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The city Department of Education turned John Tomasi into a phantom student — and not only gave him fake report cards, but wrongly put his family under investigation for child abuse.
The 14-year-old never enrolled in Cobble Hill School of American Studies in Brooklyn. He never attended a single class, in person or remotely.
Yet this fall, the public school created two report cards for John, both including teacher comments.
His physical-education teacher twice gave John the highest grade: “ME” for “exceeds standards.”
His algebra teacher cited “progress toward … understanding the connection between proportional relationships, lines, and linear equations,” among other skills.
After two months, Cobble Hill put John on a missing-student list. On Nov. 4, the school alerted the city Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), which opened an investigation of “suspected child abuse or maltreatment,” the agency said in a letter.
“On Nov. 5, I got a knock on my door at 5 p.m. from an ACS worker stating that my son has not been attending Cobble Hill High School,” John’s mom, Margaret Tomasi, told The Post. “It was very traumatizing and shocking.”
That’s because John was earning a spot on the freshman honor roll at Xaverian HS, a private Catholic prep school in Bay Ridge — where he has not missed a day of in-person and online classes since September.
The Tomasi family’s ordeal spotlight’s the DOE’s spotty attendance system during the COVID-19 pandemic, its failure to keep track of students listed in remote or in-person classes, and the practice of keeping “phantom students” on school rosters, which generate taxpayer funds.
The ACS investigator asked John’s parents if they used drugs, were ever arrested, been on welfare, or had a history of domestic violence. The worker asked many personal questions, including what religion they practiced, and looked inside their kitchen cabinets, refrigerator and freezer to check for sufficient food.
The investigator asked John to lift his shirt, pull up his pant legs, and remove his socks to look for bruises or other injuries.
The next day, a Friday, Margaret Tomasi called Cobble Hill HS to ask why the school never contacted them before alerting ACS.
No one answered the phone.
She then left a series of individual voice messages for Principal Anna Maria Mule, two assistant principals, a guidance counselor and a dean.
“Somebody needs to get in touch with me. There’s a huge mistake with my son,” she said in her messages, noting the ACS visit.
“He’s not enrolled in your school,” she continued. “He attends Xaverian High School. The admissions office can immediately clear this up. Please contact me.”
No one called back, Tomasi said.
The mom also wrote to Principal Mule on Nov. 9 at an email address listed on the school website. “I received a letter from your school in October with a schedule,” she wrote. “I tried to call but could not get anyone on the phone. How did one letter become a child neglect case (and) now an open investigation?”
The email bounced back saying, “There was a problem delivering your message.” She tried again, to no avail.
Meanwhile, ACS contacted Xaverian HS, which confirmed John was attending that school all along. Case closed.
Margaret was ready to forget the whole fiasco until the family received not one but two Cobble Hill report cards for John.
A report card for the first marking period, which arrived in mid-November, gave John grades of “NX,” which means “incomplete,” or “NL,” which means “recent admit,” in listed classes: English, Algebra, Principals (sic) of Biomed, Living Environment, Mindfulness and Global Studies.
The algebra teacher cited progress in three areas: “using properties of rational and irrational numbers,” “understanding solving equations as a process of reasoning and explaining the reasoning,” and “solving systems of equations.”
Under the DOE’s 2020-21 grading policy, eased due to the pandemic, students who don’t show up or don’t do work must be graded “NX.” Failing grades are prohibited.
But Cobble Hill gym teacher George Kaliampos gave John the highest mark: “ME,” for “exceeds standards.”
A report card for the second marking period arrived Dec. 19. The same grades — including “exceeds standards” in phys-ed — were repeated, but with more teacher comments.
His Mindfulness teacher noted, “Frequently does not submit course work.”
The Algebra teacher cited two additional areas of “progress” by John: “understanding the connection between proportional relationships, lines, and linear equations,” and “representing and solving equations and inequalities graphically.”
But she added: “Insufficient work is available to determine the student’s grades despite multiple attempts to contact the student and family.”
That last comment “put me over the edge,” said Margaret Tomasi, who insists the family never got a call from the teacher.
The frustrated mom sent an email on Dec. 21 to Chancellor Richard Carranza with the subject line, “Cobble Hill High School’s Gross Negligence.” She wrote that a phone call could have prevented them from being dragged into the child-welfare system.
She added, “I received a report card from Cobble Hill. In case you were wondering, it said (John) was doing well in gym class. Since then we received yet a second report (card) from Cobble Hill and this one had comments on it. How is this possible?”
A Cobble Hill teacher blamed the school’s “general incompetence and inability to function properly,” saying administrators gave the faculty a bad contact list: “There were countless students with wrong phone numbers.” Administrators also refused to make home visits to look for kids who could not be reached, the teacher told The Post, asking to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation.
As for the report cards, administrators instructed teachers to choose from a list of canned comments. Citing “progress” is a gentle way to indicate failure, the teacher said.
Of John’s high mark in phys-ed, the teacher wasn’t surprised: “Everybody passes that class.”
Investigating the snafu herself, Tomasi learned that John’s 8th-grade teacher at his grammar school, St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Academy in Brooklyn, routinely sends the DOE a list of graduates who might go to public high schools. This is done even for kids planning to go to private schools, as a back-up.
But the St. Joseph teacher later neglected to notify the DOE that John would not attend any public high school, and had accepted a seat at Xaverian.
Cobble Hill HS apparently didn’t get the message that he wasn’t coming.
Tomasi finally reached a staffer in the DOE’s enrollment office who assured her they would remove John from the system.
But when the family received the second Cobble Hill report card — a week after ACS deemed the child-abuse suspicions “unfounded” — she became worried that the case might be reopened.
Tomasi contacted The Post to tell the family’s story in hopes of “closure with Cobble Hill,” and improving the DOE system.
“We don’t want this to happen to anybody else,” she said.
On Thursday, shortly after The Post questioned the DOE, the deputy superintendent for Brooklyn North schools, Hoa Tu, called Tomasi to assure her the case was closed, and to apologize.
“It was all a very bad mistake,” Tomasi said Tu told her.
The Department of Education said in a statement, “This should not have happened.”
Before reporting a family for suspected child neglect, “DOE staff should first make multiple attempts to contact a family,” officials said.
The reports cards “were issued in error, ” the DOE said, blaming one unidentified person. “A staff member made a mistake when filling out report cards.”
A DOE spokesman did not explain why Chancellor Carranza, Principal Mule and other Cobble Hill staffers did not respond to Tomasi’s messages.
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