Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Inspiring Rikers Teacher Runs Afoul of Jail's Rules


Published: January 25, 2006, The New York TImes

JEFF KAUFMAN, a teacher at the Rikers Island jail, has a reputation as a good educator who cares about his student inmates. In 2004, without the aid of computers, his students finished first in a citywide stock market game competition against more than 50 high schools.

Jeff Kaufman taught at Island Academy, the Rikers Island jail school, for eight years. After a complaint from the principal, he was removed from Rikers and reassigned despite praise from peers and inmates.

Elizabeth Lesher, who oversees the competition, said that at most schools, "students gather around computers, research stocks via Web sites such as Yahoo Finance, Market Watch or Nasdaq and enter their transactions online."

"The classroom environment at Rikers was very sparse," said Ms. Lesher, a director for the Foundation for Investor Education. "No attractive bulletin boards, no computers with Internet access and no industry specialists visited the classroom to provide investment ideas." Mr. Kaufman's students relied on the newspaper and his class lessons. That, she said, "speaks volumes about the teacher. Obviously I was very impressed."

In 2003, Mr. Kaufman's students won a citywide playwriting competition. In 2000 and 2001, he arranged for the student chorus at Louis Armstrong Middle School in Queens to visit Rikers at Christmas and perform for his students.

Don Murphy, a fellow teacher, said Mr. Kaufman became so popular during his eight years at the jail that in 2004 he was unopposed in the election for union representative at Island Academy, the Rikers school, which serves about 1,000 teenage inmates.

David Lee, an inmate serving time for assault, who earned a General Educational Development diploma with one of the highest scores ever at Rikers, said no teacher worked harder. Mr. Kaufman made special arrangements for Mr. Lee to take college correspondence courses, spent his lunch hours tutoring him and then proctored each of the three-hour exams from Excelsior College.

In July 2003, Mr. Kaufman was off for the summer, but made special trips to Rikers so Mr. Lee could take his next college exam. "All the teachers were on vacation and school didn't begin until September," Mr. Lee wrote in a letter sent to this reporter from Rikers. "But Kaufman comes here to Rikers not once, but twice just so that he could give me the test on a hot summer day. He didn't have to come; he could have stayed home with his wife and kids."

"Mr. Kaufman wasn't only a teacher or test proctor," said Mr. Lee. "He inspired me to aim higher in life."

But on Friday, Mr. Kaufman received notice from his principal that he was no longer permitted to teach at Rikers.

His crime? "Undue familiarity."

Mr. Kaufman had given Mr. Lee his home address so the two could correspond by mail and try to arrange for Mr. Lee to take another of those Excelsior College exams while the inmate was in solitary confinement in the summer of 2004.

There is no allegation of anything improper about the content of those letters. Copies of 20 letters provided to a reporter by Mr. Kaufman and Mr. Lee mainly talked about learning. In one, the inmate thanked the teacher for sending books to him in solitary ("the Bing") and wrote that he was spending so much time reading, up to 12 hours a day, that he was getting headaches. "I don't mind being here at the Bing but I want to be able to take the test," wrote Mr. Lee.

Mr. Kaufman wrote back urging patience, saying that he was trying to work out arrangements with correction officials. "If your head begins to hurt from reading, stop. Your body is telling you it's enough."

How did school and correction officials know that Mr. Kaufman had given out his home address? Mr. Kaufman told them.

On Sept. 12, 2005, the Rikers principal, Frank Dody, sent out a security memo, in which he spelled out in writing, for the first time, what was meant by the prohibition against undue familiarity: "All contact with current/former students outside of the school area (home, upstate facilities) in the form of letters or phone calls must be authorized by the principal."

Mr. Kaufman read the memo, requested authorization and showed the principal a recent letter from Mr. Lee. Within days Mr. Kaufman was yanked from Rikers and placed in a holding room in Brooklyn for teachers under investigation.

Mr. Kaufman says he thinks the real reason he was investigated was that he had testified at a City Council hearing in December 2004 about how bad the Rikers school's services were for inmates being released. "That really upset Frank Dody," Mr. Kaufman says. "He wouldn't talk to me for months. He's using this incident to get me."

Mr. Dody said he was upset, but that's not why there was an investigation. He said that even though he had been principal six years and had only recently spelled out the rules in writing, anyone who had been at Rikers as long as Mr. Kaufman knew you weren't supposed to give out your address. "Teachers here have to live by the corrections rules," Mr. Dody said. "While the rules don't always make sense, even to me, they're in place for a reason, to keep everyone safe."

