NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- Dr. Christine Coleman was fired after more than a decade as Director of Technology for the City School District of New Rochelle following an investigation by Southern Westchester BOCES. The investigation was triggered by complaints within the District that Coleman often abused her administrative access to the school’s computer network and email servers to voyeuristically access employee computers, read their emails and use information gleaned from them to harass, intimidate or seek termination of employees.
It is not a stretch to say Coleman was widely despised in the District. She was well known as a bully whose abusive, condescending treatment of employees drove some to tears. She secured her position — despite a total lack of suitability for the position - by serving as the administration’s “hatchet man”; she was known for digging up dirt on employees who had, for one reason or another, run afoul of board members or administrators or friends of Coleman or Coleman herself.
Coleman demonstrated on numerous occasions that she was unqualified for the position of IT Director. Jeffrey Hastie, a school board since 2009 and one of the few people in a leadership position within the District with even a passing knowledge of technology, would noticeably wince as Coleman made non-sensical IT presentations to the school board, long on jargon and short on technical competence or even basic understanding of technology.
The list of grotesque, unprofessional behavior by Coleman is too long to publish here so a few lowlights will have to suffice:
A school administrator tells the story of attending an off-site conference with Coleman and several school district employees. Over lunch, Coleman complemented the administrator on the appearance of his children and talked about a recent vacation the administrator took with them. Confused initially because he did not have a personal relationship with Coleman and had never discussed family with her, he recalled he had put some family photos on his school computer. The administrator interpreted Coleman’s remarks as a passive-aggressive threat — “I can do whatever I want and what I want is to be watching you”.
One story requires a little background on email. There are two types of email systems in the world: “IMAP” where the email remains on the server and is viewed remotely like Gmail and “POP” where the email is transferred locally to the user’s computing device. In the District, two types of email systems are used Novell (newrochelle.k12.ny.us) and Gmail (nredlearn.org). Almost all employees are nredlearn.org (and before that on nred.org) while administrators and many central office employees are on the newrochelle.k12.ny.us system.
When an employee using the newrochelle.k12.ny.us system was assigned to work at a private school on behalf of the District the employee asked to access their work email using IMAP on their personal smartphone so that sensitive emails and documents would not be transferred to a personal device but rather remain on the District’s own mail server. Coleman refused, claiming that it was too complicated to accommodate the request. In fact, enabling IMAP on a Novell email server requires no more than checking a box in the server settings that reads “enable IMAP”. Two years later, Coleman enabled IMAP on the nred.org email system. She sent a notice to all employees that they could now use IMAP to access their school email via IMAP on their personal smartphone. She was adamant, however, that her department would not assist them in setting up IMAP on their personal smartphones, that they would need to contact their phone carrier for support. Meanwhile, she continued to refuse to enable IMAP on the Novell email server. In response to a new request for IMAP on the Novell email server from the first employee, in light of the change in police for the “nred” system, Coleman responded by deleting more than 10 years of the employees emails, many including legal records, disabling access to the account, setting up a new, empty email nred.org account and demanding the employee provide their personal smartphone in order for her to setup IMAP on the phone — something she had just told every other employee she would not do. Suspicious, the employee refused to provide the smartphone to Coleman.
Why Coleman set up and maintained two different email systems is a whole other rat’s nest that requires a brief digression. The nred.org and nredlearn.org email systems are set up on remote servers managed by third parties (BOCES originally then later Google) which have back up systems that are not under District control. The newrochelle.k12.ny.us is set up on a email server stored in a closet at New Rochelle High School, for the same reason Hillary Clinton set up a private email server in her basement in Chappaqua, to keep total control over public records. So, if there is a Discovery Motion in litigation against the District for nred.org or nredlearn.org, lawyers for the plaintiff can do an end around on the District by serving a subpoena on BOCES or Google for back up copies of emails even if Coleman or other District employees had previously deleted emails off the remote server. By retaining all administrator email on a server, a device controlled by Coleman, she could scrub emails off the server and all back up systems. Investigators working on the Jose Martinez child rape case believe this is precisely what occurred with regard to emails sent by former ELL Director Elena Dillion and Schools Superintendent Richard Organisciak. Dillion all but admitted to Talk of the Sound she sent emails alerting Organisciak to Martinez’s suspicious conduct with young boys (in our view, she was attempting to justify to us her decision not to turn over paper copies of those emails to lawyers for Martinez’ victim).
One story is about sexting. On December 10, 2008, New Rochelle police were called to Albert Leonard Middle School by then-school principal William Evans concerning a fully nude photo of a 14-year old female seventh-grade student that was stored on the mobile phone of a male student. The phone was confiscated by security guard Donna Henry who failed to immediately turn the phone over to Evans per District protocol. Instead, she transmitted a nude image of a child to her daughter-in-law, a clerk in the business office at City Hall and her son, an employee at Isaac E. Young Middle School, who, in turn, transmitted the image to there District employees so that within a few hours the nude image of a child had been widely distributed among school district employees — and others. The three adults involved remained as District employees (Henry was even given a raise).
