Queens high school kept teacher scandals quiet for years

An esteemed Queens high school quietly fired a physics teacher who carved “DEAD” on his chest in photos seen by students, and a chemistry teacher who stayed in the classroom for eight years after investigators found he touched girls, records show.

The alleged misconduct at Townsend Harris HS  — kept under wraps for years from most staff, students and parents —  is detailed in public reports released by the Special Commissioner of Investigation for city schools at The Post’s request.

The revelations follow news that SCI found Joseph Canzoneri, a Townsend Harris English teacher, coach and drama director, had sex with a former student. After the girl refused to testify against him, Canzoneri was returned to the school last fall, where he still had contact with kids unaware of the charges, The Classic student newspaper reported. 

“This really shows that the system is broken and it’s not really safe for everyone,” a freshman said at a sit-in to protest students being exposed to accused predators.

Previous scandals were also hushed, The Post learned. Thomas Sangiorgi, an award-winning chemistry teacher, was the target of two probes, in 2008 and 2016. Both found that he touched and rubbed up against girls, and made leering comments. He finally retired from the DOE in 2016 to settle misconduct charges, avoiding public scrutiny. He has worked since as an adjunct lecturer at Queens College, where Townsend Harris is located.

Joseph Canzoneri was found to have slept with a former student, according to reports released by the Special Commissioner of Investigation.
Townsend Harris HS

“This personnel matter is under review by the college’s Human Resources office,” said Queens College spokeswoman Maria Matteo. She would not say whether the college was ever informed of the DOE charges.

In the first SCI report, sent to then-Chancellor Joel Klein, one student said Sangiorgi passed behind her in a narrow passage and “intentionally,” she believed, rubbed the front of his body against her backside. Two other students told SCI that Sangiorgi had touched or rubbed against them.

The principal at the time merely slapped Sangiorgi with a “letter of reprimand,” the DOE said. Sangiorgi stayed another eight years until the second probe.

In the 2016 report, one student said Sangiorgi played with the zipper on her dress, put his fingers up her sleeve and twirled her locks, saying, “I wish my girlfriend had hair like you.”

Thomas Sangiorgio
Thomas Sangiorgi was the target of two probes, in 2008 and 2016.
Facebook

The report, sent to then-Chancellor Carmen Fariña, said two students told probers that the teacher raved about their appearance at the prom – telling one she “looked like a woman” –  and asked them for photos.

“Student A” said the teacher once massaged her neck, using his thumb “in a circular fashion.” She “described feeling sick when Sangiorgi touched her.” In another incident, she said Sangiorgi told her the unbuttoned cardigan sweater worn over a shirt was too loose for the chemistry lab. He then “physically removed the sweater from Student A’s body.”  He stood so close “she could smell the coffee and cigarettes on his breath and it made her want to vomit.”

“Student C” told SCI that Sangiorgi “touched her breast using his index finger” five to 10 times from 2015 to 2016, and “touched her thigh just above her knee” other times as she sat on a desk, the report said.

Sangiorgi also commented to a girl on Facebook, “I know you have a dark side,” and “I’ll try not to excite you too much,” the report said.

The teacher declined to speak with SCI investigators, and did not respond to The Post’s messages. 

In another case, physics teacher Edward Gruszecki posted disturbing photos on Facebook – where some of his students were “friends” – showing self-inflicted cuts on his face, torso and arms, the SCI said in a 2015 report to then-Chancellor Fariña.

Edward Gruszecki
Edward Gruszecki was terminated by the DOE in 2014.
Leanne Gonzalez

“In addition to the photo showing ‘DEAD’ carved on Gruszecki’s chest, another showed cuts spelling out ‘WHY,’” said the report sent to then-Chancellor Fariña. Some students became alarmed and alerted school staff. In one posting, Gruszecki wrote that he was not suicidal.

A former student, now 26, told The Post she developed a highly emotional and wrenching personal relationship with Gruszecki, exchanged intimate emails with the married instructor, and viewed the photos. “I know a bunch of students saw the Facebook pictures,” she said. “He did it for attention, to make others feel bad for him, for sympathy.”

Gruszecki, now 51, displayed another photo showing what appeared to be blood smeared on his mouth in a creepy “Joker” grin. Sources told The Post he dressed up as the fictional villain in a school production and at Halloween. The teacher also posted an invitation to a local bar with free drinks “if you’re underaged,” the SCI found.

The DOE quickly terminated Gruszecki in 2014, officials said. Untenured, he was not entitled to a disciplinary trial. He failed to respond to investigators in January 2015, the SCI said, and did not return The Post’s messages.

 Edward Gruszecki
Gruszecki dressed up as the Joker in a school production and at Halloween.
YouTube

Both Gruszecki and Sangiorgi are still licensed to teach in New York, a state Education Department website shows.

“This conduct was completely unacceptable and the DOE took action to ensure these former employees could no longer work in our schools ever again,” said spokeswoman Katie O’Hanlon.

Among reforms, she added, a Chancellor’s regulation amended in 2019 forbids any DOE employee to “create a hostile school environment for a student by conduct and/or verbal or written acts.”