Investigations into teacher misconduct can take more than a year

The Baltimore Sun

While Baltimore County officials were deciding whether Michael Williams was fit to continue teaching, he was assigned to a dusty, windowless room at a Pulaski Highway warehouse that held old textbooks, surplus computers and other materials. He, along with a dozen or so employees, sat at a long table reading detective novels and playing Trivial Pursuit.

Sometimes they would fall asleep until supervisors, watching from a security camera, came in to wake them up.

Williams, who had been accused of touching a girl on the cheek with a yardstick, was paid his full salary plus benefits for more than a year to show up at the warehouse when school was in session. At his school, Woodlawn Middle, a substitute was hired to teach his class.

"The county doesn't move on anything quickly. They let people sit there and rot," said Williams, who denies having touched the girl. He made $67,000 a year as a teacher.

Every year, hundreds of school system employees are immediately escorted out of Baltimore-area schools when they are accused of misconduct and are told they can't return to the school until an investigation is completed. Those investigations can take more than a year to be concluded, and in the meantime taxpayers pay the bill for both their salaries and the substitute teachers'.

That problem is not uncommon, particularly in urban school systems and in states with strong teacher unions, said Dan Weisberg, executive vice president of the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit that works on educational equality issues.

"Some of these cases take longer than capital murder cases," said Weisberg, who was previously a labor relations attorney for the New York City school system. He believes it is important to give teachers an opportunity to argue their case to someone other than the principal who may have accused them, but says school systems should limit the time for reaching a decision.

School officials say they too want to reduce how long the investigations can take but point out that the process can be delayed by investigations involving police and other agencies and the right of teachers to appeal.

In Baltimore County, the largest school system in the region, 230 employees from a workforce of about 18,000 were accused of inappropriate actions in the past year, more than any other area school system.

Baltimore City schools said they had 79 cases in 2014 and 67 the year before. Anne Arundel County reported 45 last year. Howard County currently has fewer than five teachers out on administrative leave, but did not give figures for the whole year. Carroll County said it does between five and 10 investigations a year and each investigation takes no more than two weeks. Harford County declined to provide data.

School officials around the region either said they haven't computed how much is spent on these cases, or did not provide the information. Most also would not provide an average length of time employees spend on administrative leave while their cases are investigated.

Some teachers are sent to work in administrative offices, answering the phone or filing, but nearly every county also has a warehouse where employees are sent when no other assignments are available.

Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties use their logistics warehouses; Harford County has used its library distribution center. In the city, some principals who have been accused of misconduct are sent to the Combined Charities Campaign, a charitable program, where they help raise money.

In Baltimore County, the warehouse is filled with materials that schools don't have room to store or might not need. Infrequently, Williams said, someone would show up with an order from a school and they would fill it, but most of the time there was no work for the employees.

Several teachers accused of misconduct said it had taken months for their investigations to be completed. In some cases, they believed teachers languished in the warehouse because investigators didn't have enough evidence to fire them, but didn't want them back in the classroom. Or officials hoped they would quit rather than stay in the warehouse.

One employee said that after six months at the Pulaski warehouse, he gave up and, based on strong recommendations from his former Baltimore County principal, got a job in a private school.

Another educator provided documents to The Baltimore Sun that showed it had taken a year for the county to decide that he should be dismissed. He hired an attorney and fought the recommendation, finally giving up and retiring — nearly two years after he had been escorted out of his school.

Those employees declined to be identified because they didn't want their job records made public.

"We don't want people held out for long periods of time. We want our schools to be safe, but we believe they should have a due process and we agree it should be efficient and fair and expedient," said Cheryl Bost, vice president of the Maryland State Education Association, the union that represents most teachers in the state.

Abby Beytin, the Baltimore County teachers union president, said she believes school system lawyers around the country are afraid of lawsuits from parents and take action too quickly to remove a teacher when there is an accusation.

