Recent days has seen a nasty tweet fight break out, as Mayor Bloomberg’s proxies – Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson, StudentsFirst honcho and former Bloomberg Albany lobbyist Micah Lasher, and former television anchor Campbell Brown – have used the 140 character forum to launch a vicious slander that the UFT protects sexual predators, defending their return to the classroom. Their argument is that since arbitrators who decide dismissal hearings against tenured teachers are jointly selected by the Department of Education and the UFT, they split the difference in decisions and do not fire teachers who have engaged in sexual misconduct or sexually inappropriate behavior. The only solution, they argue, is to overturn tenure and give the DoE the power of judge, jury and executioner.
The UFT has a position of zero tolerance on sexual misconduct, and we have negotiated in our contract the strongest penalties for sexual misconduct in any collective bargaining agreement in the state of New York. If an adult violates the trust that is at the heart of the educator-student relationship with an act of sexual misconduct or with sexually inappropriate behavior, dismissal is the only appropriate response.
The Mayor and his proxies know this well, and yet they have still mounted this campaign. To understand how completely cynical their actions are, consider that an arbitrator’s decision can be appealed to a court of law. Most recently, when the UFT won an arbitration decision regarding the sham closure of the twenty-four PLA schools, the Mayor and the Department of Education did precisely that. More on point, there have been cases of sexual misconduct in the past where the DoE appealed the arbitrator’s ruling to a court and prevailed: the grounds for appeal are largely procedural, but there is still ample room for an appeal when an arbitrator gets it wrong – and being fallible human beings, arbitrators can get it wrong. If the problem in the three cases the Mayor and his proxies now cites were an arbitrator’s desire to please both parties, an appeal to a court would have guaranteed an independent review of the case, as neither the DoE nor the UFT had any role in their appointment to the bench. The judge’s ruling would be completely beyond reproach.
And yet the Mayor and the Department of Education did not appeal any of these cases to a court of law. If the facts of the cases were as the Mayor and his proxies contend, and individuals found to have engaged in serious sexual misconduct or sexually inappropriate behavior were being returned to the classroom, those decisions would certainly have risen to a level of seriousness, in terms of potential harm to students, to have justified such an appeal. In recent years, the stable of lawyers hired by the Department of Education to deal with dismissal hearings has dramatically expanded, and now numbers close to one hundred, so there were no shortage of resources to undertake appeals in these cases. Logically, then, there are only two explanations for this failure. Either the facts of the cases are not as the Mayor and his proxies are now proffering, and they knew that their position would not be upheld by an independent judge, or the facts of the cases are as they now claim, and the Mayor and the Department of Education failed to act to protect students from potential harm.
The second explanation is not as incredible as it might first seem. In February of this year, when a school aide was arrested and charged with sexual abuse, it was revealed that six years earlier the Office of the Special Commissioner of Investigations had investigated that same aide, found that he had engaged in sexual misconduct and recommended disciplinary action, but the DoE had failed to take any action. In the following weeks, similar cases were uncovered. What is most revealing about these cases is that they involved school aides, none of whom have tenure, so the DoE had the very power to terminate them without meaningful due process that Bloomberg and his proxies now say it needs to deal with teachers who have engaged in sexual misconduct. Yet with that power, the DoE failed to exercise minimal due diligence in cases of sexual misconduct. The problem in these cases, it is clear, was with the DoE’s failure to act, and not with due process.
It is worth remembering here that the Mayor, the Chancellor and the DoE all came under a great deal of fire from parents and community members over the their failure to act in these cases, and rightly so. So going after the UFT on this issue is not only designed to chip away at public support for the due process rights of tenure; it is also designed to distract public attention from the Mayor’s, the Chancellor’s and the DoE’s failures to protect students from adults who have been found to engage in sexual misconduct or sexually inappropriate behavior.
As educators and teacher unionists, there is no professional responsibility we take more seriously than the safety of the students we teach and care for. The entirely false slander that we protect and defend sexual predators is, for us, the equivalent of a blood libel. There are not words to describe the feelings of anger and outrage we have that the Mayor of the City of New York and his proxies would stoop to such contemptible falsehoods.