California professor put on paid administrative leave after video shows him chastising student who is hard of hearing

By Alisha Ebrahimji, CNN

(CNN) -- A tenure-track professor at a California community college is on leave and under investigation after he spoke critically to a hard-of-hearing student during an online class made the rounds on social media.

Last Thursday, a two-minute video -- broken into three parts for TikTok -- surfaced showing a Zoom recording from a physiology class at Oxnard College that day taught by professor Michael Abram, who is identified in the video by name and by a student in his class.

CNN has reached out to Abram multiple times via email and phone but has not heard back.

When the posted video begins, it's not clear whether the professor is aware the student, who later self identifies in the video as hard of hearing, needs assistance with her hearing. CNN is not naming the student because she declined to speak to us.

He asks the student, who says she can hear him a little bit, why she hasn't been answering.

"You can hear me a little bit? Abram asks. "Why didn't you answer all the times I spoke to you then?

The student attempts to respond, but Abram continues to talk over her.

"I'm hard of hearing," she says in response to Abram.

"Why don't we talk sometime? Why don't you email me? We'll set up a live Zoom and we're going to have some real communication at some point in time," he says. "Maybe you can have your counselor join us, OK? Do you hear me? OK, wonderful, do that," he says.

After that interaction, another female student in the Zoom class says the student is hard of hearing and cannot respond right away.

"She's not paying attention, she's not trying," Abram says.

The other student says, "It's slower on her end because she needs to get it translated then it goes to her hearing piece."

Abram tells the student who is hard of hearing to "have your counselor speak with me because you've got too much distraction to even understand what is going on."

"Yes, I do because my translator is next to me explaining everything that you're saying," she replies.

Abram suggests the student's translator teach her moving forward.

"Just have them teach you, the whole class, that makes sense to me," he says. "I don't know, I don't understand it," adding he saw the student who is hard of hearing "laughing" and "giggling" with someone else and is not paying attention. She replies that she's in a good mood.

Abram continues to repeatedly ask her to have her "counselor" talk to him, to which she agrees but says she feels like he is "attacking" her.

"I'm not attacking you, I'm not attacking you," he says. "I'm just significantly disappointed in you. That's all, that's all it is. I'm not attacking you."

The professor is now on administrative leave, the college said in a statement. "I am saddened and outraged beyond words that any of our students should either be or feel disrespected by any of our employees," acting President Luiz Sanchez said in a statement posted to Twitter.

The video was meant for administrators to review 

Sarah Rand, a student in Abram's class, took the original video that was then posted on TikTok by someone she described as a family friend.

Rand told CNN she took the video intending to send it to administrators to show the behavior and commentary she said she and other students have seen during Abram's classes this semester.

When asked at a press briefing Monday whether any prior complaints were made against Abram, administrators said they couldn't comment because that is part of the investigation.

Abram was hired as a professor in fall 2004 as a biology teacher but he has taught anatomy and physiology classes at Oxnard College, according to Art Sandford, vice president of academic affairs and student learning.

On Friday, the Ventura County Community College District, of which Oxnard College is a part, issued a statement.

"The Ventura County Community College District is opposed to any language or behavior which is offensive or harmful to anyone based on gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, age or disability," board Chair Joshua Chancer said in the statement. "Comments in the video do not reflect the District's values of integrity and honesty in action and word, respect and the constant pursuit of excellence."

The National Association of the Deaf said deaf and hard-of-hearing students vary in what they need in class, including interpreters, captioning devices to assist them.

"The use of interpreters or captioning usually results in additional time for the deaf or hard of hearing student all the information and then be able to respond," CEO Howard A. Rosenblum said in a statement. "Professors must therefore be patient and accommodate this additional time, instead of berating such students."

Administrators say campuses can make learning accommodations

The investigation could take up to 90 days to complete, Greg Gillespie, chancellor of the Ventura County Community College District, said on Monday.

"The instructor is entitled to due process under the law so it's his constitutional right as a permanent public employee and so he will be on a paid leave until the investigation is complete and we're able to determine what the findings bring us," said Laura Lizaola Barroso, of human resources at Ventura County Community College District.

CNN has reached out to the Oxnard College Academic Senate, which has a voice in student and faculty matters.

Administrators said they have told students the district can make accommodations for any type of learning assistance that is needed. They said it's important for students to let faculty or the educational assistance center staff know their needs.

The home college for the student who is hard-of-hearing is Moorpark, another one of Ventura's campuses, according to administrators at the briefing. It's not uncommon for a student to take classes at other campuses, especially now, when the majority of classes have shifted online because of the coronavirus pandemic.

"We know that the student was connected with the EAC (educational assistance center) folks at Moorpark College. However, we're still looking into the status of the student with regards to whether or not accommodation had been requested for this Oxnard College class," Gillespie said.

Administrators said they are in the process of meeting with and reaching out to the students involved.

Rand said at first she was worried that sharing the video with administrators may risk her graduation and her grades, but says without it, they wouldn't know what's happening with a faculty member.

"We hope that we've created an environment where people are comfortable in coming forward so that these can be addressed, Gillespie said. "This incident is an example of where unacceptable behavior is seen occurring in a video and we're going to investigate it and take that seriously."

The administration said it also is proud of the other female student who spoke up on behalf of the student who is hard of hearing.

Rand said she never thought the video would be received on social media in the way that it has.

"No matter what this person did, I don't think his reputation should be buried, like millions of people are hating him. That wasn't my intention," she said.

"I did this for other people to show that when you see something wrong, don't just stay because this is abuse that's happening that needs to stop," said Rand. "Don't be afraid. Speak up for the truth."

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