutral conduits of information from some external source to pupils’ minds; they are active participants in the process of inquiry.” 

A lawsuit filed by BOCES against Rosa in January over her decision has not been resolved. 

The Beacon parents who spoke with The Current maintain that Malin’s alleged classroom comments do not amount to an issue of academic freedom. “Why is my seventh grader having to argue established scientific facts with her teacher?” one asked Landahl in an email she shared.

It’s not clear how the Beacon district evaluates its teachers and whether the content of lessons plays a role. A four-page document provided by the district outlines its policy for observations, which appear to take place at least twice (once announced, once unannounced) per school year. But it provides no information on what happens if a teacher receives a poor review. 

Low participation rates also make it difficult to say how students in Beacon have fared on state science assessments. Only 28 percent of Rombout eighth graders took the year-end science test in 2022; 42 percent of them met grade-level proficiency or better.

‘Flare-ups’ of misinformation

Since the pandemic began, the National Center for Science Education has had to monitor “flare ups” of misinformation and “anti-science” legislation proposed by school boards, but it is unusual to hear of teachers spreading false information, said Blake Touchet, the organization’s partnership specialist. 

More often, it’s the opposite. “We’ve seen a lot of teachers who are struggling with students mimicking” false claims made by their parents, Touchet said. The Oakland, California-based nonprofit, which works with teachers, parents and scientists nationwide to ensure that topics such as evolution and climate change are taught accurately, has also advised teachers whose students have brought misinformation they’ve seen online into the classroom, he said. 

Touchet said that school administrators can discipline a teacher if they feel the teacher is deviating from state-established curriculum standards by including overtly religious or political views. He cited examples in California, Illinois and Minnesota in which courts sided with districts in cases that involved science teachers who argued they should not have to teach evolution. 

“While there hasn’t been a case like this in New York, usually courts rely on precedent cases in other circuits when handing down rulings,” Touchet said.

In New York, local districts draft curriculum, select textbooks and instructional materials, develop pacing charts and provide professional development for staff in order to meet learning standards set by the state. According to the Education Department, it does not render judgments on whether specific speech or conduct adheres to local curricula or is protected by academic freedom unless a school district files an appeal with the education commissioner. 

Another option, Touchet said, is that school boards can adopt policies requiring a certain number of instructional hours to be spent combating misinformation. For example, teachers could spend time helping students evaluate the credibility of online sources, he said.

8 thoughts on “Confusion in the Classroom

  1. The reporter writes: “ ‘We know that the COVID-19 vaccination does not prevent you from getting COVID or spreading COVID,’ Malin asserted, before reeling off a litany of debunked conspiracy theories…”

    Nifty bit of craft there. Kindly clarify for me: Is the first part of her statement misinformation? Or does the reporter agree that statement is (now) absolutely 100 percent true? And yet everyone from Joe Biden to Anthony Fauci to Rachel Maddow was telling us exactly the opposite. Have they walked back their blatant misinformation?

    Science is supposed to involve questioning, but everyone who tried to do this was smeared and “deplatformed.” There are currently close to 1 million signatures of doctors and medical professionals on The Great Barrington Declaration, including the originators of the document, top epidemiologists from Harvard, Stanford, and Oxford.

    This document, produced in October 2020, opposed the official public health response measures to COVID. Among other things, it declared that “Keeping students out of schools is a grave injustice,” and “Fortunately, our understanding of the virus is growing. We know that vulnerability to death from COVID-19 is more than a thousand-fold higher in the old and infirm than the young. Indeed, for children, COVID-19 is less dangerous than many other harms, including influenza.” Their platform was one they called “focused protection,” targeting the vulnerable population.

    Following Fauci’s mask, no mask, double mask public statements, as well as his private utterances, was almost comical. But then, in his humble way, he declared that anyone disputing him was disputing “The Science.” A massive mask meta study published in the well-regarded Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews found that mask-wearing, including N95 masks, made “little to no difference” in stopping the spread of COVID. On the other hand, it is effective as a measure of asserting control over a population.

    Students could do a lot worse than being assigned to watch Joe Rogan as extra credit. They could have learned that the two scientists who developed the drug Ivermectin, which some frontline doctors were using to treat COVID, won the Nobel Prize in medicine for its abilities to fight parasitic diseases in humans. It also has very few side effects, has shown anti-viral properties, and has been served almost 4 billion times. Yet the vast swath of mass media ridiculed it as horse medicine. Curious. Is it anti-science to note that COVID vaccine maker Pfizer sponsors Good Morning America, Anderson Cooper 360, CBS HealthWatch, ABC News Nightline, CNN Tonight, etc?

    The repercussions of how we handled COVID, from the lockdowns to masks, from mandating vaccines for millions to deplatforming any voices with other approaches, these will be with us for a long, long time. I wonder what lessons we will have learned.

  2. Dr. Fauci was selected to represent the CDC. I trust and respect Dr. Fauci wholeheartedly. There is no doubt in my mind that Dr. Fauci’s leadership saved a lot of lives. Who can say the same about anyone else?

  3. Misinformation consumers, conspiracy theorists and book-banners are infecting school boards across the country. Let’s hope Beacon stays vigilant. [via Instagram]

  4. I agree that teachers should keep their views private, but how ironic would it be if this teacher actually knew something that most of society doesn’t know? What if this teacher was using her critical-thinking skills and actually questioned the status quo? What if this teacher actually knew the truth? [via Instagram]

  5. My older kids had Laurie Malin as a teacher when she was great and now she needs to go because she’s broken with reality. Tenure shouldn’t mean you can leave children ill-prepared for more advanced science. [via Instagram]

  6. What can a school district do? The same thing a newspaper can do: fact-check. Printing outdated bromides issued by compromised officials as if such bromides were true; then, allowing said bromides to stand in for some sort of unalloyed facts with which to damn an unbeliever? You get a failing grade for such a submission. [via Instagram]

  7. Both of my kids have gotten a great education in the Beacon City School District and thankfully did not have this teacher. Teaching misinformation in public school is unacceptable and she should be removed. [via Instagram]

  8. One of my children had Laurie Malin as a teacher during the peak of COVID, when there was still a lot of uncertainty, confusion and alarm over the disease.

    This science teacher was not encouraging or modeling rigorous research or sound scientific methods for the 11- and 12-year-olds she was teaching on a daily basis. She was offering personal opinions that were vastly out of step with the majority of mainstream and respected scientists and doctors, without offering her own evidence to support her claims.

    In my opinion, based on my child’s experience with her, she did not carry out her professional role in an educational or responsible way. [via Instagram]

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