Mr. Dody acknowledged that the letter Mr. Kaufman showed him had nothing compromising in it. "From my reading of it, I didn't really see anything of any nature that would raise my eyebrows," Mr. Dody said.

Thomas Antenten, a corrections spokesman, said that once the principal made the decision to refer the case, officials had to investigate. "We take undue familiarity very seriously," he said. "Giving an inmate a personal address could lead to deadly consequences."

Inmates like Mr. Lee say Rikers has lost a rare, good teacher. "It was a wrong decision to demote Kaufman," Mr. Lee said. "I'm the one who initiated contact in order to see what options I had in seeking a better education."

David Lee was a 16-year-old junior with a B+ average at Francis Lewis High in Queens in January 2002. He says he got mixed up with the wrong people, and was at a Flushing apartment when a fight broke out and a man was stabbed to death. Mr. Lee pleaded guilty to first-degree assault in return for an eight-year sentence and is being held at Rikers pending the trial of a co-defendant charged with murder.

Within four months at Rikers, Mr. Lee took the G.E.D. In the middle of the test, he says, a brawl broke out and someone threw a chair at him, bruising a rib. Still, he comes from a family of good students, and even bruised, he finished with a top score. His younger sister, Sonia, is an A student in her sophomore year at George Washington University, and travels from Washington every other week to visit her brother in jail, bringing books he requests.

At the Rikers school, Mr. Lee became a favorite. He showed Mr. Murphy, the computer teacher, how to use several desktop publishing programs. He was given a job doing janitorial work. With Mr. Kaufman's help, he took three college business courses and got A's. Neither he nor Mr. Kaufman knew what material was going to be on the tests and which chapters to focus on, so Mr. Lee read everything. "I would read 450, 500 pages of a textbook from cover to cover three to four times so I would truly understand," he said.

AS Mr. Lee was about to take his fourth college exam, in May 2004, he was caught with 17 packs of Newports. Smoking was banned at Rikers in 2003; cigarettes are considered contraband. Mr. Lee said he was offered a "slap on the wrist" if he'd give up his supplier but did not. For each pack of Newports, he was given 15 days in solitary, 9 months altogether in a 6-by-9-foot cell.

Mr. Antenten, the corrections spokesman, said he did not know the details of the case but added that Rikers makes no distinction between cigarettes and heroin when it comes to contraband. "It can lead to disputes between inmates that have bloody consequences," he said.

Mr. Lee said the teacher's letters helped keep him sane those nine months. "Not only did Kaufman help me pursue educational studies, but he offered moral support through the letters," he said.
The illegal letters sent to Mr. Kaufman's home are often quite moving. A July 28, 2004, letter begins with Mr. Lee thanking the teacher for the latest package of books. "You want to know what's funny," wrote Mr. Lee. "Before I was incarcerated, I never used to really read. I could honestly tell you that I read less than 10 books during my life outside and it was during my elementary school years. I wouldn't even bother to look at the cover of a book if I came across one.

"Now that I'm incarcerated, I treasure them. I'm not just talking about novels which enhance your vocabulary and reading comprehension but also self-help books. What I like about self-help books is that from reading just one significant quote which catches your eye, it could change your whole perception of life itself. From reading books you tap into the most brilliant minds of the present and past. In here they're like my most trusted friends."

At times, in the letters, Mr. Kaufman sounds like a stern father. Referring to the cigarette infraction that got Mr. Lee removed from the school and landed him in the Bing, Mr. Kaufman wrote, "We were all upset at your sudden leaving, but we have talked about consequences."

Mr. Kaufman, 50, said his background - he is a Cornell grad, a former police officer and lawyer for the indigent - makes him well-suited for teaching inmates. He will appeal the decision. "It's a place I feel I can be of most use to my students," he said.

In December, after spending more than two months in the Brooklyn holding room, Mr. Kaufman was sent to Queens Academy, where he is mentoring three new teachers. An Education Department spokesman, David Cantor, said Mr. Kaufman would soon be given a job teaching at an alternative high school.

