By resisting almost any change aimed at improving our public schools, teachers unions have become a ripe target for reformers across the ideological spectrum. Even Hollywood, famously sympathetic to organized labor, has turned on unions with the documentary "Waiting for 'Superman'" (2010) and a feature film, "Won't Back Down," to be released later this year. But perhaps most damaging to the unions' credibility is their position on sexual misconduct involving teachers and students in New York schools, which is even causing union members to begin to lose faith.
In the last five years in New York City, 97 tenured teachers or school employees have been charged by the Department of Education with sexual misconduct. Among the charges substantiated by the city's special commissioner of investigation—that is, found to have sufficient merit that an arbitrator's full examination was justified—in the 2011-12 school year:
• An assistant principal at a Brooklyn high school made explicit sexual remarks to three different girls, including asking one of them if she would perform oral sex on him.
• A teacher in Queens had a sexual relationship with a 13-year old girl and sent her inappropriate messages through email and Facebook.
If this kind of behavior were happening in any adult workplace in America, there would be zero tolerance. Yet our public school children are defenseless.
Here's why. Under current New York law, an accusation is first vetted by an independent investigator. (In New York City, that's the special commissioner of investigation; elsewhere in the state, it can be an independent law firm or the local school superintendent.) Then the case goes before an employment arbitrator. The local teachers union and school district together choose the arbitrators, who in turn are paid up to $1,400 per day. And therein lies the problem.
For many arbitrators, their livelihood depends on pleasing the unions (whether the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, or other local unions). And the unions—believing that they are helping the cause of teachers by being weak on sexual predators—prefer suspensions and fines, and not dismissal, for teachers charged with inappropriate sexual conduct. The effects of this policy are mounting.
One example: An arbitrator in 2007 found that teacher Alexis Grullon had victimized young girls with repeated hugging, "incidental though not accidental contact with one student's breast" and "sexually suggestive remarks." The teacher had denied all these charges. In the end the arbitrator found him "unrepentant," yet punished him with only a six-month suspension.
Another example from 2007: Teacher William Scharbach was found to have inappropriately touched and held young boys. "Respondent's actions at best give the appearance of impropriety and at worst suggest pedophilia," wrote the arbitrator—before giving the teacher only a reprimand. The teacher didn't deny the touching but denied that it was inappropriate.
Then there was teacher Steven Ostrin, who in 2010 was found to have asked a young girl to give him a striptease, harassed students by text, and engaged in sexual banter. The arbitrator in his case concluded that since the teacher hadn't actually solicited sex from students, the charges—all of which the teacher denied—warranted only a suspension.
Michael Loeb, a middle school teacher in the Bronx and UFT member, calls this a "horrible situation," telling me "if you keep these people in the classroom, you are demeaning our profession."
Parents I spoke with described their tremendous fear about what is happening in the classroom. Maria Elena Rivera says her 14-year-old daughter was stalked by one of her Brooklyn high school teachers (who resigned from his position before the Department of Education decided whether to send the case to arbitration). Today her daughter is in counseling, says Ms. Rivera, and doesn't trust anyone: "It so messed her up. I can't protect her."
Local media have begun to get the word out, yet the stories come and go with trifling consequences or accountability. New York City's schools chancellor and districts statewide must have the power to fire sexual predators—and the final say cannot be that of an arbitrator with incentives to lessen the punishment.
Fortunately, state Sen. Stephen Saland has proposed legislation in Albany to do just this, removing arbitrators' final say while still giving teachers due process and the opportunity to appeal terminations in court. But the buck would stop with those officials in charge of our schools and tasked with protecting our kids: the chancellor in New York City, and school districts elsewhere in the state.
Mr. Saland's initiative has little chance of success without union support—which is hardly assured. "I don't understand how they think this could be a gray area," says Natalie Harrington, who teaches English at New Day Academy in the Bronx. "I worry that if the union goes to bat [against] this, it makes it seem like they will do anything to keep anyone in the classroom."
Michael Loeb still supports his union but says it "treats teachers like interchangeable widgets"—defending all teachers no matter what they have done.
The union has reached a moment of truth. With responsible legislation on the table, the right course of action is obvious. At stake is the safety of kids, the reputation of the unions, and the standing of every good and responsible teacher throughout the state.