Guilty until Proven Innocent: Reforming NYC Teacher Discipline

Clare Kelley, Nick Turner, and Raul Mendoza, Columbia University

By expediting investigations into teacher misconduct and providing alternative employment options for teachers under investigation, New York City could ensure that innocent teachers are not unduly penalized by the investigation process itself. New York City’s Department of Key Facts Education has chosen to address • The total cost of rubber rooms, including State Education Law 3020a by funding for suspended teachers’ salaries, placing teachers under disciplinary exceeds $25 million annually. This figure investigation in temporary does not include the cost of the investigareassignment centers. In these tions themselves. reassignment centers, or “rubber • Between 600 and 900 teachers occupy rooms,” teachers are forced to one of twelve rubber rooms at any given remain inactive while awaiting time, while each room has a suggested caverdicts of their cases. Rubber rooms pacity of only 26 people. are tightly packed and inadequately • Under New York City’s current reassignsupervised. Teachers have ment program, some teachers have spent described conditions as oppressive, up to 10 years in rubber rooms before a regimented, and unhappy. verdict has been reached. Furthermore, investigations are often slowly processed, with some cases lasting multiple years. Alternative employment opportunities should be offered to those being investigated and the period of investigation should be limited by State Education Law. History Since the 1930s, the Supreme Court has upheld the unconstitutionality of summarily dismissing tenured public employees who have not been found guilty of wrongdoing. Created as a means to satisfy both the Supreme Talking Points Court’s ruling and the demands • New York City’s teacher reassignment cenof unions, reassignment centers ters, commonly referred to as “rubber rooms,” unfairly subject teachers under disciplinary were considered a progressive compromise by the Department investigation to idleness and inactivity. of Education. After numerous • Rubber rooms are literal rooms in which small amendments, the policy teachers under investigation sit, with nothing has existed in its final form since to do, while earning their normal salaries. August 25, 1994. • Investigations of teacher misconduct often
last far too long, costing the Department of Education a great deal of money and keeping innocent teachers out of the classroom sometimes for over a year.

Analysis The purpose of reassignment centers is to provide teachers

under investigation with fair and just alternatives to being in the classroom. However, New York City’s current reassignment program fails to do so. Without work or any other activity, teachers sit idly in rubber rooms for seven hours each working day, contributing nothing to children’s education or the community atlarge. Common activities include listening to iPods, playing cards, and sleeping. As of 2007, personal items are not allowed to be kept overnight in rubber rooms, further limiting the range of activities permitted by the Department. Effects of spending time in rubber rooms have often been described as psychologically and emotionally damaging. According to one source, teachers “often report feelings of being deprived of their dignity and a sense of their self worth,” making it even more difficult for those found innocent to return to their classrooms with the same fervor and confidence they once had. Additionally, the reputations of teachers who return to their original workplaces have been severely tarnished. There have been many cases reported in which innocent teachers have been unfairly shunned by their peers. Lengthy investigations can also inhibit smooth transitions back to classrooms. Some cases have been known to last as long as ten years, displacing qualified teachers for far too long. Charges are sometimes trivial and should not require the reassignment of qualified teachers. Although serious offenses and crimes might require the displacement of those under investigation, cases of disciplinary misconduct as trivial as disagreements over curricula, or general incompetency should be handled in a far more appropriate and timely manner. Rubber rooms and the reassignment programs place a substantial financial burden on the Department of Education. Total costs have been estimated at $25 million annually, not including the costs for investigative procedures themselves. This figure becomes all the more significant when considering the loss of several hundred teachers still on full pay and the need for several hundred more to replace them. While it is legally and ethically necessary to pay full salaries to teachers under investigation, those salaries should pay for a productive use of teachers’ time. Next Steps Concern for the high cost and minimal benefits of New York City’s rubber rooms is beginning to surface, though further steps must be taken by the Department of Education to ensure that teachers under investigation are fairly treated. Two major changes should be made to the current policy. First, the Department’s Office of Special Investigations should look further into expediting the investigation process, as lengths of some current cases have been longer than teachers’ tenures in the first place. Second, alternative employment opportunities for these teachers could take the form of either administrative duties within the Department or community service projects in and around the five boroughs.
*A full list of sources is available upon request