A Safe Place to Learn

By Nicole Thomas

A year ago I was appalled to discover, from local news reports, that police had arrested a teacher at my two kids’ school, P.S. 256 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, for performing a sex act on a student. I was concerned about how a person like Mr. Grant could have slipped through the cracks to end up in the front of a classroom. As a parent, I want to prevent any future Mr. Grants from entering my kids’ school or any other school in the city.

Last month, a group of parents joined me to attend a town hall meeting with Chancellor Carmen Farina to ask her questions about follow up from the incident and how to prevent it from happening anywhere again. When I looked into the case, I learned that there are several problems in the system that made this possible, so I wanted to know if the Chancellor is working to fix them.

The first is that teacher vacancies occur most often in low-income communities of color and so our schools become dumping grounds for unqualified and less motivated teachers. The second is that the de Blasio administration has made it a policy to fill vacancies from the Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR) — the place where teachers can sit for years on end when no principal wants to hire them.

The Chancellor and the Mayor keep saying they want what’s best for the children, but actions speak louder than words.

Chancellor Farina did not give a satisfactory answer to my questions. She started by saying that Mr. Grant is not in the building now. When I asked if there were a possibility he could return to a classroom, she said that as far as she knew he was “in a process” and he is not coming back to P.S. 256. When I asked how we avoid having someone like that go back into any school she said that there really wasn’t time to address it.

What I want Chancellor Farina and the de Blasio administration to hear loud and clear is that they must make time to address these issues. If it’s too hard to fill teaching positions in neighborhoods like mine, then the City must create new policies so only the best teachers can work in low-income neighborhoods. The City must end the destructive policy of placing teachers from the Absent Teacher Reserve into classrooms like the ones my children are in. The City has to have better controls so that the Mr. Grants of the world can’t end up in classrooms and those teachers who commit misconduct don’t remain endlessly on the City payroll. As a parent, I should have confidence in how the City places teachers, but they have given me no reason to.

This is not a hypothetical policy debate for me: at P.S. 256, both the music teacher and gym teacher disappeared mid-year — how do I know what process the City will use to fill those spots and how can I feel certain that someone like Mr. Grant isn’t placed there? This keeps me up at night and it should do the same for Chancellor Farina and Mayor de Blasio.

Parents in Bed-Stuy deserve to know what the City is doing to fill the vacancies in our school, and the answer better not be to hire more teachers from the ATR. We don’t want to live in fear that someone like Mr. Grant may be around our kids. If Mayor de Blasio were committed to equity, he would not allow this problem to continue in low-income neighborhoods.

The Chancellor and the Mayor keep saying they want what’s best for the children, but actions speak louder than words. Politicians can talk all day, but you have to walk the walk and that is just not happening. Families in our community deserve better.

Nicole Thomas is the mother of a third grader and fifth grader at P.S. 256 in Bedford-Stuyvesant and a parent volunteer with StudentsFirstNY. To learn more about the ATR, visit deservedetails.org