Sunday, December 28, 2008
Teacher Kathy Blythe is Falsely Accused
Tales From the Rubber Room: Charge Has Teacher Dangling
By MEREDITH KOLODNER
'THEY ASSUME YOU'RE GUILTY': P.S. 147 Teacher Kathy Blythe says she has been falsely accused of roughing up a student, and as a result has been sitting in the Brooklyn 'rubber room' for the past two months.
When veteran Teacher Kathy Blythe escorted a 9-year-old girl to her seat after she tried to run out of her classroom at P.S. 147 in Brooklyn for the third time that day, she had no idea that just a few hours later police officers would be escorting her to a cell in the 90th Precinct.
Ms. Blythe has not yet been charged by the Department of Education, but she is accused of physically harming the child while preventing her from leaving the class Feb. 15.
The police investigated the accusations and released her without charges that same day. She has nonetheless spent most of her days in the DOE's Brooklyn temporary re-assignment center ever since.
'I Didn't Hurt Her'
"I did not harm that child," Ms. Blythe said on a warm March day after she and a union representative had been to a Manhattan office to answer questions as part of the DOE's investigation.
Principal Rafaela Espinal, who had recommended that Ms. Blythe be placed in the reassignment center, did not return phone calls requesting comment. Other school staff members said they had been instructed not to speak about the issue, although several of them said that they didn't believe the charges.
Ms. Blythe said that she was told that three other children in the class claimed that she was rough with the child when she restrained her from walking out of the room.
The little girl was not supposed to be in Ms. Blythe's class that day, since the school's support staff usually took her out for behavioral counseling. So when she began to act up in class, as the girl often did, Ms. Blythe called her parents to come to the school.
'Kept Me From Teaching'
STUCK IN THE 'RUBBER ROOM': Brooklyn's temporary re-assignment center holds more than 100 Teachers and administrators accused of violating Department of Education regulations or committing serious crimes. Some have been there for months and are still awaiting formal charges.
"I couldn't teach the rest of the class with her constantly getting out of her seat," said Ms. Blythe, who had never before been accused of harming a student.
The girl's father arrived and talked to her alone in the hallway twice during that Thursday morning class after Ms. Blythe had blocked her from leaving the class, according to the Teacher. It wasn't until the 22-year veteran Teacher was called out of her final period class, and saw several police officers standing in the hallway, that she was aware that there was a bigger problem.
Ms. Blythe had gone to the Assistant Principal's office earlier that day to talk about how to deal with the little girl's habit of running out of class, and she said the girl's mother had become enraged with her, to the point that a School Safety Agent was called to help Ms. Blythe get away from the parent and out of the office.
But just an hour or so later, it was she was walked into a police van, where she was handcuffed. It wasn't until she was being questioned at the precinct, with one cuff attached to a pole, that she learned that the little girl had alleged that Ms. Blythe had ripped the buttons on her shirt and scratched her while preventing her from running out the classroom door.
"I was taken out of my school by police officers with everyone watching," said Ms. Blythe. "It was horrible."
Job At Stake
The Office of Special Investigations will eventually determine whether or not there is sufficient evidence to charge Ms. Blythe with corporal punishment. If they do not, she will be allowed to return to her school. If they bring charges and find her guilty, she could lose her job and her teaching license.
The legal process when Teachers are accused of hurting students is often a long and arduous one.
Most educators accused of corporal punishment are not placed in re-assignment centers, or "rubber rooms" as they are commonly called, and most are found innocent.
The school Principal or administrator must believe that a school employee could put a child in danger for the employee to be re-assigned while awaiting charges, unless that person has serious criminal charges pending, such as a drug-related arrest.
Teachers like Ms. Blythe who are accused of violating a DOE regulation must have charges brought against them within six months. Others who have criminal charges pending can sit in the rubber room longer, sometimes for years. Teachers in the re-assignment centers are technically considered innocent until proven guilty, and therefore receive full pay and benefits while their cases play out.
A Grim Tableau
There is a rubber room in every borough, and on a late-March morning, the one in downtown Brooklyn was filled with more than 100 Teachers and administrators of every age and race. The window shades were pulled down in the long hallway of a room; fluorescent bulbs overhead brightened it. The backless benches that lined the tables held Teachers who were napping, working on personal laptops, and debating the latest developments in the Sean Bell police shooting case.
An Assistant Principal with 28 years in the system sat at one table. A few tables over, six Teachers from Automotive High School tried to occupy their time. Some said they missed the company of a Teacher who had been recently released with no charges after spending 26 months at the center.
"It's just depressing in here," said Ms. Blythe. "The good ones, we just want to get back to our schools."
A security guard sat at a desk near the front door where inhabitants punch their time cards, staying from 8:00 a.m. until 2:50 p.m. or 8:30 a.m. until 3:20 p.m. A DOE employee supervises the room, which is open the same days that school is in session.
Banished to Limbo
Most of the instructors say the experience is demoralizing and humiliating. "We are expendable," said a woman who has been a Social Worker for 27 years and has been in the Brooklyn center for about two months. "Once you go in, they forget about you."
Some educators said they felt as though the union had forgotten about them as well. Last month long-time Teacher Hipolito Colon asked the United Federation of Teachers to recognize the centers as separate chapters of the union in an effort to get more assistance.
The UFT's long-held position is that Teachers should be processed as quickly as possible.
One Teacher, who has been in the center since the fall of 2004 and began teaching special education in 1985, said he was going to retire in June. "It sucks," he said. "A lawyer told me I'm going to be fired, so I'm giving up." It is his third time in the rubber room, and he has spent 7-1/2 years out of the past decade there. In the late 1990s, he was sent to a re-assignment center on an accusation of corporal punishment.
Targeted by Principal?
Angry at what he sees as an endless series of injustices, he said his last tenure in the classroom came after a senior transfer to P.S. 131 in Brooklyn. He amassed 26 letters in his file in 14 months. He believes the Principal was out to get him from the time he arrived at the school.
A special education Teacher in the Brooklyn facility was there for the first time after 20 years of teaching. He was accused of a security breach for losing track of a student after classes with about 100 students were dismissed and the school's first-floor hallway became chaotic.
He said he didn't see one student run through a gate that had been left open. As a result, the child was left unsupervised in the playground. "We get punished for things that are not our fault," he said, "If I'm having difficulty, I need support, and it's a management issue as much as anything else." He said in his case, a new Principal sided with an Assistant Principal who had been looking to fire him.
A woman standing next to him wore a head band with bunny ears that stood up. When asked about her unusual choice of headwear, she said, "Why not? It's all a farce, everything that happens in here."
Ms. Blythe said she hoped her case would be cleared quickly, but she was worried that the process would get bogged down. "Sometimes it seems like people assume that because you're in here, you must be guilty," she said. "But I'm going to keep fighting it. They're not going to get rid of me like this."