Class Dismissed

Lousy teachers or just political victims: there's got to be a better way to settle teacher disputes than New York's rubber rooms

On a recent visit to 25 Chapel Street in Brooklyn, a Reassignment Center opened in 2005 and housing at least 100 occupants, a Voice reporter found teachers sitting on either side of a long room, just about wide enough for two Cadillacs to park side by side. The teachers looked sedated, like passengers after a cross-country flight, and the room was stuffy with a musty smell, as if the ventilation system hadn't been working right.

A food-delivery boy soon slipped through the door with a bag that smelled like greasy stir-fry. One woman wore a sweat suit, read a magazine, and had her feet up on a chair. Some were sleeping, their heads lulling against the wall, while others played chess and dominos or kept to themselves.

photo illustration by Chad Griffith

After a room supervisor discovered the intrusion, the reporter was forced out of the room into a hall, where several teachers were power-walking for exercise, but others soon gathered, anxious to speak about their experiences. "You can't use my name," one teacher said pleadingly. "There's a history of retribution. I have to pay my bills, pay for my child and for rent. This is the only job I've had my whole adult life and this is all happening before I'm proven guilty. We're all guilty, but did nothing wrong."

After about an hour, two suit-clad DOE employees arrived. "The head of human resources," one teacher murmured to the next. The crowd scattered. A few moments later, a guard came into the hall and asked the unapproved visitors to leave. When asked why, the guard just shrugged.

Most press mentions of the teachers exiled to the rubber room involve extreme cases that tend to inflame the tabloids. The Office of the Special Commissioner of Investigation (SCI), an independent body headed by Richard Condon and designed to investigate wrongdoings in the DOE, posts press releases of teachers found guilty on its website, where they make for tab fodder.

On March 7, the SCI made public the case of 30-year-old Marcia Amsterdam, who engaged in sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old boy from her school. In another widely reported case, a teacher's lewd e-mails to a 16-year-old student produced six years of litigation (during which the teacher received $300,000 in compensation).

But out of 592 SCI investigations completed in 2006, only 259 were substantiated. The majority of cases are investigated by the Office of Special Investigations (OSI), which is part of the DOE and handles misdemeanor cases like incompetence and corporal punishment. "Before I was there, I thought this place was filled with thieves and molesters," one teacher tells the Voice. "There are people with quirks, but we're not all bad."

Even though many inside are still awaiting decisions, the rubber room has become synonymous with guilt. Some teachers are too embarrassed to tell close family members about their reassignment. One teacher, who has been inside for more than six months, tells the Voice he's managed to keep the truth from his wife.

Teacher advocates say the investigation process wouldn't be so mentally damaging if it could only be handled more quickly. The Voice spoke to teachers who had been serving time in rubber rooms from two months to three years. The DOE says it can't produce an average length of stay, because the district only started keeping track in 2005. According to their contract, teachers must be formally charged within six months of being reassigned or be returned to the classroom. But being charged can then add many more months as a case slowly works its way through a complicated process.

"The length of the process depends on the complexity of allegations and case," DOE spokeswoman Melody Meyer says. "Some investigations take days, others take months."

There are currently only 18 hearing officers handling misconduct cases. Each officer is contracted to meet only five times a month. The backlog of cases is immense.

"We have been saying for years that we want these people out of these places much more quickly," UFT president Randi Weingarten says. "There is no reason for them to be sitting six months or longer without charges being filed."

Hearing officers are chosen jointly by the DOE and the UFT, but are paid for by the New York State Education Department. With New York City officers making up to $1,900 a day, it's a lucrative part-time job, which some critics say leads these officers to overly compromising opinions. "You make a lot of money," says Julia Cohen, a lawyer who specializes in education law. "You want to satisfy both sides."

By July 2005, Argyris still hadn't heard any decisions from the December grievance hearing and the names and faces of her students grew vague in her mind. She had been transferred to a Livingston Street rubber room where she said one man routinely ate crumbs off the floor and where she saw a woman attack a man with a cane.

The Livingston Street rubber room was soon closed and Argyris was transferred to the Chapel Street facility, where the teachers had formed tight cliques. A daily spectacle, she says, was a young couple who had met during their reassignment and had converted a corner of the room into a small love nest, complete with air mattress, sleeping bags, small fridge, and a portable DVD player.

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