Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Teacher Watch: School Safety and Teacher Civil Rights

Do teachers have the same right to a safe workplace as other professionals? Not if they’re threatened, defamed, or harassed by students.
At least that’s what Los Angeles Unified has spent seven years and $1.3 million taxpayer dollars to tell one teacher plaintiff, whose hostile environment sex harassment suit against her former employer is slated for retrial starting July 9. If the district has its way, Adams v. LAUSD will have detrimental consequences for schools.

The teacher filed suit against LAUSD when she was grossly libeled and defamed in an underground student paper, the Occasional Blow Job, from March through June 2000 at Palisades Charter High School.

The first issue attacked teachers other than Adams, but when she challenged the publication she became its primary target. An actress-turned-teacher, Adams was called a former “porn star” who had performed so many anal sex acts she had to wear a diaper. On the cover of another issue, her face was superimposed atop the splayed body of a porn model.

In print materials circulated at her public workplace as well as the upscale neighborhood nearby, Adams was called “bitch” for fighting back. She reported being heckled as a "slut" on campus, car stalked by students when picking up her 7-year old, and harassed by phone calls at home. She also found a threatening note posted on her classroom door.

Despite Adams’s pleas to school administrators for support, and despite clear school policies against sexual harassment, the responses at site and district levels were lamely ineffective. Individual students received hand-slaps, but their publication continued to appear on campus until the school year ended. Deanne Neiman, the go-to district official in charge of vetting sexual harassment cases, remained ignorant of the controversy until just before her deposition was taken--almost two full years later.

The jury for the original 2001 trial sided unanimously with Adams, agreeing that LAUSD had been negligent in following its own discipline policy, the state education code, and federal law. The district was held liable for enabling a hostile work environment, to the tune of $4.35 million--more than double the damages Adams sought.

In a post-trial ruling, Judge Kenneth Freeman negated the financial award as inflammatory. But rather than reducing the amount or directing a different verdict, he ordered a new trial. In his statement of reasoning, he made the bizarre claim that teachers voluntarily forfeit their civil rights, “trading” federal protections against “offensive conduct” for the challenge of working with kids.

If you teach, this is one legal form you may have missed.

The implications of Adams are highly gendered. For nearly 150 years, the business of teaching minors has been a “pink collar” profession. The National Education Association reported in 2006 that approximately 8 out of 10 educators are female. Put this together with Hostile Hallways, the 2001 report by the American Association of University Women, documenting that 36 percent of high school students have witnessed peers sexually harassing teachers.

The reluctance of LAUSD to settle this case suggests that it’s not the money but teacher protection it dreads. In the past five years, there have been reports across the country--from Horace Mann School in New York City, Cook County High School in northern Minnesota, Tesoro High School in Orange County--of women teachers being sexually bullied and defamed on paper or online by male students, who then claim “free speech” when called on it. It was only a matter of time before one teacher stood up in court.

LAUSD’s central argument, in the first trial and on appeal, is that it has “limited control” over students, mere “third parties,” in the school workplace.

But what other workplace, aside from prisons, has compulsory clientele? And how can any district justify discipline policies for protecting such “third parties” from each other, but then deny such protection to those we entrust with their care?

It’s easy to say we expect educators to stand up against bullying, drug use, cheating, hazing, graffiti, and violence. But few people realize that the first responders--our teachers--are often targeted, threatened, isolated, shushed, or simply ignored when they intervene to witness or prevent escalating behavior.

There can be no sustained safety for students at the expense of teacher civil rights.

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