A legal change that Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced he wanted in March now has a legislator standing behind it.
State Sen. Stephen Saland is sponsoring a bill that would give school district chiefs the right to fire teachers who have been found to have engaged in inappropriate sexual contact with a student.
Under the current disciplinary process, once the city files charges against a teacher accused of misconduct, an independent arbitrators determines whether teachers have behaved inappropriately, and determine the punishment, no matter the offense.
This bill would create a new disciplinary process for the small number of teachers accused of sexual misconduct. The special process would send the arbitrator’s ruling back to school district officials, who could overrule it. The district would have the power to fire any teacher found to have engaged in sexual misconduct. Termination would be the default consequence, although the district could opt for a lesser punishment.
Walcott and Mayor Bloomberg announced the proposed legislation today at Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s official residence on the Upper East Side. Flanked by Saland, the superintendent of Yonkers Public Schools and several other representatives of state district superintendents, Walcott and Bloomberg said those who might oppose the legislation would be choosing to protect teachers over students.
“If city government can’t take care of them, I don’t know who is going to,” Bloomberg said about city students. “We are calling on the United Federation of Teachers to join us.”
But the union said it would need heed Bloomberg’s call. In a statement released during the press conference, UFT president Michael Mulgrew emphasized that the union has “zero tolerance” for sexual misconduct that involves children. But he said the proposed legislation would erode due process for teachers without solving the underlying issues.
“Sexual misconduct involving children is a serious issue,” Mulgrew said in a statement. “Giving the chancellor — who has previously said that an accusation is not the same thing as a finding of guilt — the power to ignore the evidence and an arbitrator’s decision is not an answer to it.”
Bloomberg criticized the union after a reporter read a portion of Mulgrew’s statement aloud.
“The teachers union is not there to protect our kids,” he said. “The teachers union is there to protect members of that union. They may use children as pawns, but the bottom line is, protecting the public is the obligation of the government.”
“If there’s going to be a mistake, I’d rather have it on the other side than on this side,” he added. “Our first responsibility is to our children.”
The bill announced today represents only a partial fulfillment of the city’s requests for more authority in teacher discipline cases. In 2011, Walcott went to Albany to ask legislators to change the teacher disciplining process by permitting the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings to take over disciplinary hearings from the independent arbitrators.
Walcott called for the latest change in March after he reviewed 240 cases of school workers found guilty of misconduct this winter amid a string of high-profile sex abuse arrests of school workers. Walcott said the review revealed that the 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.
“I would like to have the ability, in these types of cases especially, to be the final decision-maker,” Walcott told reporters at the time.
Today he said he was unsatisfied with the outcomes of 24 of the cases he reviewed, and would like to have had the power to change the arbitrators’ decisions.
“The arbitrators are not the ones meeting with parents at the end of the day. The arbitrators are not the ones looking in the eyes of the students,” he said. “I’m the one interacting with the parents. I’m the one interacting with the students.”
Walcott said particularly galling were cases where city investigators had determined that misconduct had taken place but an arbitrator had downgraded the charge and issued only a slap on the wrist. In one such case, he said, the office of the Special Commissioner of Investigations found that a teacher took a 15-year-old student shopping and to the movies, and touched the student affectionately. The arbitrator permitted the teacher to return to the classroom after being fined $5,000, even though the arbitrator found the relationship between teacher and student was “overly personal, ill-advised and unprofessional.”
So far, the bill has no sponsor in the Assembly, where the Bloomberg administration has traditionally had a harder time winning support. But Bloomberg said today he expected Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver—who frequently supports the UFT—and his colleagues to “do the right thing” and support the bill.
“There were 12 cameras here,” he added as the press conference wrapped up. “Lady Gaga was the last one to get me 12 cameras at a press conference. This is something everybody cares about.”