As UFT representatives meet with Townsend Harris students to discuss proposed educator sexual misconduct reforms, DOE tells The Classic it’s working on policy changes

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Following student protests held earlier in the school year over how sexual misconduct allegations against educators are handled by the school system and the teachers union, representatives from the union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), met on April 12 with members of Protect Our Students, a Townsend Harris student advocacy group.  

“Our values are not to protect predators,” said Amy Arundell, UFT Queens Borough Office Representative, in an interview after the meeting, which took place at THHS and lasted for more than two hours. “Our values are to make sure that schools are safe learning environments and our members can teach and guidance counselors can do all the things they do in schools and know that…if something were to happen and they were accused they would have due process.”

At the meeting, Ms. Arundell was joined by UFT Vice President for Academic High Schools Janella Hinds, Special Representative for High Schools Anthony Klug, UFT General Counsel Beth A. Norton, Queens High School Representative James Vasquez, and THHS UFT Representative Kevin McDonaugh.

The students in attendance representing Protect Our Students — seniors Isabella Sicilian, Audrey Chou, and Alyssa Figueroa — have called for reform to the city policies and state statutes that determine what happens when students accuse a teacher of sexual misconduct and city investigators “substantiate” those claims. They expressed concerns about how and where alleged victims are asked to testify about the alleged misconduct, the statute of limitations that determines how old an allegation can be to merit a teacher’s firing, rules relating to sexual grooming, and more. 

Student activists were first alerted to the problem of how misconduct allegations are handled when news broke in November about sexual misconduct allegations against a former THHS teacher who had been removed and then reinstated at the school. The teacher, Joseph Canzoneri, was removed from THHS in 2018 and investigated by the city’s office of the Special Commissioner of Investigations (SCI). In Spring 2019, SCI released the results of their investigation to the Department of Education (DOE) where they concluded Mr. Canzoneri had “engaged in a sexual relationship…with a female THHS student” and recommended his termination. The DOE told The Classic that after receiving the report they moved to terminate Mr. Canzoneri’s employment. Once a school district decides it wants to attempt to fire a tenured teacher, it must go through a process governed by state education law 3020-a. According to the New York Post, the case against Canzoneri was dismissed by a hearing officer because “none of the students agreed to testify [at the 3020-a proceeding].”

Canzoneri was returned to THHS after the dismissal of the case, only to be removed again amidst media inquiries about the SCI investigation from Classic editors, reporter Susan Edelman at the Post, and reporter Katie Honan at The City. Soon afterward, THHS students created Protect Our Students and organized a schoolwide sit-in in November, followed in January by a phone bank event where they specifically called on the UFT, politicians, and the DOE to address a list of demands for reforms on how allegations of educator misconduct are handled in schools.

During the April 12 conversation at THHS, which the UFT representatives invited The Classic to observe, Ms. Hinds made it clear that they were not authorized to make any commitments to policy changes during the meeting. But she said they were planning to return to UFT offices and follow up on the proposals voiced by THHS students, which focused on reforming the policies and procedures surrounding the removal and reinstatement of teachers accused of misconduct.

“We hear what you are saying,” said Ms. Hinds. “We are committed to engaging in conversations with our colleagues about advancing the concerns you are raising.” 

In response to a request for comment about the meeting and UFT plans to engage in conversations on student proposals, the DOE told The Classic that they are working on making changes to DOE policy and credited THHS students with helping to inspire their planning. 

DOE spokesperson Jenna Lyle said “Our schools must be sanctuaries for our students – anything less is unacceptable. While this teacher was not assigned to teach any students, he should not have been placed back in a school, and we applaud the young people at Townsend Harris for speaking up about this. Because they raised their voice, we are working on new policies to ensure this doesn’t happen again.” [Read The Classic’s analysis of the DOE’s statements on this topic here].

The Protect Our Students representatives, reflecting on the UFT meeting, said, “We are very thankful that UFT took the time to meet with us. While we do wish they could’ve committed to greater transparency in regards to future policies, we are excited to know that they will bring up our concerns to UFT leadership.” They said they considered it a success that their efforts were noticed and addressed.

Key Topics from the Conversation: Testimony & Cross Examination

During the conversation, Isabella, Audrey, and Alyssa focused much of their attention on the role of testimony from alleged victims in the hearings that determine if a teacher loses their job. 

During their sit-in and phone bank event, the protestors referenced the role of testimony in the case of Joseph Canzoneri.

