2000-04-08 / Columnists

School Scope

by Howard Schwach

The headline in the New York Post is fairly representative of those that appeared in many metropolitan newspapers in recent months.

"Abusive teachers wriggling off the hook," the 42 point headline screams.

The accompanying story is about a man who has had more than a dozen complaints lodged against him in the past eight or nine years. It sounds from the article that the teacher should not be teaching children. He is allowed to continue at the district office until the end of the school year, when he will retire.

In this specific case, the teacher probably does deserve to be sanctioned.

It is when the press begins to generalize specific cases, such as those to tar with the same brush hundreds of other teachers who sit at district offices around the city, that the truth begins to be assaulted.

There are literally hundreds of teachers sitting at district offices, removed from their schools because there was some allegation of wrongdoing against them.

It is my understanding that there are more than a dozen of those teachers sitting each day at the District 27 office.

I do not know all of their stories. Some of them may indeed be, as with the teacher above, not fit to be in front of students.

I do know some of the stories, however, and those that I do know lead me to believe that most of those who rot away from their classes do so because some student "wanted to get even" for some wrong, real or imagined.

Some case studies might be instructive. Not all of these are current cases, and not all of the teachers involved are still at the district office, but they all took place in this district over the past few years.

  • The Case of the Cafeteria Caper:
  • A teacher is doing cafeteria duty at a Rockaway middle school. He is called over by a young girl who points to a boy under the table. The boy is grabbing at the legs of the girls who sit at the table. The teacher asks the boy to come out and is cursed in return. He grabs the boy and pulls him out from under the table. The next day, two detectives come to the school to arrest the teacher on the complaint of the student’s parents. They charge him with assault and he is sent to the district office for the rest of the year.

  • The Case of the Passing Fancy:
  • A teacher at the same Rockaway middle school is walking through the crowded halls, making his way to his next class. He passes a girl and she loudly begins to yell "He touched my butt, he touched my butt." The teacher is summoned to the principal’s office and is sent to the district office. Two or three days later, the student offhandedly told another student, "I took care of Mr. ___ because he failed me." Another teacher heard her statement and the girl admitted to the dean that she had made it up because the teacher had failed her on a recent report card. The teacher remained at the district office until the end of the year and then was transferred to another school despite the fact that he had been cleared.

  • The Case of the Repeated Beatings:
  • In a mainland school, a student was running through the halls, banging on doors and disrupting several classes. A teacher who tried to stop him was kicked in the knee. When the student was finally corralled, he claimed that the teacher assaulted him. He also claimed that he was then beaten by the dean and then by the assistant principal, all within 15 minutes. His claims were so bizarre that the hearing officer discounted them and the three remained in their schools. Had the student accused only the teacher, however, that teacher would have been removed to the district office.

  • The Case of the Bouncing Basketball:
  • The students in a district summer school program were playing dodge ball. One student chased another with the ball. The first student fell down and the second student continually kicked him and hit him in the head with the ball. When the teacher pulled the student away, he ran from the school. The teacher later got a call warning him never to touch the child again. Charges were never brought because the parent finally realized that his child was in the wrong, but it was close.

  • The Case of the Twisted Teacher:
  • A teacher in a middle school wondered aloud to her class why they listened to a "white teacher," but would not behave for a teacher their own color. That same teacher then brought a white teacher up on charges that he was racially insensitive and he was sent to the district office. The teacher who made the first racial comment remains in front of her class.

  • The Case of the Wandering Eyes:
  • A teacher at a Rockaway school was sent to the district office because a girl in his class complained that he was "looking at me funny." The teacher was confused as to what was going on, because he did not understand what "looking funny" at somebody really meant and neither did the hearing office.

  • The Case of the Flying Chair:
  • A student throws a chair at a teacher. When the teacher, worried about his own safety, the safety of the other students in the class and of the student himself, subdues the student, he is sent to the district office for assaulting the student.

Those are all real cases (although some of the facts have been changed to protect the innocent), and they illustrate the fact that teachers really have no rights in cases where they are charged with wrongdoing. Despite the media, which keeps harping on the fact that all of these "guilty child molesters" still have their jobs and keep them for too long a period of time, teachers have few rights.

Sure, the teachers keep their jobs and their salaries while at the district office. But that takes a tremendous toll on their professional and personal lives.

They are given little to do. They sit as a group, reading books and cleaning their fingernails. They are pariahs to those who work at the district office, guilty before any hearing. Word quickly spreads at the school. "Mr. ____ was sent away because he hit somebody." That will hurt any chances the teacher has of coming back to that school despite the fact that some of them have been in the same school for 30 or more years.

I understand that abusive teachers have to be kept away from kids and that a quick removal from the school is necessary. It is also necessary, however, to insure that innocent teachers have some rights as well.

As things stand now, the principal has to report to the district and to the central board any child’s allegation against a teacher.

In the past, the principal would investigate the allegation and pass his findings on to higher authorities. In most cases, a quick investigation found that the teacher was innocent – that the student was exhibiting teenage fantasies or attempting to get even with the teacher.

Today, however, the principal cannot investigate. The teacher is immediately sent to the district office pending a board of education investigation or an investigation by Ed Stancik, the board’s independent investigator.

I once gave a ground ball case involving an administrator to Stancik’s office and it took him two years to complete the investigation. The administrator was given an extra year of probation as a punishment for a pretty serious transgression. Yet, teachers are routinely punished with no investigation whatsoever.

One wonders why young people do not want to enter out system. One reason is that stories such as those above get around and you people wonder if it is all worth it.

In many cases, it is not.


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