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

Argyris says that she found a companion too. But it didn't dawn on her, she says, that a teacher accused of telling a student he was going to throw the boy from a window might not make the best boyfriend.

In January 2006, Argyris filed a restraining order after her rubber room boyfriend beat her up. Photographs show that the whites of her eyes were stained red with blood. Black and blue marks ran the circumference of her neck.

Meanwhile, she passed her sixth-month mark in the rubber room without charges, but that milestone didn't, as her contract promised, put her back in a classroom. Instead, the UFT told her to keep showing up. But that was becoming more difficult. She started attending less frequently. And then, in February, she finally received formal charges—for her rubber room absences.

photo illustration by Chad Griffith

Because of Argyris's numerous absences (65 over the 18-month period), the DOE told her it planned to dock nine months of her salary. If she didn't agree, she would be fired. Instead, she hired a private attorney who drew up another settlement. She agreed to pay $2,500 and stipulated that if she accumulated another 55 minutes in tardiness, she would be automatically terminated.

The UFT was unhappy that Argyris had signed a private settlement with the district, but it's common for teachers to seek such agreements after they spend months in reassignment. The rubber rooms, in other words, wear them down. (In such settlements, the district collected $310,000 in fines last year.)

Edward Wolf, a lawyer, has made a living for almost two decades defending teachers. He says settling can be dangerous, because the teacher's name will never be cleared. "You're leaving your client with a dirty reputation," he says. "The teacher's got a rap sheet now and it's easy just to bump him off."

But the alternative—waiting for the hearing process to conclude—is increasingly a crapshoot. Last year, 200 teachers were charged with wrongdoing, but only eight were exonerated. Wolf said that five years ago it was common to win several consecutive cases, but now wins are rarer.

After her settlement, Argyris was still stuck in a rubber room. In March 2006, the UFT filed a special complaint on her behalf, charging that principal Mitchell had created a harassing work environment which had led to Argyris being reassigned. An arbitrator ultimately ruled against Argyris, saying that Mitchell had not harassed her.

But during preparations for the grievance hearing, to everyone's surprise, it was found that principal Mitchell had written a letter about a year and a half earlier—in January 2005—rescinding her original allegations that Argyris had yanked a child's arm.

"There was a document exonerating her," UFT investigator Huart says. "I was flabbergasted that this document even existed."

After 18 months in purgatory, Argyris was suddenly released from the rubber room. The teacher was told she could immediately return to her old school, as if nothing had ever been wrong.

Stunned and emotionally spent, Argyris was overwhelmed.

Just thinking of returning to school after so long an absence made Argyris dizzy.

Garrett, the documentary filmmaker, says he's seen several teachers come out of rubber rooms and experience difficulty assimilating to classrooms. "The amount of time you're away from your school indicates something bad to your colleagues," he said. "But really it's the inefficiency of the system."

Argyris shuddered at the idea of being under the supervision of the same woman who accused her of wrongdoing in the first place. "Why would they send me back to the school with that woman?" asked Argyris. "It's like they were setting me up to fail."

The first few days, Argyris failed to show up, which she attributes to feelings of intense anxiety. When she finally came to school, she was offered a third grade class instead of kindergarten, the grade she'd always taught. Argyris asked the union to provide an aide to accompany her in the room; she wanted a witness so that she couldn't be accused of corporal punishment again. The aide was denied, as was a transfer to a kindergarten classroom. Mitchell says Argyris's return was a disaster. "She usually spent the day sleeping in the teachers' lounge or went out in the neighborhood. I was often asked by parents who was the person screaming into the phone or lying in the teachers' lounge." A doctor recommended medical leave for Argyris, but as her medical issues were being resolved, Argyris surpassed the 55-minute tardy stipulation in her settlement agreement. She was terminated a little more than one month after returning to her school.

Her case won't die, however. The UFT and DOE continue to battle over the original allegations made against her. The DOE seemed incensed that the Voice was interested in the Argyris matter; it sent over records of a nine-year-old accusation that Argyris had made racially insensitive remarks to a district employee. Argyris denies the allegation, and was never disciplined for the incident. Repeatedly, DOE officials warned the Voice not to write about any aspect of the Argyris case.

Many teachers don't return to school after the rubber room—some retire; one woman the Voice talked to vowed to go to private schools; one young man said that when he was cleared he hoped to get a job in another state; another young teacher gave up after a few months in the rubber room and took up nursing.

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