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May 22 2010

Teacher Fired For Using “Naughty Words” Wins First Round Against City

Those of us who have gone through raising middle schoolers or who teach for a living know that of all the classes in the world, teaching Middle School Health is as thankless a task as you can get assigned to.  Hormones raging, sexual experimentation occurring  regularly, cliques, mean girls, immature boys:  a recipe for disaster.  Yet Faith Kramer has done this job for 26 years at a Staten Island Intermediate School 72 without a blemish on her record.  Until 2008, when she was trying to teach the City’s new curriculum on HIV/AIDS safety.  Here’s what the syllabus says about teaching the terminology for the reproductive system:

“If students use different terms make sure they understand the relationship between both sets of terms.”

So she thought it would be creative, entertaining and educational to write the medical term for a part of the reproductive system on the board and then ask the class if they ever heard of any other slang terms for that part. Do 8th graders know slang terms for these parts? The options started flying in from the class and Ms. Kramer wrote them down next to the correct medical term. Even though she specifically instructed them not to, some students wrote down the slang words in their notebooks. One parent complained when she was shown the words by her son and the City immediately suspended Ms. Kramer and gave her notice of their intention to terminate her services.

The charge? That she violated a regulation that prohibited verbal abuse, or discipline “by use of language that tends to cause fear, physical or mental distress.” That she did not abuse or discipline anyone seemed to be beyond the grasp of the principal. The formal name for the charge would have been “Improper Use of Corporal Punishment.”  Luckily  for Ms. Kramer, she had access thorough her union to free counsel and the lawyer filed a grievance.

As a result the formal charges were never filed, but Ms. Kramer then filed a suit for damages.  This past week, Judge Jack Weinstein of  the Eastern District Federal Court in Brooklyn, denied the City’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit finding that Ms. Kramer had a valid claim that her Due Process Rights under the 14th Amendment were violated.  I expect the City will now offer a settlement to Ms. Kramer.

I am sure there are those who will say that Ms. Kramer should have been satisfied with her reinstatement and not filed suit. Why? Putting her back to where she was before  the City wasted everyone’s tax dollars would not serve to send a message that the City should take a little care and maybe consult with their own lawyers before trying to derail a 26 year career.  Ms. Kramer was also sent for period of time to the Dept of Ed.’s “rubber room” where suspended teachers sit behind a desk and push papers around while they are being investigated (usually for having a relationship with a 14 year old in their class).

Too often the public does not realize that filing a lawsuit is the only way to get an institution to change its ways and treat those working within it with fairness and common sense. While the case does not have a large monetary value, I hope that someone at the Dept of Ed is taking notice and taking steps to avoid this occurring to some other teacher.

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