Dennis Walcott’s first stop on a busy Friday was to reassure anxious families at Harlem’s P.S. 208, where a teacher was arrested yesterday on charges of molesting a third-grader. Walcott has made a series of similar visits this spring at schools around the city amid a spate of sex abuse accusations.
The surge in accusations has spurred Walcott to campaign for a state law that would make it easier for him to fire teachers who commit sexual misconduct, a campaign that he took to the op/ed page of the New York Times today. But Walcott said the bill would not likely apply to a case like P.S. 208’s, which is being handled by the District Attorney, not Department of Education or city investigators.
School workers who are convicted of sex crimes in criminal courts are fired under existing rules. But if they are charged but acquitted, non-criminal investigators can still find culpability, which would trigger a discipline hearing that could result in the teacher being fined and reinstated.
“We’ll have to see what happens with the case itself,” he told reporters. “One of the things I’ve been talking about is cases that may not be a conviction, but have been substantiated by the Special Commissioner of Investigations. I want to move those decisions out of the hands of arbitrators.”
Walcott spoke to lawmakers in Albany last week, and has sent city officials to hold more meetings this week. But sources told the Daily News that the bill is not likely to pass during this legislative session, which concludes on Tuesday.
Echoing sentiments in his op/ed and the bill’s announcement last month, Walcott said there are about eight sexual misconduct cases where he would like to overrule decisions arbitrators made to allow those teachers to remain in their jobs.
“As I review records of those cases where there seem to be instances of improper touching, sexual contact, but it may not be something the person is convicted on, I want to be the final decision maker,” he said. “I’m the one sitting down with parents on a regular basis, addressing their questions as it should be. I should be the one making that final decisions.”
Some parents who attended Walcott’s meeting this morning, which lasted nearly an hour and a half, said he failed to reassure them that their children would be safe from sexual misconduct in school in the future.
“You come in with questions, and you leave with more questions,” said Aida Martinez, whose daughter is in fourth grade and took a saturday class and Rugby with the accused teacher. “My child is not coming to the school no more. I’m taking her out. This is her last day.”
“This is too close to home,” Christina Andrades, another parent, said. “Every other week you see like a teacher molesting or doing something, and you never think it will hit home. This is too close to home.”
Martinez and Andrades told reporters they blamed the staff for failing to protect the student who was allegedly abused, after hearing from Walcott that the teacher had pulled the student out of recess and other classes to spend time alone. But they also acknowledged that there were few warning signs to follow.
“All the kids loved him. He made everybody feel comfortable,” Martinez said, adding that he dressed in green and beige, the color of the students’ uniforms, every day. “He came out and saluted every parent. Other teachers don’t do that.”
Noah Gotbaum, a member of District 3’s Community Education Council who joined more than 50 families from P.S. 208 at the meeting, said Walcott should focus less on the state bill and more on prevention methods.
“They should be focusing on setting up systems, and training principals and teachers,” he said. “This [bill] is a diversion. Trying to fire what, four teachers, over the arbitration process? That’s a band-aid, it’s not the answer.”
Teachers union president Michael Mulgrew offered a different suggestion for preventing sex abuse in schools in a letter he sent to the City Council’s Education Committee Chair Robert Jackson this afternoon: more oversight of teaching hiring and screening. The city has asked the teachers union to support the proposed legislation, which could override part of the union’s contract, but union officials say the contract’s provisions for dealing with sex abuse allegations are already sufficient. In the letter, Mulgrew asks Jackson to hold a committee oversight hearing on the city’s teacher hiring practices.
The text of the letter:
The Honorable Robert Jackson
New York City Council
250 Broadway; Room 1747
New York, NY 10007
Dear Council Member Jackson,
The safety and security of our students is paramount, and the recent spate of accusations of sexual misconduct by school personnel is a cause of great concern. The United Federation of Teachers believes in zero tolerance on this issue, which is why our contract already allows the immediate removal of accused teachers from the classroom and their removal from payroll if there is a finding of probable cause, and mandates their termination if they are found guilty of sexual misconduct.
The contract’s provisions call for an employee’s termination for a wide array of sexual malfeasance, stricter than state law, including in cases when an independent arbitrator has found the employee to be guilty but a court has not. In recent years, we have also expedited the entire investigative and hearing process to prevent cases from being dragged out. It is a rigorous process, but we need to take it a step further.
These recent cases have raised serious questions about the Department of Education’s screening and hiring practices. Students and school employees must be protected, and that begins with an effective and detailed background screening program. It is vital that the DOE recruit and hire high quality educators to work in our classrooms. Likewise, it is critical that the screening process do everything possible to weed out all unsuitable candidates. It appears that important work is not being done.
We therefore respectfully request that you and your committee conduct an oversight hearing on the Department of Education’s screening and hiring practices. There is no more important job in our schools than ensuring the safety and security of our students. That job starts with hiring decisions.