In a series of decisions by several different Justices in New York Supreme Court four teachers have gained what our Union gave up; the right to have negative letters removed from our files. As we all may recall our Union leadership saw fit to give up our precious right to grieve letters in the file as well as a step in our grievance procedure in our sellout contract a few years back. We have seen a precipitous increase in letters to the file, U-rated observations and U-ratings. This was no coincidence.
What our leadership gave away, however, might be partially saved if you decide to file a lawsuit. Joyce Sticco and three other teachers at P.S. 345 in Brooklyn did just that…and won.
The facts of Sticco v. BOE, Supreme Court, New York County, Index 105477/2007, decided 11/28/07 are, unfortunately, all too familiar. In April 2006 Sticco was questioned by investigators from the Special Commissioner of Investigations’ office (Condon’s office) about allegations of inappropriate touching of female students by a fellow teacher, Gregory Michaelides. In his report Condon found that Michaelides had engaged in the conduct and that Sticco and three other teachers either witnessed or gave inconsistent or inappropriate statements about Michaelides’ alleged misconduct. Condon recommended that Michaelides be terminated and that Sticco and the other teachers receive “appropriate disciplinary action.”
The appropriate disciplinary action was a letter to each teachers’ file indicating that they had “show[ed] a willful disregard for the welfare of children” when they failed to report Michaelides’ misconduct. With no way to contest the finding or the letter the teachers started a proceeding in Supreme Court.
The Courts found that the teachers’ due process rights were violated. Under New York State Education Law tenured teachers are entitled to hearings whenever the DOE contemplates disciplinary action. This law, Section 3020-a has certain procedural safeguards to make certain teachers don’t get the treatment that the principal of P.S. 345 gave to Sticco and her colleagues. Disciplinary letters to the file which come after a principal’s conference and without due process protection must be expunged.
The Court found that there are two types of letters to the file; those that are disciplinary and those that are critical administrative evaluations. Ever since 1981 in the Matter of Holt the Court of Appeals has held that this distinction is critical in the determination of letters which violated teacher due process and those that did not. For the last 26 years the “Holt letter,” (ironically the principal in Sticco is named Wanda Holt but, it is believed, she has no relation to Jon Holt the disciplined teacher in 1981) as it became known allowed school administrators to place letters in teachers’ files that were evaluations. Thus observations and “instructive” letters were ok without a full hearing. However, letters which were disciplinary in nature must be taken out of teachers’ files.
At the Delegate Assembly last Wednesday Randi announced the Sticco victories but was less than enthusiastic about its implications or application to other teachers. At the Executive Board meeting last Monday a form entitled “Disciplinary Letters in the File” was distributed which recounted the 4 court cases and gave some guidance as to whether a letter was “disciplinary” and thus available to be removed by Court intervention. While the form indicates a procedure to evaluate whether particular letters are disciplinary, the form does not indicate where the letter should be sent for evaluation and possible Court action.
What’s going on? School administrators have been placing disciplinary letters in teachers’ files for years. Don’t you think our Union should at least try to make up for giving away our grievance rights with aggressively fighting these letters in Court and telling us how to do it?