Mr. Dody, the principal, said Mr. Kaufman's removal was solely a Correction Department decision.
But a November 2005 memo by the department's investigator, Capt. Matthew Boyd, indicates that the principal had a significant role. "Dr. Dody reports that he has determined that Mr. Kaufman's actions violate undue familiarity and I concur," the memo says.

Mr. Dody says he's not a doctor and the corrections memo is wrong.

Mr. Lee's younger sister, Sonia, wrote about his jail experiences in a term paper at George Washington that won a top a prize and was featured at a student lecture series. The paper includes the hardships her brother knew growing up, including the suicide of their mother, who suffered from manic depression. Sonia Lee plans to get a master's degree in public policy specializing in the prison system. Her prize paper calls for prisons that devote more resources to rehabilitation and education.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Delegate Assembly Misses Opportunity to Stop Improper Money Grab

The UFT continued to try to cover-up the circumstances surrounding their recent staff pay raise by declining to review the action and then “correcting the inaccuracies” that were leveled against them at the Delegate Assembly Wednesday night. For the most part delegates were very surprised that the leaders of our Union increased their own salaries without even mentioning it to the Delegate Assembly.

A motion to rescind the improper and unapproved action was made and did not receive enough votes to place it on the agenda. Feeling that the motion raised accusations that needed to be explained to the delegates, Staff Director Michael Mendel told the body, indignantly that there were several inaccuracies. It was clear that the staff was paid the increase before proper Executive Board approval was obtained. It was also clear that our leadership does not care how it spends our dues so long as it helps line their own pockets.

Randi, herself admitted to flagrantly violating Roberts’ Rules at least two times at the Delegate Assembly. It does not bother her or the other beneficiaries of our hard earned dues to violate our rules and Union constitution at least when it comes to these raises.

Do our leaders need salary increases? Should they be rewarded for increasing our dues, getting a weaker contract that we had and failing miserably in leading our school system away from the corporate mentality that is making teaching more like factory piece work every day.

Many of the recipients of the raise have already received their DOE salary raises. Are they working in the UFT subsidized cafeteria? Are they performing any extra duties that we are required to in order to obtain an increase in our salary?

Since we were unable to properly discuss the merits (or negatives) of a salary increase for our hardworking leaders I put it out to all of you.

Should our leadership get a 15% raise? If you answered yes, then, please provide some suggestions on the increase duties they should be required to do in order to obtain their increases.

If you answered that they should not get a raise please provide some suggestions on what they should do to get a raise.

We will endeavor to bring your suggestions to the next Executive Board meeting. I don’t know if we will be allowed to speak but we will bring your suggestions anyway.

Monday, January 09, 2006

UFT Leaders Play Take the Money and Run!

Unity Can't Wait so They Violate their Own Rules with Stealth Vote to Give Themselves a Pay Raise

By James Eterno

UFT Executive Board (Jamaica High School)

On December 19, 2005 the UFT leadership decided to have a secret vote so they could decree themselves a pay raise. UFT President Randi Weingarten would not allow any discussion by opponents of the salary increases. Weingarten went so far as to change the way that resolutions are voted on at the Executive Board exclusively for her money grab so that the opposition would not know when it was time to speak in opposition to the salary increases or vote against them. At the next meeting of the Board, Randi tonight had the nerve to state that the pay raise was approved unanimously by the Executive Board. Truth be told the opposition unanimously opposed the pay raise for union leaders and we were never given an opportunity to express our views on the issue.

At the December 19, 2005 Executive Board, there was a resolution to increase the pay of the UFT staff (president, other officers, District Representatives, etc...) "in the same manner as those negotiated by the UFT represented school system employees." What this meant was for the first two years that were covered by our new contract UFT officers, other teachers and others who work at the union full time and part time would have their pay increased by 5.5% in the first two years of the four year and 1/3 year contract and then in the final two years there would be a salary increase only with some undefined productivity changes.

What that productivity will be was left undefined but you can bet that it won't be to patrol the UFT cafeteria or to have 37.5 minute small group sessions at the end of the day tutoring ten people. It should also be noted that the increases are not for the hard working people of the UFT who are covered by other union contracts that are negotiated separately (employees who answer phones full time, handle security, work for the welfare fund, etc.) This motion to increase Randi and company’s pay was passed by the officers (AdCom) on December 19, 2005 and was sent to the Executive Board for a vote with absolutely no advance notice at the meeting that evening.

