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Denver substitute teacher in viral chokehold video: 'Teachers are fearful' of disciplining students

Posted at 5:57 PM, May 31, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-01 00:38:45-04

DENVER -- A substitute teacher in Denver who was recorded on camera placing a student in a chokehold in mid-May says there's more to the story than the 14-second clip that's circulated on social media.

"I don't want to bring anybody to tears," said Richard Sommese, a substitute teacher who was on duty that day at Hamilton Middle School. "But in this case, it was not a safe space."

The clip, obtained by Denver7 from a student who was in the classroom, shows Sommese pushing the student toward the door. The student is seen pushing back and trying to stop himself from being forced out of the room while telling the teacher, “Get off of me!”

"They all say the same thing -- don't touch me! You're touching me! You're doing this to me!," Sommese said. "I've seen it. I've heard it. It's a very difficult place for teachers."

Sommese says the student in the video was part of a group harassing a boy with hearing problems.

"They came right around the kid with the ear problem," Sommese said. "[They were] throwing punches right across him, right over him, right in front of him."

The man told Denver7 he stepped in to protect the boy with hearing problems.

"I took the biggest one, the biggest guy -- there were two smaller guys, so I took the biggest guy -- and I moved him out of that area, over the desk of the gentleman with an ear problem, and I put him in a full Nelson (hold)," Sommese said. "I wanted to control him so everybody knows that this wasn't gonna happen, and nobody was gonna get hurt in my classroom."

According to Sommese, he was told to stay home in the weeks following the altercation. On Friday, he says officials with Denver Public Schools told him he wouldn't be back.

"Teachers today, not just in the Denver Public School system, in all around the nation, are fearful," Sommese said. "Not only of someone walking in and shooting them. But of being asked to leave a school because of the way they discipline or the way they regulate these hard to serve schools."

In a statement to Denver7, Denver Public Schools said:

"There are many reasons that police and/or the District Attorney’s office may not pursue criminal charges. For this reason, Denver Public Schools does not decide to pursue corrective action based on the police and/or the District Attorney’s decision, but rather based on our own exacting standards for student safety.

"In order to determine whether these standards have been met, we conduct internal investigations. DPS first provides appropriate legal instructions. District officials then direct an employee to take part in an internal investigation. If an employee refuses, we retain the right to terminate their employment."