At the meeting, the students asked the UFT representatives about the conditions under which students who allege sexual misconduct testify during a 3020-a proceeding, in particular the physical space itself where these hearings take place. Mr. Vasquez, UFT’s Queens High School Representative, said that the rooms can be small, though sizes vary. He said there are “usually no more than six or so people in [a] room” during the proceedings. 

Alyssa said that asking alleged victims to testify in close quarters with the teacher they’ve accused of misconduct could be potentially traumatic and might hinder students from agreeing to testify. 

“That’s a very good point,” Mr. Vasquez said.

More contested was the discourse over the need for cross examination itself. Isabella asked if there was a need for alleged victims to testify after they had already been asked to sit for interviews with the SCI investigators for a report.

The UFT representatives emphasized that teachers, who are public employees, have the constitutional right to face their accuser. They said that SCI reports should not have the final say in these cases and that there must be due process. 

Ms. Arundell, UFT’s Queens Borough Office Representative, said that the investigative process can lead to “substantiated SCI reports that are wrong, and that’s why [alleged victims] have to go before 3020-a.” 

The UFT representatives also brought up the threat of students not telling the truth and the damage that can be done to teachers’ reputations as a result. “People do lie. I mean, it doesn’t happen a lot, and again, we’re talking about a lot of outliers here,” said Ms. Arundell. 

Ms. Norton, General Counsel for the UFT, said that cross examinations of accusers can help counteract or clarify SCI reports that may be incorrect, and thereby preserve the livelihoods and careers of wrongfully accused educators. 

“This is important when you’re talking about taking people’s livelihoods away. So if you want us to put that much stake in the SCI, there would have to be serious changes to the way that organization operates,” Ms. Arundell said.

DOE Responsibility

Rather than focusing solely on reforming 3020-a, the UFT representatives suggested the DOE needed to reassess how superintendents make decisions about where to place teachers after charges that do not lead to termination.

At various points in the discussion, UFT representatives referenced DOE responsibility in addressing and handling educator sexual misconduct. 

“If someone is not terminated and is returned to service after 3020-a, that is technically at the superintendent’s discretion. Often, they do go back to their school, but it is at the superintendent’s discretion where that person gets placed,” said Ms. Norton.

The DOE told The Classic that supervisors and administration are trained in how to recognize and respond to employee misconduct. They said they receive legal counseling and support from both superintendents and central offices.

The Three Year Rule 

Another topic discussed was the statute of limitations in the 3020-a law, which states that “no charges…shall be brought more than three years after the occurrence of the alleged incompetency or misconduct, except when the charge is of misconduct constituting a crime when committed.” Previously, the protestors have called for extending this three-year limit, suggesting that students might take longer to come forward with allegations that might not be criminal in nature but would still constitute actionable misconduct. 

The UFT representatives said that criminal charges could still be brought after the three year time limit. 

Ms. Arundell said that a victim can go to the police ten years after an incident to report sexual abuse and then “the three years is out the window.” 

Ms. Norton followed up, saying that enforcing established rules is important. “It’s not necessarily changes to the contract or the law [that are needed]…it’s getting people to enforce what’s there and that is the struggle we have all the time.” 

In contrast, the DOE told The Classic that, in regard to 3020-a, they support the review of this statute to ensure all misconduct may be heard by a hearing officer.

Grooming

Student protestors also called for greater action to address grooming, particularly if a student is pursued by a teacher after graduation. 

Alyssa proposed a “protection period” for students who recently graduated to ensure that teachers cannot use their position to court students and wait until they turn 18 or graduate in order to pursue a relationship that may not be criminal but might still turn out to be based on an abuse of their position of authority. 

“We want to look at the processes that fly under the radar,” said Alyssa.

The points raised in this segment of the conversation resulted in broad agreement between the parties about the need to seriously examine grooming. 

“You’ve made an important point about the evolution of society around these issues,” said Ms. Hinds. She said that conversations about grooming have received greater focus in recent years, and that there is a constant need to reexamine processes and rules “to figure out what needs to be in place to ensure that young people are safe.” 

As the conversation ended, Ms. Norton made a list of topics she and her colleagues would bring back to the UFT for further discussion: greater support for victims during testimony, examining grooming behaviors on the part of educators, protection of recent graduates, updating definitions of sexual misconduct, and specific language in 3020-a related to these topics. 

After the conversation concluded, the UFT representatives sat for a follow-up interview with The Classic, where they discussed issues such as communication with students and parents about ongoing investigations into teachers and their support for more precise training regarding teacher-to-student sexual misconduct, as well as their recent calls for age-appropriate consent trainings. A follow up article will focus on these topics in greater depth.

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