Rhee hedges remarks on laid-off teachers

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 27, 2010

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee said Tuesday that she should have moved faster to quell controversy over comments about laid-off teachers she made to a magazine, and she said only one of the 266 employees the school system dismissed last fall had been accused of sexual misconduct.

In addition, Rhee wrote in a letter to D.C. Council members, six of the laid-off employees had been suspended for using corporal punishment and two for being absent without leave "on multiple occasions." Several others, she wrote, "had egregious time and attendance records."

Rhee declined to apologize for her statement to the national business magazine Fast Company that some of the teachers laid off in October's budget cuts "had sex with children," hit them or were chronically absent without authorization. The comments emerged last week.

"I've been very clear all along that some of the people laid off in the reduction in force were promising or solid teachers," Rhee said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "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 said.

Rhee's magazine comments stunned the public school community. Parents wanted to know whether their children had been in classrooms with sexual predators or teachers who hit them. D.C. officials wondered whether laws that established teachers and school administrators as "mandatory reporters" of suspected child abuse had been ignored. Washington Teachers' Union President George Parker asked Rhee for an apology, saying she had tarnished the reputation of many teachers.

Rhee's letter clarifying the comments, addressed to D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) and members Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), echoed information she first provided to The Washington Post editorial page on Monday. A Post editorial quoted Rhee as saying that a teacher suspected of having sex with a student was put immediately on administrative leave after the allegation, which he denied, and that a report on the matter was made to D.C. police and federal prosecutors in May.

The letter essentially corroborated that account but did not describe the alleged sexual misconduct.

"Student safety is our highest concern," Rhee wrote in the letter, "and we have thousands of teachers, principals and staff members who share that commitment and treat our students with great care and respect every day." She added that the examples she cited in the February issue of Fast Company "involved a very small minority of the teachers who were terminated in the budget reduction."

In the Fast Company item, Rhee addressed a Washington Teachers' Union allegation that she fabricated the budget crunch to purge 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.

Gray, a possible challenger to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty in this year's Democratic primary, had announced an inquiry into Rhee's magazine comments, seeking to learn what happened from school, police and child welfare officials. Of Rhee's letter, Gray spokeswoman Doxie McCoy said: "It's a beginning. It hardly ends his inquiry."

Some laid-off teachers say the episode shows Rhee should be removed.

"I don't think there is any other way out of this," Crystal Proctor, 35, who was laid off in October, said at a news conference with union officials and three D.C. Council members. "She is either lying, exaggerating or didn't follow the law because she would need to report it if she knew there was abuse."

Staff writers Bill Turque and Tim Craig contributed to this report.

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