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City Pushes for More Authority in Sexual Misconduct Cases

Tuesday, May 29, 2012 - 08:26 PM

The Bloomberg administration is seeking to change state law to give the chancellor, rather than an outside arbitrator, final say on whether a teacher may return to the classroom after he or she has been accused of sexual misconduct.

The move comes after several allegations this year of sexual abuse of students by school staff, which prompted the Education Department to review 240 cases of misconduct from previous years.

Of those cases, Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott said he disagreed with an arbitrator's ruling in about two dozen instances. He fired four of those employees and removed another four, all tenured teachers, from the classroom.

"I'm the one that has to go in front of the parents," he said. "I'm the one that has to interact with students on a regular basis, and it should be my responsibility, or a future chancellor's responsibility, to make that final decision."

Under the current education law, called 3020-a, tenured teachers who are accused of sexual misconduct have the right to an impartial hearing before an arbitrator. The Education Department and teachers' union jointly appoint the arbitrator in these cases, and the arbitrator has final say.

The city is seeking to change the law so that the schools chancellor would have the final authority. Teachers would still have the right to a hearing process, but the arbitrator would make only a recommended ruling to the chancellor.

If a teacher is fired, he or she would still have the right to appeal the case in State Supreme Court.

The teachers' union says that it has a zero-tolerance policy of sexual misconduct with children, and that their contract already allows for a guilty teacher to be automatically terminated. It's the ones for whom guilt is not clearly determined or who are falsely accused the union is worried about.

"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," Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, said in a statement.

State Senator Stephen M. Saland, a Republican from Poughkeepsie, will sponsor the bill in the Senate. With less than a month before the end of the legislative session, Mr. Saland did not indicate when the bill would be introduced.

The bill does not yet have a sponsor in the Assembly. Michael Whyland, a spokesman for the Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, said the Assembly made "significant changes" to the education law during the budget process to allow for cases of sexual misconduct to be resolved as expeditiously as possible.

"We'll review the bill to determine if any other revisions are necessary," he said.

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