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.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.