May 29 (Bloomberg) -- New York school employees accused of sexual misconduct with students could be fired even if hearing officers call for a lesser penalty under a law proposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The proposal would give the New York City schools chancellor or the local school district final say on the case’s facts and the appropriate discipline after arbitrators submit their decisions, the mayor said at a Manhattan news conference. Tenured employees would retain the right to file an appeal of a dismissal with the New York Supreme Court.
Current law forces school districts to abide by hearing officers’ rulings, including whether a teacher is fired and whether penalties should be imposed, the mayor said. As a result, the city has been prevented from terminating teachers in cases where its own independent investigator found instances of sexual misconduct, the mayor said.
“If a school employee is found to have engaged in sexual behavior or made sexual comments towards students, the chancellor should have the authority to decide on both the case and the penalty,” said Bloomberg, 70.
In March, after reviewing cases of employees previously found guilty of misconduct, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced he’d removed from classrooms eight educators -- four tenured teachers and four paraprofessionals -- whom he said had been “insufficiently disciplined” after “totally unacceptable” conduct with students. Walcott dismissed the aides and said he would try to fire the tenured teachers, too.
“This common-sense legislation takes the much-needed step of allowing us the final say on whether these adults should be entrusted with the care of our students,” Walcott, 60, said in prepared remarks for the news conference.
Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, said in an e-mail that the union’s contract “already includes the toughest penalty in the state -- automatic termination -- for any teacher found guilty of this offense.”
“This proposed legislation would allow the chancellor to unilaterally find an employee guilty of sexual misconduct even though an independent hearing officer who has weighed all the evidence has determined otherwise,” Mulgrew said. “Giving the chancellor -- who has previously said that an accusation is not the same thing as a finding of guilt -- the power to ignore the evidence and an arbitrator’s decision is not an answer.”
The 1.1 million-student New York City school system, the largest in the U.S., receives an average of 30 to 35 sexual misconduct allegations a year among its 75,000 teachers, said Lauren Passalacqua, a mayoral spokeswoman.
The proposed law, sponsored by state Senator Steve Saland, a Poughkeepsie Republican, has the support of the New York State School Boards Association and New York State Council of School Superintendents.
Current law prevented the city Department of Education from firing a teacher who “inappropriately touched a number of female students’ buttocks, breasts, waists, stomachs and necks,” the mayor’s office said in a news release.
“The hearing officer determined that the individual hugged one student and hugged and tickled another on her waist, dismissing or withdrawing all other charges,” the mayor’s statement said.
The officer imposed a 45-day paid suspension and permitted the teacher to return to the classroom. The Department of Education intends to file new charges based on other allegations, the news release said.
In a second case, city investigators found an “inappropriate relationship” in which a teacher took a 15-year-old student shopping and to the movies and engaged in telephone conversations and in gestures that were “physically affectionate.”
An arbitrator found “an overly personal, ill-advised and unprofessional relationship,” and fined the teacher $5,000, with permission to return to the classroom, the mayor’s news release said.
The administration cited a third case in which an individual allegedly told a 17-year-old student, “Baby, when you turn 18 years old, you could come to my home and we can have a real party,” and also showed a female student a sexual image on his telephone. The mayor’s office didn’t identify the teachers in the cases it cited in the news release.
After the Department of Education tried to fire the teacher, a hearing officer found that he did call the student “baby” and dismissed the other charges, imposing a $1,500 fine, the mayor’s office said.
“Current law does not adequately protect students from teachers who engage in acts of sexual misconduct,” said Timothy Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association.
The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
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