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"zero tolerance" in schools

How come people successfully get all up in arms about ridiculous punishments for students in schools (month-long suspensions for having aspirin in a backpack, that sort of thing), when due process is denied for a teacher as in this story from The New Yorker piece on "rubber rooms"?

Steve Ostrin, who was assigned to a Brooklyn Rubber Room fifty-three months ago, might be that innocent man whom the current process protects. In 2005, a student at Brooklyn Tech, an élite high school where Ostrin was an award-winning social-studies teacher, accused him of kissing her when the two were alone in a classroom. After her parents told the police, Ostrin was arrested and charged with endangering the welfare of a child. He denied the charge, insisting that he was only joking around with the student and that the principal, who didn’t like him, seized upon the incident to go after him. The tabloids ran headlines about the arrest, and found a student who claimed that a similar thing had happened to her years before, though she had not reported it to the police. But many of Ostrin’s students didn’t believe the allegations. They staged a rally in support of him at the courthouse where the trial was held. Eleven months later, he was acquitted.

Nevertheless, the city refused to allow him to return to class. “Sometimes if they are exonerated in the courts we still don’t put them back,” Cerf said, adding that he was not referring to Ostrin in particular. “Our standard is tighter than ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ What would parents think if we took the risk and let them back in a classroom?”
Where's the outrage here? Should there be outrage, or is the administration justified in leaving him in the "rubber room"? If they're justified in sending him into exile, should they be justified in firing him?

The article goes on to call this case "a distraction from the real issue," but I think it's instructive here. The rubber room is an end-run around protections provided for teachers. It takes away the substance of the protections, leaving them with only protection for their paycheck. It also gives them a terrible choice: stay on the payroll of the city, collecting a paycheck in exchange for hours of boredom and stagnation, or leave, admitting guilt, and having no expectation of ever getting to perform the job they love.

Ok, this is a gross assumption, but... at least some of the rubber roomers are in this boat, I'm willing to bet.

It's indisputable that New York's rubber room system is broken. It's schizophrenic in that it has due process for the paycheck, but not for the job...


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 27th, 2010 06:24 am (UTC)
I read the article and seem to have gotten a very different impression about it than you did. I do think that the case you cite is a distraction from the larger issue of removing incompetent teachers because Ostrin's was a misconduct case. I also don't see the Rubber Room as an end-run around protections for teachers, but an end-run around protections for students.

I grew up in NYC and saw a number of examples of incompetent, tenured teachers. Some people went for the job because they knew if they just got through a few years, they'd be set for life pretty much no matter what. Who wouldn't want that kind of security? I remember one teacher (luckily I was not in her class, but I encountered her) who was consistently drunk and had friends tell me about her falling asleep in the middle of class. And I attended one of the best high schools in the city. Having no effective recourse is just insane. Tenure after three years is, imho, insane.

Edited at 2010-01-27 06:26 am (UTC)
Jan. 27th, 2010 12:54 pm (UTC)
Well, sure, I generally do have outrage for people who are treated poorly. I don't know that everyone who is accused of misconduct is being treated poorly, but I'm willing to believe that many people are, and it does suck that there's this whole process to not have to deal with whether or not an accusation is true.

In the end, though, I have less outrage on behalf of grownups who kind of lose their jobs, than on behalf of students who kind of lose their ability to go to school, because I believe much more strongly in the right to go to school than the right to be employed.
Jan. 27th, 2010 02:05 pm (UTC)
a) We've all been students.

b) We were teenagers when students.

c) All teenagers feel unjustifiably unjustly wronged.

d) We sympathize directly with the plight of unjustly wronged students.

Beyond that, I have an at-will job. If I'm accused in that way, I don't have any due-process protection; ultimately, someone will make a judgement call and one of us will be out the door. He doesn't have to admit wrongdoing; he can quit and go elsewhere. He wouldn't provide that principal as a reference anyway, so what's the loss?

