2006-04-28 / Columnists

From the Editor's Desk

By Howard Schwach

Although Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein would like you to believe that nirvana has been reached with higher test scores and all is right with the Department of Education's world, that is far from the truth.

Witness some "school truths" that you will never see in a DOE press release.

A number of experienced teachers who have been charged with misdeeds that have never been proven (and, in most cases, never will be) sit each day at the Queens Plaza North Regional Operations Center (ROC) in Long Island City. This space that they sit in, some of them for years, is called by one and all, "The Rubber Room."

While there, they get full salary and do not have to produce any meaningful work. That is not the worst of it. The people who run "the room," under the theory that the teachers and clinicians who are assigned there are guilty until proven innocent, treat them like imbeciles or worse.

Witness some of the rules promulgated in a memo from Karen Marino, the Personnel Manager for Region Four and Five.

"Everyone entitled to lunch (I have to wonder why anyone would not be entitled to lunch - Ed. Note) will take lunch from 12 to 12:50 p.m. No one is allowed to take lunch before this time. You are allowed to eat at your desk; however you must dispose of your garbage. If you go out for lunch, please note that there is no loitering in the building. You must go out of the building or stay on the second floor location.

"No one is allowed to leave the building throughout the day to insert coins in parking meters for personal vehicles. Therefore, nobody is authorized to leave the building for anything other than during your assigned lunch period. There will be no wandering around the building; you must remain on the second floor location.

"If, for some reason, you must speak to me, please make a request in writing explaining your issue and submit it to Michael Cheatham. I will not see anyone without an appointment."

These are professionals who are being treated in this manner, many with Master's Degrees and 20 years of teaching experience.

What are their "crimes"?

One local clinician was in the "rubber room" for nearly two years until his retirement for telling an off-color joke in the teacher's lunchroom.

The man, who does stand-up comedy on the side, had been telling jokes for years. One day, a female teacher took umbrage with his jokes and reported him to her supervisor, who told the jokester to knock it off when she was present.

One day, shortly thereafter, he was telling a joke when she walked into the room. She went to the principal, who went to the region. There he sat for the rest of his career, drawing his $85,000 a year for stapling papers once a week. The rest of the time, he told us, he read novels or the newspaper.

The charges were never pursued and he was eventually allowed to retire with a full pension.

Who was the victim here, the woman who didn't like the jokes or this poor guy who was hassled for his last two years in the system?

There was another teacher who I spoke with shortly after I retired. It must have been early in 2003 sometime, right after the regional setup was put into place.

This teacher was running a cafeteria at a local middle school when a girl came up to complain that a boy was under a table, grabbing the legs of the girls sitting at the table and looking under their skirts.

The teacher went and physically pulled the boy from under the table because he refused to come out.

The next day, detectives came to arrest him on the complaint of the boy's parents that the teacher had assaulted their son.

The teacher remained in the rubber room until the court threw out his case.

One more story that is indicative of the kinds of people sitting in the rubber room.

A phys ed teacher at a local middle school was walking down the hallway during passing, when the halls are packed with students and teacher alike.

The teacher was passing a group of girls when one of them called out, "He touched my butt, he touched my butt."

The girl reported the touching incident to the guidance counselor, who reported it to the principal.

The newly appointed principal, probably trying to make brownie points with the region, went into the girl's homeroom class and asked the teacher with the class to leave.

He then asked all of the students to write statements about what they had seen and heard in the hallway. The girl and three of her best friends all wrote statements saying that they saw the teacher touch her. All of the other kids in the class said that they did not see anything.

The teacher was sent to the rubber room and remained there for several months while an "investigation" was mounted. The teacher was never asked if he had touched the girl, never asked for a statement. The UFT leadership abandoned this teacher to his own devices and he hired a lawyer.

The DOE refused to cooperate with his lawyer. He was refused the right to see the statements made against his client, a young man in his early 30's.

Eventually, a teacher in the same school overheard a group of girls talking in the cafeteria about how they "got rid of" a teacher they did not like and how they were going to do it again to another teacher.

She reported it to the principal, who waited several weeks before calling the girls in for a "talk."

They all quicly admitted under his questioning what they had done to "get rid of" the gym teacher and the word quickly got around the school. The principal had no choice but to see the charges dropped.

The DOE, in its infinite wisdom, however, refused to send the gym teacher back to his original school. Instead, he was sent to a school in the furthest wilds of the region, far from his home and the school that he wanted to teach in.

I am not saying that there are not some teachers sitting in the region's rubber room who are guilty as charged and should be fired.

There are some teachers who are incompetent, some who are pedophiles, some who are sexual preditors, just as there is in almost every profession and population. Those people should be swiftly punished and removed from the teaching roles. There is no place for criminals or sex offenders in the public school system.

Having said thjat, however, I am willing to bet that the majority of the teachers sitting in that room are like the three unfortunate souls that I wrote about above - guilty of nothing more than being in the way of a principal who wanted to get rid of them.

Next week, the case of Frank Davis, a teacher who is his own lawyer and who sits in the rubber room not for a crime, but for failing to teach the way the DOE orders his subject be taught.

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