Phillip Eisenstein, 28, an Atlantic City native who was in his third year teaching in the district, said he was asked to resign but refused because he did not believe he had done anything wrong.

ATLANTIC CITY — An attempt to protect a student being assaulted in a fight has cost a teacher his job.

After multiple attempts to break up a fight between two sixth-graders in October, physical education teacher Phillip Eisenstein said he grabbed the perpetrator of the fight under his arms from behind and took him to the office at the New York Avenue School.

“I’d already broken them up two or three times and had them sitting on the bleachers,” he said. “But when they were lining up to leave, the bigger student went after the other one again and had him cornered. I did what I had to do to protect the other student.”

School officials saw the incident differently, claiming Eisenstein used excessive force. He was suspended with pay and later fired, a decision he is appealing.

The board announced no decision on Eisenstein’s appeal last week, and interim superintendent Paul Spaventa did not respond to an email asking for comment. Typically school officials do not comment on litigated personnel cases.

The issue demonstrates the fragile positions teachers are in when a fight breaks out and no security is nearby.

A student could be injured and a teacher charged with failing to take action. If a teacher does intervene, they could find themselves charged with assault or out of a job.

The incident was investigated by the state Department of Children and Families Institutional Investigations Unit, which reviewed video, interviewed staff and determined Eisenstein did not use excessive force and no abuse occurred.

The student was checked out by the nurse and returned to class.

Eisenstein, 28, an Atlantic City native who was in his third year teaching in the district, said he was asked to resign but refused because he did not believe he had done anything wrong.

But a majority of the school board, at the superintendent’s recommendation, voted to fire Eisenstein. Board members John Devlin and Allen Thomas voted against the termination. Kirk Dooley was absent and Ventnor representative Kim Bassford only votes on high school issues.

His story is a cautionary tale for teachers who must balance protecting themselves and their jobs with protecting their students.

Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security, said use of force is a sensitive issue but school districts typically do not have specific policies that mandate or prohibit teachers from intervening.

“Overall, however, parents do expect that while students are in the custody and care of school officials, someone will take reasonable steps to stop fights and other violent, aggressive behavior that could result in harm to a student in their care,” he wrote in an email.

State law prohibits corporal punishment of a child but allows teachers to apply “reasonable” force under specific circumstances, including “to quell a disturbance threatening physical injury to others.”

But defining “reasonable” versus “excessive” force is where the issue gets complicated, Trump said, and teachers can even find themselves facing criminal charges. Eisenstein said students have threatened to get teachers in trouble for intervening in bullying incidents.

Eisenstein’s attorney, Ned Rogovoy, said Eisenstein attempted to mediate the situation several times in class and called for help when he felt it necessary to physically intervene.

There is security in the K-8 school, but Eisenstein said that day one person was out, one was at lunch and the third was on a different floor.

“He did what he had to do to protect the other student who was being bullied,” Rogovoy said. “The result was not what I thought the facts dictated.”

Still, he said, any decision to intervene can put teachers in a precarious position. Rogovoy has defended teachers who were injured trying to break up fights and teachers who received suspensions for their use of force.

Dewane Parker, former security chief for the Atlantic City School District, said it is not uncommon for teachers there to break up fights.

“It’s an individual decision,” Parker said. “But security can’t be everywhere, and teachers do help.”

State Department of Education Vandalism and Violence reports show the Atlantic City School District reported 110 fights in 2014-15.

Two security guards at Atlantic City High School were injured, the principal and an assistant principal hit, and the chief of security spit on while trying to break up a large fight at the school in March 2015, according to police reports.

The National Education Association website advises teachers to never ignore aggression. It advises them to get help, tell students firmly to stop fighting but never get between students who are fighting.

Parker said he had suggested getting restraint training for teachers but was rejected.

An Atlantic City native who attended local schools, Eisenstein taught at the high school for two years before being transferred to the K-8 New York Avenue School this school year. His parents are teachers, and his father, Michael, also coached sports in the district for years. He is the grandson of former Superintendent Jack Eisenstein.

On Monday night, several residents came out to support Eisenstein before his appeal hearing, asking the school board to reconsider the decision to fire him.

“Phil didn’t walk away,” said Tim Friel, a retired Atlantic City police deputy chief.

Atlantic City teacher and coach Robert Weiss said he has heard of worse situations that did not result in firings.

“This just doesn’t sit right with me,” he said. “If you’re terminated, your career in education is ruined.”

Atlantic City Education Association President Marcia Genova said if Eisenstein’s appeal is rejected, the union will take the case to arbitration. She said when teachers break up a fight they are often accused of using excessive force. But she said it is very rare that an allegation is substantiated.

Contact: 609-272-7241

Twitter @ACPressDamico

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