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.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.