How the DOE Handles Abuse, and Inappropriate Behavior

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After a string of sexual abuse cases in New York City public schools have come to light in recent weeks, some parents are calling into question how the DOE handles these instances.

"Parents are really angry, and rightfully so," said Noah Gotbaum, a Community Education Council (CEC) member for District 3 and parent of children who graduated from P.S. 87, where a paraprofessional allegedly sexually abused a student.

Gregory Atkins, 56, was arrested Feb. 10 on charges of sexual abuse against a student at P.S. 87. Atkins had been working as a paraprofessional at the school since 2008. The victim reported the behavior, and on Feb. 3, Atkins was removed from the school, according to a letter Principal Monica Berry sent to parents.

Atkins was arrested, a 2006 letter from the DOE's Special Commissioner of Investigation surfaced, detailing what was determined to be Atkins' inappropriate behavior toward a young male student at his previous school, M.S. 322 in Upper Manhattan. No one at P.S. 87 had seen this letter, and parents are up in arms demanding to know why.

"There's a lot of anger, obviously-anger primarily because of that 2006 report that wasn't put in [Atkins'] file," said Rebecca Levey, co-president of P.S. 87's parent association. "There are a lot of questions about what the processes are at DOE, why the principal wouldn't have access to that."

The principal of M.S. 322 at the time reportedly delivered a verbal warning to Atkins but did not choose to place a letter in his permanent file.

How Atkins came to work at P.S. 87 is unclear. The DOE insists that since he applied for a transfer and had seniority as a paraprofessional, the P.S. 87 principal who preceded Berry had no control over who came to the school. The United Federation of Teachers disputes that and points to its paraprofessional contract, which states that paraprofessionals may apply for transfers and that the head of the school to which they apply makes the hiring decision. In Atkins' case, however, no one would have known about his past at M.S. 322 because no record existed in his professional file, and that's what has local parents irate.

Gotbaum said that at a recent CEC meeting, parents wanted to know how the DOE determines what sort of behavior warrants termination and what warrants a simple reprimand. The DOE has said that their hands are tied by what the Office of Special Investigations recommends, but that they train their employees to recognize inappropriate behaviors.

"The Office of Equal Opportunity goes into schools regularly to conduct trainings for teachers and other school-based employees. We provide in-depth training concerningappropriate conduct in the workplace between teachers and students, including sexual harassment, unwanted touching and unwanted contact," said DOE spokesperson Deidrea Miller in an email.

"We emphasize during the trainings that the focus is not on the teacher's intent but whether the conduct or contact would make a student feel uncomfortable," Miller said.

Some parents are pushing for more specific guidelines that would have clearly red-flagged Atkin's behavior.

Upper West Side Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal said that as a result of this and other recent allegations of sexual abuse in public schools, she and other legislators are looking into ways to put tighter regulations in place at a state law level.

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