But teachers are not always innocent, school and union officials agree, adding that officials should act expeditiously when accusations are made. Still, accused teachers remain concerned about the time it takes to clear them of wrongdoing or fire them.

School systems in the Baltimore area have similar processes. If the accusation has to do with abuse of a student or criminal behavior, the case must first be investigated by police or the Department of Social Services. After that investigation is complete, the school system will do its own; most said they had one or two investigators.

Teachers and principals have a right to be represented by their union, but that can cause delays when union representatives aren't available immediately, said John Mayo, who took over recently as Baltimore County schools' chief of human resources. Employees also have the right to take sick leave, which stops the investigation entirely because school officials aren't allowed to contact employees on sick leave, he said.

"They use that as a way to prolong cases. They go out on leave," Mayo said.

Principals and assistant principals can also be taken out of schools. Currently, two administrators are being investigated in Baltimore County, said Bill Lawrence, head of the union representing principals and other administrators. They have been sent to the warehouse, but they are segregated from teachers, according to Lawrence and teachers at the warehouse.

He said two or three principals or assistant principals out of the 500-strong workforce are taken out of their jobs each year. It takes from two months to 16 months for an investigation to be completed, he said. While principals work at the discretion of the superintendent, they can be taken out of their jobs as principals, but they can remain as tenured teachers, he said.

In Baltimore City, 15 principals and assistant principals were sent to the Combined Charities Campaign between 2008 and 2013, according to documents obtained by The Sun through a Public Information Act request. All but one were getting paid their annual salaries of more than $100,000 during their stays there, which ranged from four months to two years.

Weisberg believes investigations should be completed in 90 days, and hearings in the cases ought to be completed in a day. One way to speed up the process, he said, would be to put teachers on administrative leave without pay while the case is being investigated and to require school systems to give back pay with interest to teachers who are cleared.

Williams, accused of touching a student with a yardstick, said he merely pointed a yardstick at her and told her to leave the classroom because he felt she was misbehaving.

Williams said he had always gotten satisfactory reviews during his eight years as a teacher, but acknowledged that he had been reprimanded in 2012 for having an unclean classroom.

The county schools began an investigation into the incident involving the yardstick on Feb. 28, 2013, when he was sent home. In April, he was assigned to the warehouse.

The following November, the county's head of human resources recommended he be terminated, according to letters from the county schools to Williams that he provided to The Sun. Then the superintendent's designee took over, holding another hearing in April 2014, the documents show.

As the investigation went on for months, Williams said he could not stand being in limbo. The county could not tell him when the case would be decided or where it stood. He hated the boredom, and in March, he said, he began to have panic attacks and headaches when he entered the warehouse each morning.

He said his doctor advised him to stop going to the warehouse. Williams went on medical leave in early May, using some of the many sick days he had accrued from eight years of teaching in Baltimore County.

Then Williams said he got another job — and it landed him in hot water with the county schools. If he was sick, he should be at home, school system officials contended in the documents Williams provided to The Sun. They started termination proceedings and asked him to pay back about $7,000 he earned between May and June while on sick leave.

He asked the school system to stop paying him, so every week since he has been getting a check for zero dollars.

School officials declined to comment on Williams' case. Mychael Dickerson, a spokesman for the school system, said it is a personnel issue.

Williams said he decided to tell his story because he no longer expects to teach again and wanted to highlight for the public the slow pace of investigations and the waste of taxpayer money.

"I loved being a teacher. I will never do it again," Williams said.

Last week, Williams got a registered letter from the county that said, pending a vote by the school board, he could be terminated because he "willfully defrauded" the school system.

But almost a year and a half after the student accusation against him was made, he said, he still hasn't been told if the investigation has been concluded.

Baltimore Sun reporter Erica L. Green contributed to this article.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

An earlier version of this article gave incorrect information about how long teacher Mike Williams worked at Woodlawn Middle School. Williams taught in Baltimore County schools for eight years and was at Woodlawn Middle for less than a year before the accusation against him was made. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.


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