Instead of allowing a vote on the issue which was scheduled to be debated on the revised agenda as a special order of business on December 19, President Weingarten brought the issue up in a very brief segment during routine items when the Executive Board approves Ad Com (officers' meeting) minutes. The way the Executive Board operates is that the parts of Ad Com minutes that are scheduled for Executive Board consideration are pulled after approval of the minutes and then dealt with later as part of the special orders of business. The salary increase was on the Executive Board agenda as a special order of business. Who needs to follow procedures when Unity people want their raises before the holidays?

Randi talked for a minute about the pay raise during the routine approval of the minutes and then we voted to accept the minutes as we always do, fully expecting that this issue was on the agenda for later in the meeting as it was scheduled to be. However, neither Randi nor Staff Director Michael Mendel who took over when Randi left, ever returned to the issue that night. We all thought since time ran out but the pay raise issue and another matter were not dealt with that it meant they would be brought up at the next meeting. Well, we were wrong.

Apparently, our leaders who already have six figure salaries and double pensions (one from the DOE and one from the UFT that we pay for) couldn't wait for their money. They decided to change the rules, not tell anyone and then take the money. Why let a little thing like a vote get in the way of a pay increase?

We informed Staff Director Mendel of how troubled we were that we never were able to vote on the pay raise issue in an email that we sent to him when we saw that the minutes of the December 19 Executive Board showed right in the midst of a bunch of resolutions that were voted on during the special orders of business that we voted for the pay raise. We raised more objections at the Executive Board Meeting tonight (January 9, 2006) and were given an opportunity to make a motion to reconsider the pay raise. How can we reconsider an issue that we never considered in the first place? The opposition members from the high schools voted unanimously against Staff Director Mendel's ruling that the issue had been voted upon. The overwhelming Unity majority that will gain from the pay raises of course supported Mendel. The opposition voted again to reject the minutes of the December 19, 2005 meeting as obviously flawed.

Unity leaders will use every trick in the book and even invent some new ones to get what they want for themselves. There desperately needs to be some accountability in this union or situations like this "Take the Money and Run" fiasco will continue and contracts for UFT members will continue to be sub-par.

Saturday, January 07, 2006



(Quotes from Randi's Dec 22, 2005 interview on New York 1 [not taken out of context for sure], the night the Transit Strike ended)

Davidson Goldman: But going back to Monday night when the transit workers were on the verge of a strike, did you ever say to him, "Hey Roger (Toussaint- TWU leader) don't do this; this is not a good idea; give it a few more days?
Randi Weingarten: Look, my conversations, both Brian (McLaughlin- President of the NYC Central Labor Council also on the program) and myself have spent a lot of time at the hotel, spent a lot of time talking to a lot of different people and we tried to play a constructive and also a supportive role.
Davidson Goldman: Did you support their (TWU) decision to strike?
Randi Weingarten: The issue here is the strike is over; the workers are back.  The workers had legitimate claims.  We have constantly said and I have constantly said that they needed fundamental fairness and that you need to have a process where workers can get to that.
(Later in the Interview)
Davidson Goldman: You run an 80,000 member union.
Randi Weingarten: 140
Davidson Goldman: 80,000 teachers and 60,000 non teachers.  140,000 members, plenty of resources, certainly more than the 34,000 member Transit Workers Union.  You've gone as we pointed out two and a half years most recently without a contract. Transit workers' decision to strike clearly could destroy the infrastructure at their union.  Courage or reckless?
Randi Weingarten: Look, I'm glad that the strike has been resolved.  I felt what Roger Toussaint did in the last couple of days...
Davidson Goldman: Was it courageous or reckless?
Randi Weingarten: yesterday's press conference was terrific and I totally and completely understand their frustration.  My members feel the same frustration.
Davidson Goldman: But your members didn't go on strike?  Do they not have the guts to do what transit workers did?
Randi Weingarten: My members are having the discussion right now about whether we take a no contract-no work philosophy, whether we go back to that.  But the point is this.  Every union is different.  Every way in which we go about bargaining is different... (blah, blah, blah, Randi goes on about how TWU has legitimate complaints concerning 16,000 disciplinary measures against 34,000 members)
Davidson Goldman: I should know by now Ms. Weingarten when you don't want to answer a question, I shouldn't necessarily try again.

Why wouldn't Randi acknowledge that the TWU was courageous to strike?

Does anyone think she could lead us in a strike or even give us a credible threat of a strike?