Toward an Ethical Disciplinary Process for Teachers

I have told this story of my “disappearance” too many times and yet not often enough in forums that might lead to change. The NYC Department of Education (DOE) disciplinary process for teachers in its current form is deeply unethical, with damaging effects on teachers, students, and schools. Unfortunately, my own experience is by no means unique. Over the last year, several teachers have told me their own similar stories.

On Friday, March 11, 2016, the principal of Central Park East 1, where I had taught for almost nine years, handed me a letter telling me I was reassigned pending the outcome of an investigation and directing me to report to a “reassignment center” on Monday.  I refer to this as my “disappearance”: from one day to the next I was made to disappear from my classroom and school communities, with no explanation to anyone and no process for saying good-bye. There was no consideration of the impact of this sudden change on the children in my care, the families of those children, or the school as a whole.

This principal had been recently appointed to CPE 1, after a period of interim acting status.  She quickly began to make known her disdain for the school, for long-standing practices and pedagogies, and for veteran staff members, as well as for families and children.  Soon after my disappearance, the SaveCPE1 movement was born, as more and more families felt the impact of her egregious treatment. Eleven months later, Marilyn Martinez, United Federation of Teachers (UFT) chapter chair, was “disappeared” also.

After a day in the reassignment center, I was sent to work in a special education office.  I was in the “rubber room,” though at least I was doing useful work and not staring at the walls.  During my first few weeks, I expected that at any moment someone would arrive and tell me that they had cleared everything up: A terrible mistake had been made and I could return to my classroom, my school, my kids.

After a month, I met with the DOE investigator.  I expected him to tell me that he had the story of what I was accused of and saw clearly that the accusation against me was a mistake.

I was primarily accused of corporal punishment, and I knew the incident that was being misconstrued.  After a 3rd grade student pushed a classmate out of the way to get to her cubby, I knelt next to her as she sat.  As I spoke to her, I playacted reaching past her, modeling that she did not have to push her classmates out of the way to get to her things.  I followed this with a conversation to draw out other strategies for getting to her cubby without the possibility of hurting others:  “I could say ‘excuse me,'” she said.  She went off to her work and I to mine.  I felt pretty good about the interaction in that I heard her step back and reflect on her actions.

To figure out how this was misinterpreted as both corporal and punishment by a paraprofessional who witnessed it, I tried to take her perspective: She saw my back, she saw this student lean forward and back as I reached past her: Maybe my co-worker thought I hit the child? She had never spoken to me about the incident and never did subsequently, so I have no idea of what she thought.
The investigator told me that his investigation substantiated the allegation of corporal punishment: he said he had witness statements saying that I lay down on top of the child, pressed my body down on her, and then pushed her down, saying, “You don’t like that, do you?  Then why are you doing this to others?”

He presented me with three witness statements and told me, “This could be all my evidence, or half my evidence or ten percent.  I don’t have to tell you that,” in a benign voice laden with threat.  (It later emerged that the witness statements were all from the same paraprofessional—just written down three times). He said I could submit to a full interview, which I felt prepared to do.  However, the UFT rep accompanying me told me to rely on my “Cadet rights,” a precedent that allows a tenured teacher the right to decline to be interviewed. I was scared, so I did not speak to the investigator, though with misgivings. I knew I had done nothing wrong.  The union rep had not even asked about the allegation except to say: “Do you know what this is about?”

Over the first three months of reassignment, I was in touch with the UFT, though I had little humane response from them.  No one seemed to be willing or able to help me understand what might happen to me.  I heard again and again: “You are getting paid, right? Benefits and pension intact? Don’t complain. There’s nothing you can do.” From one union staffer, I heard that I should not have done what I did, that I should have let the child calm down before I spoke to her. She showed no interest in the fact that that, I had actually done that.

The charges leveled against me were delivered on one of the last days of the school year.  They were based on three disciplinary letters from the principal that had followed a collective faculty action directed to her. On January 31, mine was the first signature on a letter signed by almost all tenured members, with some untenured members participating in the composition, urging the principal to work together more closely with staff at the school, and to consult us on important decisions regarding curriculum and instruction.

My first disciplinary letter to file came 8 days later.  Within a week after the first letter, I was notified of a second letter. Within 20 days of receiving the second disciplinary letter, I was removed from the school.

The letters, and the charges, alleged:

1. Late submission of winter narrative reports, constituting “insubordination”;
2. taking a video of an upset child in violation of his FERPA rights, and using my cell phone during instructional time to take the video in violation of a Chancellor’s regulation and school policy;
3. corporal punishment, in agreement with the investigator’s findings that I lay down on a child to punish her.

With the charges finally rendered, I was allowed counsel from the UFT.  However, I soon learned that the UFT has agreed to a system that thoroughly undermines accused teachers.  During my first conversation with my UFT lawyer in July 2016, he told me that he would probably not be my lawyer come September. The UFT lawyers get shuffled to different cases while my case would stay with the assigned arbitrator. This was very disturbing and made me think more deeply about hiring a private lawyer.

I was very privileged to be helped throughout my ordeal by a wonderful support system. Parents from CPE 1 showed me their care in many different ways, including raising money to pay legal costs. My immediate and extended families were amazingly supportive, though the impact on them was severe: my son was deeply saddened to leave CPE 1 after finishing 2nd grade because my wife, Margaret Blachly, and I felt we could not allow him to attend a school in which our safety felt threatened, and into which, as a reassigned teacher, I was not allowed to enter. My professional network provided further contacts, lessons from investigations past, and more.

