Sunday, October 6, 2013

Teacher discipline, "Rubber Rooms" and judicial review

The New York City Board of Education has filed suit against the United Federation of Teachers, alleging that the Union has failed to implement an agreement to increase the number of arbitrators available to hear disputes involving claims of teacher misconduct or incompetence. A copy of the complaint can be found here. The issue arises from an April 2010 agreement between the Board and the UFT designed to expedite the process for arbitral review of such cases and eliminate the infamous "rubber rooms" to which teachers awaiting hearings were assigned. The Board claims that the Union has refused to agree to sufficient new arbitrators and has refused to follow the alternate process for selection of arbitrators when no agreement can be reached.

Two recent cases address issues of discipline for teacher conduct and competence and the scope of judicial review of those decisions.

 The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court has recently denied leave to appeal further the denial of an effort to overturn an award of Arbitrator Robert Grey upholding the termination of a New York City teacher. The dispute involved ten specifications (many with subparts) against the teacher. Among the allegation were "neglect of duty, failure to follow procedures and carry out normal duties, insubordination, and incompetent and inefficient service."

After hearing the evidence, Arbitrator Grey dismissed a number of the specifications. However he ultimately found merit to several others and upheld the termination. He concluded that the teacher "was unable to provide a valid educational experience for the students assigned to her classroom"  and that her "classrooms bordered on anarchy and had an unwarranted and unacceptable potential for danger that no student should be required to endure...." .The teacher sought to vacate the arbitrator's award, claiming that the process was biased, that  had been denied due process, that the decision was arbitrary and that the penalty was "shocking to the conscience"

The Supreme Court (the state's trial level court) rejected all of these claims. The court found neither  bias nor the appearance of bias and noted that the record showed the arbitrator "dismissed some of the specifications against [the teacher] because the conduct charged by school officials either did not rise to the level of the specification alleged, or  respondent had not met its burden of establishing [the teacher's] guilt of that charge. The remaining specifications that were not dismissed are well documented in that many of the exhibits that petitioner herself has provided in support of her petition." Among the specifications dismissed were allegations that the teacher had not provided "bell to bell" instruction and an allegation that she had :threatened to pass gas if students continued to converse in class. Supported, however, were allegations that she had failed to effectively manage and control her classroom, failed to maintain a "late log" and what Arbitrator Grey described as the teacher's "repeated failure to implement advice, counsel, instruction and recommendations..." concerning lesson planning , classroom instruction and classroom management.
Arbitrator Grey also rejected the teachers claim of disparate treatment

The court upheld Arbitrator Grey's award, concluding:

     The determination to terminate petitioner from employment is firmly supported by the extensive documentation of her incompetence. Therefore, the penalty imposed does not shock the conscience or one's sense of fairness.
     In view of the forgoing, respondent has met its burden of showing that petitioner does not demonstrate any statutory basis for vacating or modyfyibg the ward, and therefore, failed to state a cause of action. ... Furthermore, respondent has shown the hearing officer's award has a rational basis. Having failed to state a cause of action, respondent's cross motion for the dismissal of the petition is granted.

 The Supreme Court's opinion can be found here. The Appellate Division opinions affirming the decision and denying leave to appeal can be found here and here (p.64).

In contrast, a Supreme Court judge has overturned an award of Arbitrator Alan Berg upholding the termination of a teacher who was found in possession of 20 glassine bags of heroin as he was reporting for jury duty. Arbitrator Berg concluded that the teacher had subjected himself and the Department of Education to widespread ridicule, "compromising his ability to retain the respect of students and thereby throwing away his ability to be an effective teacher...." He noted that the teacher's conduct left the DOE with no way to know if the teacher had brought the same drugs to school.

Judge Manuel Mendez overturned the arbitrator's award, concluding:

Petitioner herein … was charged with Criminal Possession of a Controlled substance in the Seventh Degree 9a Misdemeanor),  and immediately at arraignment was given an Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal. After six months the charges were dismissed and the record sealed. The arrest was not for conduct at the school site or involving any of its students. There is no evidence that he as a criminal record, had been arrested before or since this one incident. There is no evidence that this one arrest or the publicity it generated has impaired his ability to reach, or that he has lost the respect of his students, or can be perceived by his students as a responsible adult to whom they pay attention. Petitioner has admitted he has a substance abuse problem; the arrest is a manifestation of that problem; he is receiving treatment for that problem and is progressing in his treatment. Under these facts, termination of employment is unduly harsh, an abuse of discretion and shocking to this court’s sense of fairness.

Judge Mendez's opinion can be found here.

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