Will the termination of a tenured ATR be upheld when he engaged in conversations with students about college and internships that did not offend these students?

No. A substitute teacher covering a double-period class for high school senior students, participated in conversation with a group of the students concerning their college choices and post-graduation internship plans. During the conversation, the teacher offered to serve as a contact point for a potential internship at a media company for a female student who had expressed an interest in film and media. The student testified at the arbitration hearing that she appreciated this and was not offended by the offer. When a male student then indicated that he did not want to do an internship or work during the summer after graduation, the teacher whispered to the female student something to the effect of “watch how they react to this,” and proceeded to tell the students about a valuable internship experience he had before he went to college. The female student also was not offended by this. When another male student expressed his interest in attending a college that was widely reported to be a “party school,” petitioner asked him something to the effect of, “so you’re the type to party with,” or “you want to go to school to party.” The student testified that he was “not offended in any way” by the comment. Rather, the several students who testified generally indicated that they enjoyed the class and found it to have been more interesting than expected from a substitute.

The teacher was terminated by the arbitrator and he appealed. Supreme Court Justice Margaret Chan denied the teacher’s petition finding that while the incident itself may not have been grounds for termination the teacher had a prior disciplinary history involving student teaching and thus taken as a whole the conduct merited termination.

The Appellate Division, First Department, reversed. The Court could not find any rule prohibiting the teacher from engaging in these conversations and thus his termination shocked the conscience and could not be sustained.

In re Jonathan Polayes, Petitioner-Appellant, v City of New York, at al., Respondents-Respondents, 12649, 156710/12, SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, APPELLATE DIVISION, FIRST DEPARTMENT, 2014 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 3905; 2014 NY Slip Op 3958, June 3, 2014

Does an arbitrator’s ruling in a 3020-a which suspends a librarian for inappropriately touching students and taking an unauthorized trip “shock the conscience?”

Yes. Christopher Asch, an openly gay librarian at Stuyvesant High School was removed from his school after a student complained about inappropriate touching and whispering. The matter was well covered in the media.

Upon further investigation Asch was also accused of taking students to “Quiz Bowl” in Boston on an unauthorized trip.

At the arbitration hearing before David Hyland, students and faculty testified as to Asch’s exemplary work at Stuyvesant and that there was a conspiracy, brought upon by at least one student, to spread rumors and make false accusations. One of these rumors was that Asch was a member of NAMBLA, the North American Man Boy Love Association and that he inappropriately touched students arms and whispered into their ears. Asch explained the source of the rumors and testified that the touching and whispering were done to get students’ attention in a quiet place. A female librarian was not subject to such scrutiny despite the fact that she used the same practice.

Additionally the Quiz Show trip was an unofficial club trip which did not require permission slips. A student who lied to his parents and went to Boston on his own was not seen by Asch until 10 PM. Asch believed the student’s lies and had no reason to question his appearance as he was over 18 at the time.

Hyland found “Asch either did not understand or ignored appropriate boundaries as they relate to touching students, even to calm or quiet them when students become unruly or loud.” He suspended Asch for six months without pay and ordered that he attend training.

Justice Manuel Mendez held that the penalty “shocked the conscience of the Court” and lifted the suspension, ordered back pay and removed the training requirement imposed by Hyland.

Analysis:  There at least two problems in Mendez’s decision which might cause the DOE to appeal. The first has to do with a procedural matter. Appeals from 3020-a hearings to Supreme Court are brought by CPLR 7511 which has a ten period in which the petition must be filed and served. The DOE moved to dismiss the petition as untimely and the Court ruled that an extra day was allowed since the last day to file fell on a Sunday. While that does extend the time to file the DOE had made a motion to dismiss and did not fully answer Asch’s petition. The Court, nonetheless, took the DOE’s motion as its answer without giving the DOE an opportunity to respond to Asch’s allegation that the penalty shocked the conscience. Many arbitrators, even in the face of unsupported charges still make a finding. Perhaps this decision will send a message to other arbitrators to dismiss cases that should be dismissed.

In the Matter of Christopher Asche, Petitioner, against The New York City Board/ Department of Education, Respondents, 108528/10, SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, NEW YORK COUNTY, 2011 NY Slip Op 21224; 2011 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 3104, June 28, 2011, Decided