School & District Management

Rhee Responds to Uproar Over Remarks

By Dakarai I. Aarons — January 26, 2010 4 min read
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Michelle A. Rhee, the chancellor of District of Columbia schools, finds herself at the center of a controversy again, this time over comments attributed to her in a business magazine saying that some teachers who were laid off last fall had sexually and physically abused students.

Rhee laid off 266 teachers and a few dozen administrators in October in an effort to close a budget gap, a move that led to student protests, a lawsuit by the local teachers’ union, and a contentious face-off with the local city council. Rhee was accused by her detractors of using the budget as an excuse to lay off veteran teachers without having to work with seniority rules.

But her response defending her actions to Fast Company startled many.

“I got rid of teachers who had hit children, who had had sex with children, who had missed 78 days of school,” Rhee told Fast Company. “Why wouldn’t we take those things into consideration?”

Rhee’s comments, first circulated over the weekend in D.C-area media, sent shockwaves around the region and beyond, invoking the ire of many teachers and some of Rhee’s sharpest critics, including the local teachers’ union president and the city council chairman.

“With a callous, nonspecific statement that names no one and thus blames all, Michelle Rhee has called into question the ethics of 266 men and women, and she’s done it in a way that gives these individuals almost no recourse to defend themselves,” George Parker, president of the Washington Teachers Union, wrote in a letter to D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who is Rhee’s boss. Parker asked Rhee to apologize to teachers in his letter.

Questions immediately arose. If these teachers had been physically and sexually abusing children, why were they allowed to remain until a budget crunch required dismissing teachers? How many of the 266 teachers had been abusing students?

As the Washington City Paper explains, Rhee and other school officials are required by law to immediately report any suspected abuse of children they are aware of.

I asked Rhee on Monday to shed light on the context in which she made her comments and if she had moved to take any legal or disciplinary action against those teachers who had allegedly abused students before the October layoffs. Answers to me—and the legions of other people wanting an answer—were slow in coming.

After nearly five days of silence on the matter, Rhee responded to us all a short time ago via a two-page letter she wrote to the council chairman and two other members about their numerous concerns.

The chancellor said her comment to Fast Company was made “some time ago” while explaining that teacher performance and not just seniority was an important factor considered in deciding who to terminate during the layoffs caused by a budget cut.

“I was describing the kind of conduct that was appropriate to take into account in implementing the reduction in force,” she wrote. “The examples I gave involved a very small minority of the teachers who were terminated in the budget reduction.”

How small a minority? Rhee says one teacher had “serious allegations of sexual misconduct,” and that teacher had been removed from the school immediately. The case was referred to police, and the teacher was not in the classroom during the time of the layoffs, she said.

Six employees who were laid-off had been previously suspended for using corporal punishment on students. Two employees had served suspensions for “being AWOL on multiple occasions and several other employees had egregious time and attendance records.” In the case of these actions, the discipline procedures embedded in union contracts prescribed suspension, rather than firing for those offenses.

I also asked the Fast Company writer who spoke to Rhee, Jeff Chu, to clarify things. He e-mailed back Monday night to say he is traveling in Asia and is not commenting on his Rhee story.

On the Capital Citizen Blog, local writer Clinton Yates said while he has supported Rhee’s often-controversial efforts to reform lagging academic performance in the Nation’s Capital, he believed her comments this time went too far.

“I don’t think Rhee owes anyone an apology, but she does owe students, teachers, parents and administrators an explanation. There are too many people working hard to validate her authoritarian efforts, for her to casually sully a group of people that have dedicated their lives to educating a generation for the future,” he said.

Rhee didn’t quite apologize to teachers as Parker hoped, but her response to a D.C. TV reporter contains a sort-of mea culpa. In it she said: “‘It was never our intention, nor did I ever say, it was all of the teachers who fell into these categories...Our intention was not to paint all teachers with a broad brushstroke.”

UPDATE 1/27: In today’s story in The Washington Post, Rhee agreed that taking nearly five days to answer questions about the potential abuse of students was too long.

“I’ve never said that all of the teachers can be characterized in one way or another.” But she acknowledged that she let the controversy fester for too long. “If we had put something out on Friday, that would have been better,” she told The Post.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.