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Accused of misbehavior with students, but still teaching

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NEW YORK >> A health teacher at a high school in Manhattan, joking about life for homosexuals in prison, forced a male student to bend over a desk, lined up behind him to simulate a sex act, then quipped, according to investigators, “I’ll show you what’s gay.”

A high school science teacher in the Bronx who had already been warned about touching female students brushed his lower body against one student’s leg during a lab exercise, coming so close that she told investigators she could feel his genitals through his pants.

And a math teacher at a high school in the Bronx, investigators said, sent text messages to and called one of his female students nearly 50 times in a four-week period and, over the Christmas holidays, parked himself at the McDonald’s where she worked.

The New York City Education Department wanted to fire these teachers. But in these and 13 other cases in recent years in which teachers were accused of inappropriate behavior with students, the city was overruled by an arbitrator who, despite finding wrongdoing, opted for a milder penalty like a fine, suspension or formal reprimand.

As a result, 14 of those 16 teachers are still teaching and in contact with students, on either a daily or occasional basis. The other two were removed from their classrooms within the last month when fresh allegations of misbehavior surfaced against them, according to documents and information released this week under a Freedom of Information request.

The subject of teachers behaving inappropriately around their students has suddenly emerged as a pressing concern, given the arrests of at least seven school employees on sexual offenses involving students in the last three months, including one Tuesday of an assistant principal in the Bronx who was accused of groping two girls.

In two of those cases, the employees had a previous history of behaving improperly around students, but simply moved to another school and kept working. So in February, Dennis M. Walcott, the schools chancellor, ordered a review of all substantiated cases of misconduct by school employees. After the review, he fired four aides and began proceedings to fire four tenured teachers.

But as the 16 newly released cases show, they will not be easy decisions. As in many states, New York law grants tenured teachers the right to a hearing before an arbitrator before they can be fired.

“As I was reviewing these cases, I said, ‘Huh? How could this person go back to the classroom?”’ Walcott said in an interview Thursday. “It’s very frustrating. Definitely my hands are tied because the arbitrator made a ruling, because I would not have put these people back in the classroom.”

But to union officials, the right to an impartial hearing is sacrosanct, to protect teachers from losing their livelihoods because a principal or a student might have an ax to grind.

“To me, a person has a right to be heard, and the right to respond to whatever you’re accused of, and it’s got to be decided by someone other than you, the boss,” said James R. Sandner, who retired recently after a long career as a lawyer for New York State United Teachers. “If the person is punished in some fashion and now realizes that this is something they should not do, and they feel remorse, you ought to be able to get to a point of simply moving on.”

The 16 teachers, like the four Walcott is now trying to fire, were accused of a range of misbehavior that fell short of criminal prosecution. Some were accused of making a habit of physical contact that made students uncomfortable; some were accused of repeatedly emailing or sending text messages to students; and others were cited for a single incident or questionable interaction with a particular student.

A few admitted to much or all of what was alleged, but argued that ending their teaching careers was too harsh a punishment. Others denied all, saying the charges were fabricated or trumped up. The science teacher in the Bronx, for example, denied rubbing up against the student, and although the arbitrator ruled that although he most likely touched the girl, there was not enough proof that his genitals had made contact. He was suspended without pay for 45 days and ordered to take sensitivity training.

The department tried to fire Eric Chasanoff, who was accused in October 2006 of touching a female student at Jamaica High School, and on another day grabbing her elbow and telling her after handing back a test, “I’m so proud of you. If it wouldn’t get me in trouble, I would kiss you.” He had previously been warned after a 2002 incident in which he put his hands around a student’s waist.

Chasanoff contended that he touched the girl because she was shaking and nervous, not for any prurient purpose. The arbitrator agreed with him, but upheld the charge that Chasanoff had made the remark about kissing the girl. But he ruled that firing was too harsh, and fined Chasanoff $2,000.

“There’s two sides to every story,” said Chasanoff, who was out of the classroom for four and a half years while he fought the charges. He now teaches at Flushing High School. “Why you need independent arbitrators is you need due process. If every teacher was taken out of the classroom based on accusations, you would have no teachers left.”

Another teacher the city tried to fire, Tatek Ewart, an English teacher, was fined $5,000 after admitting to poor judgment when he gave romantic poems he wrote in Russian to a girl he was teaching at Brooklyn Tech. Since then, Ewart has been rotating through city schools as a substitute, while hoping to secure a full-time position teaching English again in one of them, he said in a brief interview.

“Of course, I’m looking for something that will have permanence,” Ewart said. “I’ve got a mortgage, a 5-year-old and another child on the way. This job is my livelihood.”

He said he had never been asked about his case in subsequent job interviews, and did not know if principals even knew about it. Walcott has since said that he would make sure that principals had access to more disciplinary records of teachers applying for positions at their schools.

“Principals should definitely know and be told if someone was recommended for termination for any misconduct of a sexual nature, whether the charges were founded or unfounded,” said Chiara Coletti, spokeswoman for the principals’ union, the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators. “Sometimes, the DOE has been careless about providing the information.”

Teachers convicted of crimes generally lose all job protections, and the city does succeed in firing teachers even when they have not been arrested. But sometimes it can take more than one try.

One Queens middle school teacher the department tried to fire was instead fined $10,000 and suspended for 90 days. The arbitrator, Paul S. Zonderman, found the teacher had gotten too involved with a student, sending her instant messages and telling her that if she were 18, he would marry her.

But he wrote that he had no doubt that the teacher was sufficiently distraught to have learned an important lesson. “I doubt that he will make the same mistakes twice,” Zonderman wrote.

In less than two years, the same teacher was accused of making seventh-grade girls uncomfortable by commenting on their appearance and getting too close to them physically. The hearing officer this time, Mary L. Crangle, was not so forgiving. On March 1, she said that he“has not learned from his prior experience,” and ruled that he could be fired.

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