Rhee silent on details of abuse claims against ex-teachers

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 26, 2010

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee faced mounting pressure Monday to explain her statement to a national business magazine that some of the 266 teachers laid off in last October's budget cuts "had sex with children," hit them or were chronically absent without authorization.

But after spending much of the day promising to elaborate on comments that appear in the February issue of "Fast Company" magazine, Rhee spokeswoman Jennifer Calloway announced shortly before 6 p.m. that there would be no statement until Tuesday morning.

While Rhee remained silent, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray announced an inquiry into her claims, which he said he found "alarming and deeply troubling." In a letter he sent late Monday, Gray set a Wednesday deadline for Rhee to provide each instance since July 1, 2007 -- the beginning of the chancellor's tenure in the District -- in which a teacher who sexually assaulted or hit a child was reported to the D.C. police department or Child and Family Services Agency, as required by law. Gray also wanted to know what actions were ultimately taken.

Gray sent a similar list of queries to Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier and CFSA director Roque R. Gerald.

"If these accusations are true, then we must act swiftly to ensure children are safe and perpetrators are investigated and brought to justice," wrote Gray, a possible Democratic primary challenger to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty this year. "If they are found to be untrue, then these accusations may devastate the lives of many of the teachers who were laid-off in the middle of a school year and who are struggling to rebuild their careers in the midst of a recession."

In the brief "Fast Company" item, which updates a profile published in 2008, Rhee addressed the Washington Teachers' Union's allegation that she fabricated the budget crunch to circumvent seniority rules and rid the system of older teachers.

"I got rid of teachers who had hit children, who had had sex with children, who had missed 78 days of school. Why wouldn't we take those things into consideration?" she said.

The comments stunned the District's public school community and left a litany of questions. Parents wanted to know if their children had been in classrooms with sexual predators or corporal punishers. D.C. officials wondered if laws establishing teachers and school administrators as "mandatory reporters" of suspected child abuse had been ignored.

"Why was an alleged budget problem used as a basis for dismissing people who, according to her, engaged in abuse and sexual molestation of children?" Gray asked in an interview. Council members Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) and Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) also pressed Rhee for information.

George Parker, president of the teachers' union, formally asked Rhee for an apology. "In one blanket, accusatory statement, you have potentially damaged the reputations of 266 teachers in a way that disregards fairness and deprives them of an opportunity to defend themselves," he said in a letter sent Monday.

"Furthermore, your statement has created a public uproar and raises uncertainties about the integrity of all DCPS teachers--not just those who were [laid off]."

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