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Walcott: Review of misconduct cases reveals discipline issues

The Department of Education is moving to fire eight employees who continued to work in schools even after being found guilty of sexual misconduct.

The eight people were identified during a thorough review launched last month after multiple school workers were arrested and charged with inappropriately behavior toward students.

Chancellor Dennis Walcott said today that he was disturbed “as a chancellor and a parent and grandparent” by some of the “horrendous acts” that the review had turned up. He said the review had highlighted inadequacies in the teacher discipline process, a process over which the city would like more authority.

The review examined all school workers found to have behaved inappropriately since 2000 and referred by investigators for discipline. Walcott told reporters today that he personally examined about 250 cases and concluded that in some of them, appropriate action had been taken. In others, he said, the workers had left the system. And in even others, the investigations had concluded more than three years ago, meaning that it is too late for the department to issue a new punishment, even if one was merited.

Walcott said the department had alerted principals who supervise workers the department would prefer to discipline but legally cannot. Those people will be monitored closely in the future, he said.

“I am not going to tolerate any individual having any improper contact with any of our students,” Walcott said.

After the winnowing process, the department identified eight people – including four tenured teachers — whose punishments Walcott determined had not been adequate.

Of them, three paraprofessionals and one aide have already been fired. Four teachers were reassigned at the beginning of the month and the city is moving to fire them. One of them, who most recently raised suspicion while assigned temporarily to Baruch College Campus High School, had been investigated twice before under two previous chancellors and referred for discipline each time.

Three of the investigations were concluded on the watch of former Chancellor Joel Klein, including one of a teacher who filmed students in a boy’s bathroom. For the rest, Walcott himself received the investigators’ reports. Four investigations finished this winter, but one was sent to Walcott last June.

Walcott said a major problem is that the independent arbitrators who set punishments in teacher misconduct hearings sometimes determined that school workers were guilty of misconduct but that they should pay a fine, be suspended, or receive a letter of censure instead of being fired. He said he would like to be able to make termination decisions for teachers found guilty of misconduct, offering a scaled-down version of the city’s position that the chancellor should be able to have the final call on all discipline decisions.

“I would like to have the ability, in these types of cases especially, to be the final decision-maker,” Walcott told reporters.

But UFT President Michael Mulgrew suggested in a statement that a larger problem was that the city had not tried to terminate enough people who were found to have misbehaved.

“If the DOE had properly investigated these cases, and where appropriate brought charges, the chancellor wouldn’t be in damage control mode right now,” Mulgrew said.

In a previous statement, issued before Walcott’s call with reporters, Mulgrew also said, “The UFT supports a zero tolerance policy for sexual misconduct and also the rights of anyone so accused to a fast and fair investigation and hearing.”

Walcott said today that the department would launch a new initiative, the Disciplinary Support Unit, to follow up after investigations are concluded to make sure that adequate action is taken.

Two of the people arrested in February had been found to have behaved inappropriately, but their current principals had not been informed during the hiring process. Walcott said today that his review turned up just two “gaps” where principals did not know about an employee’s history of misconduct — but that was “two gaps too many,” he told reporters.

The department is now set to introduce a flagging system so that principals will be able to see whether people they are considering hiring have ever been disciplined for misconduct at another school, a change that Walcott promised last month when he started the review of closed cases.

Walcott sent a letter to principals today outlining the results of the personnel review. The letter is below.

Dear Colleagues, Over the past few weeks, several Department of Education (DOE) employees have been arrested after reports of inappropriate conduct with students. As Chancellor, I am outraged and upset by these allegations, and have said in each case that misconduct will not be tolerated. In this letter, I will detail two actions we have taken to guarantee that staff members who engaged in such behavior are appropriately disciplined. First, we have completed our review of employees previously found guilty of misconduct by the City’s Special Commissioner of Investigation. In February, I pledged to take a retrospective look at these cases to determine whether there was more we could have done to discipline a staff member. Since that time, our Division of Human Resources and Office of General Counsel have reviewed the cases. During this review, I decided to remove eight employees who engaged in misconduct but were insufficiently disciplined. Four of these individuals are teachers with tenure rights, and we are seeking to terminate their employment. Four others are paraprofessionals or teaching aides, whom we have fired in the last three weeks. I have removed these individuals because I believe we should take no chances with our students. Second, we have moved to enhance how we track our employees so that schools have as much information as they need when making hiring decisions. Currently, we do not allow schools to rehire staff members who have been fired from another school after a disciplinary hearing. We also give principals access to several different types of information about individuals applying for a job: whether they have been previously suspended without pay; whether they have a prior criminal history; and, for those applying to be Assistant Principals or Principals, whether any City investigation found that they engaged in misconduct. In the coming weeks, we will launch a new resource to flag any employee who has been disciplined for misconduct. This enhanced tracking system will help schools make better hiring decisions, and go a long way toward protecting our students. We have also created a new team—the Disciplinary Support Unit—to coordinate follow-up with schools, ensuring that appropriate action is taken when investigators find that an employee engaged in bad behavior. I want to be very clear: the vast majority of our employees are hardworking, dedicated individuals who take on the most important job in our society—educating our children—and put the wellbeing of students first. I am truly grateful for their service and professionalism, and I pledge never to rush to judgment when there is an allegation of inappropriate misconduct. At the same time, I must honor my responsibility to keep our students safe every day they are in a New York City public school. Our students and parents deserve schools that are safe for learning—and as Chancellor, I owe them nothing less. For parents who have questions about how to speak to their children about this topic, we encourage you to direct them to our website for resources. If parents have any reason to believe their child has been a victim of sexual misconduct, they should contact their principal or the NYPD immediately. Sincerely, Dennis M. Walcott