He's been there for four years. He could have spend those teaching in Uzbekistan or Iowa and by now returned to Civilization with glowing recommendations.

Lastly: insisting that he was only joking around with the student and that the principal, who didn’t like him, seized upon the incident? That doesn't present an innocent man. That presents someone who made a student uncomfortable enough to report an incident, and who had already alienated his boss. It may not be guilt, but it's sure not innocence.
Jan. 27th, 2010 02:24 pm (UTC)
Yeah, this approach doesn't work either. Back to the drawing board. Maybe I shouldn't expect a New Yorker article to provide any ammo against itself whatsoever.

The system *is* schizophrenic, though.

I wonder if four years is enough for the students in the system to have shown any improvement...

Edited at 2010-01-27 02:25 pm (UTC)
Jan. 27th, 2010 04:25 pm (UTC)
Were you a teacher once?
Jan. 27th, 2010 04:29 pm (UTC)
No. I did take a test once to get a provisional license, but got back into software instead.
Jan. 27th, 2010 02:40 pm (UTC)
Read Jodi Picoult's "Salem Falls".

Many teachers don't get the benefit of the rubber room at all, and have to leave, period.

Having a shadow cast upon you never goes away, even if you're cleared later on. People remember that YOU were the suspect, that there was something about YOU that made YOU suspicious.....even if you're cleared later, that's a burden that follows you.

In fact, the teacher did indeed get his "due process" but a school can decide not to hire someone based on almost anything (except race, nationality, gender, religion, etc). And the administration, *especially* of a private school, does have to consider things like "what would parents think if we took the risk and let [him] back into the classroom"?

Even though it says more of the student body than the teacher, that 2 people falsely accused him. Then again, maybe the 2nd accusation happened because of the first.

The rubber room at least sends the message to the teachers that the administration trusts them, even though the PTA doesn't.
Jan. 27th, 2010 03:44 pm (UTC)
Just from that snippet you posted, and without reading the other comments, I'm not convinced he's in the right. He says he was "just joking around" and I'm not sure what that means. Even though the courts say it wasn't criminal, I think poor judgement is a fine reason to demote somebody or transfer them to a different position.

(I mean, if I were rude to a customer or made them uncomfortable in some way that was inappropriate but non-criminal, I would expect there to be consequences for my career even if there were no criminal charges or none that stuck. Perhaps the full article explains why this isn't even poor judgement on his part?)
Jan. 27th, 2010 07:40 pm (UTC)
...having read the full article, I have no sympathy for any of the teachers mentioned in it. Perhaps that's because there are insufficient facts, but I'm dubious.
Jan. 27th, 2010 07:43 pm (UTC)
I had the same read of the article, but wonder about the author of the article as much as about the teachers mentioned.

Usually there are two sides to every story. This New Yorker article, and the other things I've read, make it seem like such a one-sided argument. And I am loathe to come to that kind of conclusion lightly.
Jan. 27th, 2010 04:22 pm (UTC)
Dude, if I kissed a co-worker in a just-joking-around manner and made her uncomfortable, I'd be out on my caboose within minutes.

And none of my co-workers are young enough to be my daughter.

Professional distance. Learn it. Love it.
Jan. 27th, 2010 05:07 pm (UTC)
In the outrageous zero-tolerance cases, a student is typically accused of doing something totally innocuous. It's not an issue of due process or any kind of uncertainty about the facts; it's about being punished without doing anything wrong.

In this case, there's uncertainty about the facts. There's a legitimate issue of due process in the face of that uncertainty, but it's not totally clear what the right answer is. Note that in employment-at-will scenarios, you can be terminated on suspicion of wrongdoing without a criminal conviction.
Jan. 27th, 2010 07:58 pm (UTC)
I wonder if there's a way to pair the good rubber-room teachers in with the bad tenured ones. Yes, you've two people in the classroom, but you are paying for them both anyway. The good teacher teaches, the bad one assures the PTA that neither teacher is abusing the kids.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )