September 2017 Issue
- Labor Issues
August 31, 2017

Could this ever happen to you?

Source: NYSUT United

As a member of a NYSUT local union, you are entitled to free legal representation should you ever face discipline or discharge. More than 40 NYSUT attorneys stand ready to fight for any in-service member and their local, and our retirees. Here's how one member was helped. The story you are about to read is real. Any identifying information has been changed to protect the NYSUT member's identity.

The background

Jane Doe is a guidance counselor at a high school with one of the poorest student populations in New York State. One hundred percent of the children — every single one — qualifies for the free school lunch program. It pulls at her heart to see what so many of the kids experience — "couch-surfing" from place to place, spotty nutrition, missing parents, drugs, abuse — all of the pathologies of severe poverty.

Ms. Doe goes above and beyond to give students encouragement and opportunities. She picks them up if they are missing from school. She buys them small items they need. She does whatever she can to help; she is the rock and support for many.

For one gifted basketball player, Ms. Doe made a highlight film he used to earn a basketball scholarship. She made sure one of her students did not drop out of school when she became pregnant, and later was godmother to the baby. One would think Ms. Doe should be recognized, applauded, maybe even promoted for her efforts.

The accusation

One day, bureaucrats in the district's central office notice a small uptick in the high school graduation rate. They look into the paperwork further and find that signatures from teachers were allegedly forged on several documents used in the summer school program so a student can secure enough credits to graduate. As guidance counselor, Ms. Doe receives the documents, signed by the summer school coordinator, the teacher (as far as she could tell), and the principal. After receiving the documents, Ms. Doe signs them and approves the credits.

With 20-20 hindsight, the district officials claim she should never have signed the forms and approved the summer credit. They charge Ms. Doe with negligently and fraudulently doing her job, say she must be in on the "fraud" and want her resignation. Ms. Doe protests, telling them she did not know that the signatures on the documents were not those of the teachers, that she can hardly be expected to investigate every signature on every document given to her, and that she is so busy she can not be expected to guarantee the accuracy of every entry on every piece of paper she sees.

The district ignores common sense and proceeds with a 3020-a case to fire her. After filing the charges, the district asks her to a meeting to discuss the matter. She goes with her father and uncle, who is a lawyer, and is insulted and treated like a criminal. The district wants her to reveal her "co-conspirators." She does not know what they are talking about; she can offer nothing. The district will not accept anything less than her resignation to settle the case.

For all her past dedication, all her concern for her students, all her efforts to help them succeed, this is what it comes down to — the district is going to fire her like she is a bad employee, and worse, a bad person.

Due process

Ms. Doe is entitled to a full evidentiary hearing because she has union representation, and access to a free attorney from NYSUT's legal department who specializes in these kinds of cases. NYSUT is not about to let the district get away with this. The union will show that Ms. Doe should be commended, not condemned, and that the district is shameful in proceeding with this case.

The facts are indeed brought out at the hearing: Ms. Doe is merely at the end of a distribution chain and receives the forms after they are signed by everyone else. The hearing officer herself repeatedly raises questions about what the district is trying to show. And then witness after witness — former students, parents of former students, former and present supervisors — testify about the extraordinary guidance counselor and person Ms. Doe really is. One former student testifies that Ms. Doe "always pushed me" to achieve; another says "she's always been there for me;" another says if it wasn't for Ms. Doe, she never would have graduated.

The hearing officer dismisses all the charges against Ms. Doe. The decision quotes at length the glowing testimony about Ms. Doe and holds that "the District cannot simply accuse: It must present proof." The hearing officer notes "the testimony of the people who worked with Ms. Doe as a colleague or supervisor or student, including the District's witnesses, was that Ms. Doe was a hard-working, professional and diligent counselor, devoted to her students, who went the extra mile to help them be successful."

Because of her rights as a union member, and her access to legal representation from NYSUT's legal team, Ms. Doe was completely exonerated and a terrible injustice was prevented. And students still have their wonderfully kind and dedicated counselor by their side.