A few weeks later, in January 2009, Coleman gave a Powerpoint presentation to the New Rochelle Board of Education at a school board meeting at Jefferson School. According to the meeting agenda, Coleman was scheduled to speak on the district's "Acceptable Use Policy for Technology & Internet Safety Policy”but she quickly digressed into an extended discussion on the dangers of "sexting”. Coleman described “sexting” as a problem that occurred all over the United States (she cited a story from Texas as an example) but stressed that sexting had not occurred in New Rochelle schools. Coleman stated emphatically (and falsely) that there had been no incidents of sexting in New Rochelle. A few days later, ALMS Principal Bill Evans sent home a letter to parents urging them to have a discussion with their children about the dangers of sexting, also without disclosing the December incident.
During the meeting, Talk of the Sound requested a copy of Coleman’s Powerpoint presentation on “sexting”. This request was ignored. A few days later, a formal Freedom of Information request by Talk of the Student was subsequently denied on the specious grounds that since Coleman had researched the presentation on her home computer, during her own time, the presentation she made to the school board at a public meeting was private, not a public record, an obviously nonsensical contradiction of the New York State Open Meeting Law.
Another story involves a former teacher at New Rochelle High School, likely the first district employee to suffer the wrath of Christine Coleman from when was first hired in 2004. He described Coleman as “an insecure, dysfunctional, maniacal, power-hungry bureaucrat of the worst order” who “alienated principals” and others with a “ego-driven, insecure, dysfunctional mean streak” while being “aloof, dictatorial, and fearful of competent colleagues”. Many other school district employees have since offered variations on these themes over the past twelve years in describing Coleman.
The teacher reported that Coleman directed her staff to plant software on computers used in his classroom. He reported that there were major security breeches under Coleman including students getting back door access to computer systems and using that access to change grades. He said Coleman violated copyright laws by installing unauthorized copies of software on District computers, failed to secure the network and even left the entire BOCES network open to hacking at one point.
Another story is from 2009. Barnard Principal Patricia Lambert complained to Coleman about the computer servers and network equipment located in the school's main office. Coleman's response to Lambert's complaint was, improbably, to relocate the school's computer network systems and servers to the basement “Fan Room” where the fan was broken so that the room temperature often exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
You do not need to be in IT professional to know that operating computer equipment for extended periods of time at high temperatures greatly reduces reliability, longevity and can cause unplanned downtime. Computer equipment experts recommend that server room temperatures range from no lower than 50 degrees and no higher than 82 degrees Fahrenheit; the optimal temperature range is between 68 and 71 degrees Fahrenheit. In a computer room, maintaining ambient relative humidity levels between 45% and 55% is recommended for optimal performance and reliability. When relative humidity levels are too high, water condensation can occur which results in hardware corrosion and early system and component failure. If the relative humidity is too low, computer equipment becomes susceptible to electrostatic discharge which can cause damage to sensitive components.
Coleman failed to install gauges to measure air temperature and relative humidity in the Fan/Server Room. No grounded flooring material was installed to prevent electrostatic discharge. The computer equipment was not installed in racks or cabinets with gaps between components to allow airflow through the shelves and between the components. Instead, Coleman had the equipment placed on top of wooden and steel desks; wood and steel retain and conduct heat which only added more heat to an already overheated room.
Whenever the servers failed, IT consultants from BOCES were called. They complained about the heat and overwhelming chemical smell in the Server Room/Fan Room (from the illegal toxic chemicals stored in the room, a whole other story). Rather than move the computer equipment out of the Fan Room (and report the overheating and improper storage of chemicals), Coleman simply placed an all-but-useless five foot high standalone air conditioning unit in the room. The unit was not remotely powerful enough to cool the large room so the high heat and strong chemical smell continued unabated but with an air conditioning unit now circulating the hot, contaminated air.
In another story, reminiscent of the reported Novell hack a few years earlier, late at night on February 28, 2014, Talk of the Sound discovered that the New Rochelle High School website had been hacked to insert a prank claim that school had been cancelled the next day. Principal Reginald Richardson and Coleman were notified by Talk of the Sound and Richardson issued a public statement clarifying that school would be open.
A second story followed from this one. After posting images from the hacked web site and compiling student’s online reaction in Storify.com, a web service which aggregates social media posts, Talk of the Sound was contacted by Coleman on Monday, March 3, 2014 on the subject “Re: Hack”. That exchange went like this:
“I noticed on your blog site an odd screen shot.” wrote Coleman. “I have to ask how you obtained *the attached*?” The attached image Coleman sent was of a blue rectangle with gray “x”s on it with the words “Sorry, Storify.com is not currently accessible because it is categorized as adult”.
