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N.Y. Bills Give Teachers Power To Oust Pupils

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An unlikely alliance in New York state is working to give teachers there something they have long lobbied for: the authority to suspend unruly students.

Gov. George E. Pataki said last week that he will propose legislation that would allow teachers to remove students from their classrooms for up to 10 days.

Just two days later, the state Senate voted 55-3 to pass a similar bill drafted by the state's largest teachers' union. And the state Assembly is expected to take up its own measure.

Until now, the first-term Republican governor and the New York State United Teachers, which represents 345,000 classroom teachers and other education professionals, have tangled on almost every notable education issue.

Policymakers nationwide have churned out dozens of new laws in recent years to crack down on school violence, but Indiana last year became the first state to give teachers the power to punish students by imposing suspensions, according to state-policy researchers and officials at the American Federation of Teachers.

'Trust Our Teachers'

In New York, the public's fears about widespread disorder in schools have helped put both the governor and the union on the same side.

"We trust our teachers with our children every day," Gov. Pataki said in a written statement last week. "We must trust them enough to let them decide when a student is so disruptive that the other students" can't learn.

A poll conducted for the state teachers' union last year reported that 70 percent of New York voters support giving teachers the authority to remove disruptive students from the classroom.

Critics argue, however, that Mr. Pataki and the union are getting political points from proposals that are unworkable.

Teachers will act in the heat of the moment and ignore sensitive discipline issues involving minority and special-education students, said Louis Grumet, the executive director of the New York State School Boards Association.

"This is governing by press release," Mr. Grumet said. "I don't think [the governor's] genuflecting to the union; he's genuflecting to the baser instincts of the public."

A Union Issue

Empowering teachers to handle classroom discipline problems has been a goal for many teachers' unions in recent years. In districts such as Cincinnati and Dade County, Fla., teachers have negotiated contracts that give them the right to remove disruptive students from their classrooms, said John Mitchell, the deputy director of educational issues for the AFT. But administrators in those districts still decide the school's disciplinary response.

"This is a welcome piece of authority," Mr. Mitchell said of Gov. Pataki's proposal. "It's the type of authority teachers needed to keep order in the classroom."

In New York, NYSUT, the state affiliate of the AFT, began lobbying for suspension power last year. Teachers are frustrated that administrators are not cracking down on discipline problems, said Linda Rosenblatt, a union spokeswoman.

"We're talking about serious situations where teachers send kids to the principal and get them back in 10 minutes with the situation unresolved," she said.

While Gov. Pataki has not released the legislation embodying his proposal, his bill apparently will differ somewhat from the union's version that cleared the Senate. The union bill would give teachers the authority to suspend students for up to five days, not 10 days as Gov. Pataki proposed.

It also would require districts to provide alternative "settings" for suspended students in separate classrooms or other school facilities.

According to an outline of Mr. Pataki's proposal issued by his office, the governor would not require districts to offer alternative programs, raising questions about whether students suspended by teachers would be banned from school.

Accusers and Arbiters?

"What the hell are they going to do with those kids? Put them in holding pens?" said Chris Pipho, the director of state relations at the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based education-policy center.

Mr. Grumet of the New York school boards' association likened the new proposals to giving crime witnesses the right to prosecute suspects and then set their prison sentences.

"We have to make certain that the person making the accusations is not also the judge," he said.

Gov. Pataki's proposal would give school principals the authority to overturn a teacher's unwarranted suspension. But Mr. Grumet said that teachers would have the upper hand and be tempted to settle personality clashes--including those relating to race--by ousting students.

"With this, a teacher just points at the door, and you're out of there," he said.

In Indiana, meanwhile, school officials say they have yet to feel much impact from legislation passed last year to give teachers the authority to suspend students for up to five days.

But special-education advocates are worried that teachers are not trained in the state's discipline procedures.

"I think some special-education kids are going to be mistreated," said Michael S. Reed, an Indianapolis lawyer and advocate for special-education students. "But on the other hand, some real badasses are going to get off because somebody screwed up the procedures."

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