NYC Schools Chancellor and Districts Across the State Will Have Final Say in Cases Involving Inappropriate Sexual Conduct
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, Schools Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott and State Senator Stephen M. Saland today announced new legislation to give school districts enhanced abilities to dismiss teachers who engage in acts of inappropriate sexual conduct against students. Under the current law, outside hearing officers decide on these cases and impose binding penalties – including whether or not a teacher is fired. Districts are held to what the hearing officers decide. The reform amends New York State Education Law 3020-a so that school districts – and in New York City, the Schools Chancellor – have the final say on what action to take. Hearing officers will submit their decisions to the school district for review, and the school district will make the final conclusion on the action to take. This approach is consistent with due process and disciplinary proceedings for nearly all other City employees and tenured employees will still retain the right to file an appeal with New York State Supreme Court under Article 78 of the State Civil Practice Law. The Mayor made the announcement at Gracie Mansion where he was joined by Chancellor Walcott, Senator Saland, school leaders and education organizations, including representatives from The New York State School Boards Association, which represents over 700 school boards from across the State, and The New York State Council of School Superintendents, which represents more than 800 members.
“If a school employee is found to have engaged in sexual behavior or made sexual comments towards students, the Chancellor should have the final say on what action to take and the legislation we are proposing would provide that authority,” said Mayor Bloomberg. “Every child deserves a safe learning environment and every parent has the right to know that his or her child is safe while at school.”
“Our students deserve a safe learning environment and any process that puts student safety in the hands of an arbitrator instead of me is not a process that serves our children,” said Chancellor Walcott. “This common-sense legislation takes the much needed step of allowing us the final say on whether these adults should be entrusted with the care of our students. I want to thank Senator Saland for his leadership on this issue and we look forward to working with Legislature to pass this important piece of legislation.”
“Nearly all educators choose their profession for all the right reasons, and it’s with this in mind that we as a society register shock when we learn of a young student being sexually victimized by a teacher or principal. For the safety of our youth and for the integrity of the teaching profession, it is our goal to swiftly remove the “bad apples” from the educational system,” said Senator Saland. “Teachers often serve as role models for our students and for the community, and it’s devastating to learn when their position of trust has been abused. Given the grave nature of the cases involving educational professionals who are charged with inappropriate sexual conduct with a student, it is critically important that these charges are addressed in an expedited manner.”
“The New York State School Boards Association has long called for amendments to New York State’s broken teacher discipline statute,” said Timothy G. Kremer, Executive Director of the New York State School Boards Association. “We support Mayor Bloomberg and Senator Saland in rightly pushing for legislative reforms that will protect students. State lawmakers took an encouraging first step in the budget toward fixing New York’s broken teacher discipline law. Now, we urge them to take further action. The current law does not adequately protect students from teachers who engage in acts of sexual misconduct.”
“Improving the effectiveness of our classroom teaching workforce is the most important step we can take to raise student achievement,” said Dr. Marilyn Terranova, president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. “The recently passed state budget included constructive changes to expedite decision-making in the state’s process for disciplining and removing ineffective teachers who have already earned tenure. The legislation Senator Saland is sponsoring and Mayor Bloomberg is proposing will continue the progress, by strengthening the ability of schools to remove teachers whose conduct has demonstrated they should not be working with children.”
“The safety of our students is paramount,” said Bernard P. Pierorazio, Superintendent of Yonkers Public Schools and member of the Conference of Big 5 School Districts. “This legislation ensures that we may take swift action to remove a tenured employee whose egregious behavior warrants, not only disciplinary measures, but dismissal.”
Under current teacher discipline law, the Department of Education has been prevented from terminating teachers in cases where the City’s own independent investigator found instances of inappropriate sexual conduct. For example, the Special Commissioner of Investigation (SCI) found one teacher inappropriately touched a number of female students’ buttocks, breasts, waists, stomachs and necks. The Department of Education filed charges to dismiss the individual – the second such attempt. However, the hearing officer determined that the individual hugged one student and hugged and tickled another on her waist, dismissing or withdrawing other all other charges. The hearing officer imposed only a 45-day paid suspension and then permitted the teacher to return to the classroom. The Department of Education is now preparing to file new charges based on other allegations.
In another case, SCI found that an individual began an inappropriate relationship with a 15-year-old student, and took the student shopping, to the movies and talked extensively on the phone and was physically affectionate. The Department of Education filed charges to dismiss the teacher. While the hearing officer found “an overly personal, ill-advised and unprofessional relationship” had been established, the teacher was only given a $5,000 fine and permitted to return to the classroom.
In another case, SCI found that an individual told a 17-year old student, “baby, when you turn 18 years old, you could come to my home and we can have a real party.” SCI also found that the individual showed a female student an image on his phone of a man and woman having sex. The Department of Education filed charges to fire the teacher. Though the hearing officer found that the teacher did call the student, “baby,” all other charges were dismissed and only a $1,500 fine imposed. In still another case, SCI found an individual inappropriately touched several students and allowed them to sit on his lap, patted buttocks and hugged students. The Department of Education filed charges to dismiss the teacher, but the hearing officer only issued a formal reprimand and nothing more.
In May 2011, Chancellor Walcott testified before New York State’s Senate Education Committee and called on Albany to reform the teacher discipline process to make it fairer, more rational and consistent. The proposal announced today will help achieve that balance in cases of inappropriate sexual conduct, giving school districts the authority to make final disciplinary decisions. Chancellor Walcott recently enacted a series of personnel policy reforms enhancing the way in which employees and their disciplinary records are tracked. Principals will now have access to information about any employee who has been disciplined. Additionally, a newly formed Disciplinary Support Unit will provide support to schools ensuring appropriate action is taken after investigators determine employees have engaged in misconduct.