My search for a private lawyer was facilitated by suggestions from friends, family members and colleagues. I spoke with several before making my selection, Jordan Harlow of Glass Krakower LLP.

I also was blessed to receive an assignment in a Special Ed office that was very different from the portrayals of “rubber rooms” I have seen in the media. While I suffered the disempowerment and injustice of exile, the conditions were demeaning but not inhumane, unlike those of many other reassigned teachers who are not so lucky

More than 14 months after my disappearance, and three months after Marilyn’s, we were both completely cleared of all charges. The mother of the 3rd grade student testified on my behalf, and it was shown that I had the parent’s permission to videotape the upset child, a common practice in the school. The principal was reassigned away from CPE1 and the school began a healing process.

What is the systemic framework of this story? What does it have to do with ethics in education? I believe that the DOE does not treat teachers who are subject to complaints ethically, which is an important issue in itself. Beyond that, there are multiple effects on children. Throughout my time in exile, I thought of the suffering of the children in my 2nd-3rd grade class.  They lost their teacher from one day to the next and were only told in deeply coded language that my absence was due to a “personnel matter.” This process interrupts the educational care and emotional well-being of children. I think of children who eight months into their school year had their teacher disappeared from them. I think of children with special needs with a history of trauma for whom the disappearance of a care taker is a recurrence of their trauma. How does the system consider this human toll?

Furthermore, to expect teachers to encourage students to think ethically while they themselves are subject to unethical treatment is inconsistent and likely unrealistic.

As is too common in this time of “reform,” a principal arrived at our school to “fix” it. In the case of CPE 1, there was broad agreement among staff and parents that there were issues that needed to be worked out, but that these could be focused on within school’s historic progressive teacher-driven culture. Instead, the principal opted for use/abuse of bureaucratic power. The tactics she used are allowed and even encouraged by the DOE.  She interpreted rules and regulations narrowly to punish teachers in order to coerce the staff to adopt her change agenda, though it was not a fit for the school.

For example, she cited me for insubordination based on my late submission of narrative reports.  According to this interpretation, I must have done it on purpose.  In fact, I was an overworked teacher squeezing in writing times between night classes and caring for a sick child.  The principal opened investigations of other teachers to intimidate and bully them.  While I was removed, several colleagues left the school voluntarily, unwilling to risk their careers for accusations of verbal abuse.

The principal’s actions did not take place in a vacuum. The DOE’s Assistive Trials Unit (ATU) counsels principals on how to get rid of “troublesome” teachers.  These teachers may actually be lacking as teachers or they may simply be resistant to a principal’s agenda. The ATU helps principals get rid of teachers no matter the reason, using accusations of verbal abuse and corporal punishment, for which the language in the Chancellor’s Regulations is very broad. These allegations are reported to the Office of Special Investigations, whose work is shoddy by reputation and by experience. If the principal does her or his work well, then the allegations are investigated and substantiated and the teacher is removed.

A principal friend told me in confidence that she had visits from the ATU, and that they asked her: “Do you have any teachers you want to move along? We can help you do it. “ The Department of Education’s website states:   “The Administrative Trials Unit is responsible for the prosecution of disciplinary cases. ATU is available for trainings and advice on how to discipline a tenured employee…”

Where is the room for humane dialogue between the administrator and the teacher, beyond the power dynamics? The Chancellor’s regulations make it clear that anyone may accuse a teacher of corporal punishment, but where is the teacher’s avenue of protection before the slow churn of 14 months of exile?

In my case, I was struck that there was no forum for me to tell my story except to the investigator –and I was advised not to. Why not?  I was told, “The investigator takes your story, twists it and makes you sound guilty. It is a set up.”  This was shocking to me as it cut off my only immediate way to refute the allegations, to correct the misconstruction. I would not have another chance until almost a year later.

What would a system look like that is more humane and ethical? How could I have had the chance to tell my story in a low-stakes way that could rectify a misconstruction, save children the sudden loss of their teacher, and undoubtedly preserve public resources, as well as sparing me a 14-month ordeal? I recognize that there is a wide range of circumstances, ranging from a principal using judicial charges for administrative purposes to cases of genuine malfeasance. But whatever the technical details, we need a shift toward a restorative justice approach wherever possible. Just as schools are offering restorative justice structures for students to correct the long-standing patterns of over-punishment, so accused teachers could enter a restorative process to maintain the fabric of their community to the greatest extent possible, until the community decides otherwise.

Restorative Justice is not a cure-all for handling allegations about teachers, but it is a move towards ethical rendering of justice and supporting community. RJ does not automatically answer the questions of how to deal with bad, mean or rotten teachers. An educational system still needs ethical systems of evaluation to ensure its professionals are keeping their promise to take educational care of students. There must be an investigative process that people can trust.

And a better system than the current one is possible, and it will be up to us as educators to fight for it and to create it.

Catlin Preston: A graduate of The Art of Teaching Program at Sarah Lawrence College, Catlin has worked in progressive charter and district schools in NY and NJ for 15 years. He currently teaches 4th and 5th grades at The Neighborhood School on the Lower East Side.