We responded: “I am not sure what you want to know? I have not seen what is in your screen shot before; it looks like your network blocks storify.com. I use that service to pull together content, primarily twitter, then embed the result into my site. It appears what may be blocked is tweets regarding reaction on twitter to the fake announcements that school would be closed last Friday. In any case, I did not "obtain" what is attached. It appears to be generated on your end.”
A few minutes later, Coleman responded: “Thank you for the info. We have been investigating this since early today. Haven't had a moment to respond to your email. Much appreciated.”
Moments after that, Coleman sent another email: “The only way to get that screen shot is to be logged into the CSDNR network account as ME (see attached with the arrow pointing). So the question is where did you get that image? What service? The ONLY way to get this image is from my netwrok (sic) account on the network to be able to access filter. There is no service that could pull that in. It had to come from an email source that sent you the image Did someone send it to you as I recall a filtering request from a staff member that was denied by me of that website. Please advise as this is quite disturbing.”
As this was beginning to sound like another one of Coleman's witch hunts in which yet another innocent party would be bullied, harassed and possibly fired, we decided to call her on the telephone and slowly explain. We informed her that we did not have the image she sent until she sent it. Our "source" was her. She was told that the image she sent was not displayed from Talk of the Sound and never was and that she could see that for herself if she would simply view Talk of the Sound from outside the district network, for example, on her smartphone.
On the telephone, Coleman vigorously rejected the possibility that a "blocked" message alert would appear on *her* end because *she* was the administrator and had full access to *everything*. She repeatedly stated that she “knew” who sent us the image from within her network and that she would be “dealing” with her as a result (which we interpreted to mean that she would seek to terminate the employee). We told her that while we had no knowledge of the type of blocking software the District used or how it worked it certainly appeared that the message was being generated on her end, within the district network, by the blocking software, adding that regardless of this, the image was never displayed on Talk of the Sound and no one “sent” it to us except for her. We sent her images of how Storify.com displayed on our site.
A short while after the phone call, Coleman sent another email: “OK thank you for the phone call and the email below with screenshots as our filter is blocking the site embedded in your blog. Now I understand how that got there. Appreciate it.”
She later admitted that she did not know that even administrative accounts like hers would be blocked from seeing certain images.
In summary, it required several hours of back and forth for Coleman to realize (and admit) that the blocking message was generated by her own blocking software. A good deal of time was not spent sorting out how the New Rochelle High School web site was hacked but how we obtained an image we never obtained (again, until she sent it to us). She did not know how her software worked, what privileges she had and did not have — she did not know that an “admin” user would still see blocking messages — she never bothered to do the most simple test by viewing Talk of the Sound on her smartphone. Instead, she launched a daylong investigation targeting a district employee who she “knew” sent us the image and that she would “deal” with her — all for supposedly sending Talk of the Sound an image from within her secure network which she sent to Talk of the Sound herself and otherwise leapt from one erroneous assumption to the next.
I shared this exchange with Coleman with senior school officials:
TALK OF THE SOUND: “Christine somehow got it into her head that we had somebody hacking into the district network to get screen grabs. Her questions are quite clearly accusatory — towards us and our “source”.
I received back two replies:
1. “Oh my god! She actually thought that your site has the blocked image page? Pathetic.”
2. “What an idiot.”
Later that same month, we informed Coleman that we could not view a particular school board meeting online. She replied several times, insisting the problem was on our end when it was not (it later turned out it was a problem with the original video she had uploaded) and that we were using the wrong video player (which we were not for the simple reason that the video player was automatically loaded by the district website not by our computer, as we tried to explain to her several times).
That exchange went like this:
“Generally FlowPlayer has worked well.. For some reason THIS video is giving me trouble. Can you forward to the right people to have them check this video. Problems are that it locks up, it “smears”, cannot forward through it, hangs.”
Coleman replied: “This (video) is playing off her Ensemble web server at BOCES. I played the entire video on a PC and it played without a problem. No skips or anything. It has to be something with the video player- FlowPlayer- you are using. I would suggest you try another video player or try to play it form (sic) another device. I will also try the video form my Mac at home.
We replied: “(We are) not using FlowPlayer — it is what they are using on their end. I can see the logo. Perhaps it was a time of day/bandwidth issue. I will try during off hours and see what happens.”
Coleman replied: “I see the link but can you tell me under what area you got this link? We use MS Silverlight for the Web Streams and Ensemble Video for the BOE meeting videos. Need more info.”
We replied: “Does this help?”
Two days later, Coleman responded: “Just a quick follow up to your email. I asked Steve Brown to look into the issue below and he re-uploaded the videos, tested them and they are fixed. Thanks again for bringing this to our attention.”
Once again, Coleman does not know how her own web site works, does not know how video is served up to viewers, tries to blame others for failures on her end, and otherwise is clueless about how the technology she manages works.
We have many more Christine Coleman story (readers can feel free to add their own in the comments) but they all make the same point: she was unqualified for the position, abused the authority she was granted, and was a mean person on top of that. All while being one of the highest paid public sector employees in New Rochelle.