Thursday, May 20, 2010

Suspended Over Naughty Words in H.I.V. Class, Teacher Wins U.S. Ruling

Published: May 20, 2010

A Staten Island middle school teacher who was removed from the classroom after allowing her eighth graders to use vulgar terms during a lesson on H.I.V. won her first battle against the city in federal court on Thursday, when a judge overruled a city effort to dismiss her case.

On Feb. 6, 2008, the teacher, Faith Kramer, a health and physical education teacher at Intermediate School 72 on Staten Island, taught a state-mandated lesson on the various behaviors that can transmit H.I.V./AIDS. According to legal documents filed with the case, she wrote down the polite words for sexual organs, sexual acts and bodily fluids on the board — and then asked her students to list any other terms they might know for those things.

In doing so, the judge ruled, she appeared to be following the spirit of a state syllabus that directed that students be encouraged to use sexual terms that they understood, so that they could relate those words to the more formal terminology. “If students use different terms,” the syllabus says, “make sure they understand the relationship between both sets of terms.”

Ms. Kramer argued that she did not ask students to write the resulting slang words, euphemisms and vulgarities in their notebooks, but some did. As a result, some of Ms. Kramer’s 30 students went home with neatly transcribed lists of off-color words for sexual acts and body parts, including two Yiddishisms for the male sexual organ. At least one parent called the school to complain, court documents state.

The next day, Peter Macellari, the principal, requested that school officials open an investigation into the episode, and the Department of Education removed Ms. Kramer, a 26-year veteran teacher with a clean disciplinary record, from the classroom, the court documents state. She was informed by letter that she was being investigated for “corporal punishment” and was sent to an administrative detention center, known colloquially as a “rubber room,” where she continued to receive her salary.

The city investigation found that Ms. Kramer had violated a regulation that prohibited verbal abuse, or discipline “by use of language that tends to cause fear, physical or mental distress.” But no formal charges were ever brought, and Mr. Macellari returned Ms. Kramer last September to the classroom, where she continues to teach health. In March, she filed a federal suit against the city seeking $1 million in damages for mental anguish, lawyer’s fees and the loss of extra after-school work.

In his ruling, Judge Jack B. Weinstein of the United States District Court in Brooklyn wrote that the city violated the due process clause of the 14th Amendment by not providing Ms. Kramer with a reasonable opportunity to know that her lesson plan was inappropriate before removing her from the classroom. Neither the corporal punishment nor the verbal abuse regulations were properly applied, because she was trying to teach, not punish students, he wrote.

“Her lesson was in compliance with all of the guidelines with which she had been provided,” said Duane C. Felton, Ms. Kramer’s lawyer, on Thursday. The next step, he said, will be to meet with the city lawyers to see if a financial settlement can be reached.

In a statement, Blanche Greenfield, a senior city lawyer, said that the words the students used, some of which she repeated in the statement, were “entirely inappropriate.”

“Their use in the classroom reflects unacceptable and extremely poor judgment by the teacher and is plainly not consistent with community values,” Ms. Greenfield said.


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