indecency proposal

Bill would give city the right to fire teachers in sex abuse cases

State senator Stephen Saland (right) and Mayor Michael Bloomberg look on as Chancellor Dennis Walcott describes the reasoning behind a bill that would give the city decision-making power when teachers are accused of sexual misconduct.

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.”

The proposed legislation is below.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede