Friday, February 05, 1999

Teacher's record slipped through cracks

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        How do these things happen?

        How do our schools protect students from teachers who perhaps should not be in the classroom?

        Mary Schneider was fired from her teaching job in March. But in December, an arbitrator ruled the firing was excessive, ordered a 14-day suspension instead and gave Ms. Schneider a chance to teach again. She returned to the classroom in January at Heberle Elementary School.

        Last week, the teacher was arrested on a misdemeanor assault charge for allegedly slapping a kindergartner in the face.

        I began to wonder. If there really is a problem with Ms. Schneider, who's to blame for allowing this woman back in contact with children?

        The bothersome thing, as it turned out, is that no one person slipped up. Instead, Ms. Schneider's case looks more and more like one that simply fell through the cracks.

        Ms. Schneider's track record would raise almost anyone's red flag. That's if anyone saw the complete record. At a couple of key steps in the teacher's journey through the disciplinary systems of Cincinnati Public Schools, those in charge saw only part of her record. And that's how her case fell through the cracks.

        I'm not saying the system failed. We live under rules that say a person is innocent until proven guilty. And without solid proof, even questionable cases can drift on and on.

Evidence excluded
        Ms. Schneider started teaching in the Cincinnati Public Schools in 1992. Two years later, she was accused of grabbing a student by the collar and threatening to kill him. Another student accused her of throwing him into a classroom.

        School officials investigated both accusations. Neither could be proved.

        Last year, Ms. Schneider was fired for three offenses. She was accused of using “profane and abusive language” about her principal, making “an unprofessional comment” about an administrator's sexual orientation and trying to use her position to influence a student to write a statement on her behalf.

        Ms. Schneider filed a grievance asking to be reinstated as a teacher. At the arbitration hearing, Cincinnati Public Schools could not use the prior accusations of violence against students as evidence.

        “An arbitration is like a court of law,” said John Concannon, the school district's general counsel.

        “If you go into traffic court for speeding,” he told me, “the judge cannot bring up two past charges for speeding if you weren't convicted.”

        The alleged offenses also could not be considered by the teachers' union as it decided whether to file the grievance on Ms. Schneider's behalf.

        “We could not consider her history,” said Tom Mooney, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers. “We could only look at the current charges. Those facts were in dispute. When that happens, in all likelihood, we will go to arbitration.”

        The arbitrator's findings, based on the evidence presented, were in Ms. Schneider's favor. She returned to teaching last month. On Jan. 29, she was arrested and charged with slapping a kindergartner.

Hands off
        Now, John Concannon is investigating Ms. Schneider again. Once more, if the facts are in dispute, she will be able to file a grievance and take her case to arbitration.

        Meanwhile, mothers such as Erica Jones worry in the afternoon sun as they wait outside for school to let out at Heberle. Erica has two children in the school. One goes to first grade, the other is in kindergarten.

        Inside the school, there's little talk about Ms. Schneider.

        “She was only here a few days and no one got to know her,” said Kim Gibert, Heberle's coordinator of volunteers. “Besides, we're too busy helping these kids get an education.”

        Kim went to grade school at Heberle. Over the last 16 years she has tutored students, assisted teachers in classrooms and made sure volunteers “keep their spirits up.”

        But even if there's little talk, there's the unspoken worry cases like this fuel.

        “I just pray that woman never touched my baby,” Erica Jones said. “I don't slap my babies, and I don't want anyone else doing it either.”

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.