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More light needed on abuse allegations

My colleague Bill Turque has another great story on the dispute between D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and the many teachers and readers who were offended by her statements that some of the teachers fired for budget reasons in October had also abused kids. Turque discovered that D.C. school officials reported more than 200 allegations of teacher abuse last year, but their validity is still being investigated.

I spent a lot of time on this issue and produced a series of columns in 2007. The most relevant was the story of Dawn Mosisa, a Montgomery County parent whose elementary school child was in a classroom where the teacher abused other students, but not her daughter. Her story exposed a major flaw in the way such cases are handled. Because her child was not touched, but simply observed the abuse, Mosisa and her husband could not get the school to tell them anything specific about what had actually happened, and what was being done about it.

That is the reason why I wish Nathan Saunders, general vice president of the Washington Teachers Union, had given more thought to the statement he gave to Turque. He said "the corporal punishment rules and regulations that exist are not problematic" in the District schools. I think a lot of parents and teachers would agree with me that he is wrong about that.

The first problem with his statement is that it ignores the fact, confirmed for me by educators in the District and many other places, that corporal punishment rules have not solved the problem of students using false accusations to hurt teachers they dislike. Turque's story points out that a change in the D.C. rules a few years ago corrected a situation where "teachers could be charged with corporal punishment for virtually any form of contact." But he heard the same thing from teachers in the city that I have heard: "Many instructors say they are still constantly vulnerable to false claims of mistreatment."

I have written about this before. Even a false claim can hurt a teacher badly. The news that the teacher has been cleared of the charge often does not catch up with the report of wrongdoing. The incident will always leave some doubt in some minds, derailing what could have been very productive teaching careers.

The other problem Saunders appears to be ignoring---a situation found nearly everywhere, not just D.C.--is the American education system's denial that parents of kids in the classes of abusive teachers have any right to know what is going on.

This can have heart-rending consequences. Mosisa's daughter had told her and her husband that her second grade teacher had hit one child and was verbally abusive to others. The school refused to give them any specifics, even after the teacher left. They cited privacy rules.

Their little girl went on to third grade. They figured she was over it. They were wrong. As I said in that column:

"In third grade, Mosisa's daughter was grinding through an hour and a half of homework a night. When Mosisa mentioned this to the third grade teacher at Back To School night, the teacher was puzzled. They discovered the girl had misunderstood the homework instructions, and was taking home assignments that she had not been asked to do.

"Mosisa asked her daughter why she had not spoken up, since she sat in the classroom every day, watching the teacher review homework different from what she had done. The girl said she was afraid to say anything because in her second grade teacher's class, if you got something wrong, you were ridiculed or worse."

I hope this latest outbreak of interest in this issue will lead policymakers to reexamine how we treat such cases. There must be a better way to protect students, teachers, and parents too. I vote for more sunshine, not less, on such cases so everyone will know what the facts are so they deal with them, rather than a lot of whispers.

For more Jay go to, for more on schools go to

By Jay Mathews  | February 9, 2010; 12:02 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  D.C. schools, Michelle A. Rhee, Nathan Saunders, parents denied abuse information, parents ignored, students making false charges against teachers, teachers abusing students, teachers in trouble  
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Any thoughts on why a whopping 128 of the 220 reported incidents were in elementary schools? By contrast, only 13 were in senior high schools (14 in combined "educational campuses," 34 in middle school, 31 in "other".)

Having witnessed an abusive educator in a DCPS elementary school first-hand (my daughter was in his class), I am not surprised. He was a bully, plain and simple. I think this statistical breakdown deserves more attention than Turque gave it -- he didn't mention it at all in the article.

Posted by: trace1 | February 9, 2010 1:26 PM | Report abuse

Jay, I remember the heartbreaking column you wrote years ago. I was involved in reporting a DCPS teacher who was abusive to a class where my child was not a member of the class. Kids talked about it on the playground and it bubbled up to the PTA. I remembered your article when I first heard the rumors- rumors that were confirmed by some parents. Even still, once the teacher was removed from class, some parents wanted to believe the teacher and accused the children of cooking up some story. Other teachers accused 5, 6 and 7 year olds of "not being ready to learn" as if they made that choice consciously.

I really hope the Washington Post follows up on this story to get a feel for how the 128 instances of elementary school abuse played out. the "man bites dog" story is not the mouthing-off high schooler, but the scared 7 year old.

Posted by: bbcrock | February 9, 2010 2:36 PM | Report abuse

It appears that you're taking Saunders' quote out of context. Y didn't you get a quote from him that's relevant to your topic. You pulled the quote from another article and maybe you should have asked him to elaborate and why would you hold him accountable for the laws that he didn't write. Is it the law or the abuse that's at issue. It should be the abuse. I've seen and reported incidents of corporal punishment that really hurt me to the core. In one case, it was caught on the surveillance camera and the administrator and other teachers along with the cops in the building tried to cover it up; but the teacher was still caught bc the detective was viligant enough to check the tape downtown. I was very ashamed of the adults and realized that sometimes it depends on who the abuse is happening to bc when that teacher violently handled that child, my initial reaction was who is protecting that child in this situation. I was the only one, not one other person in that building cared and they tried to protect the abuser and looked at me as if I was crazy for saying something. I don't think I could've ever looked at the child the same way if I didn't stand up and say something. So, let's just protect the children.

Posted by: wtf1 | February 9, 2010 3:12 PM | Report abuse

For wtf1, I thought Turque's piece, and the context of the quote, were very clear. Saunders said there was no problem with the current rules on corporal punishment. If he was misquoted, I am sure he will tell us. But the idea of a news story is to tell you what the guy is saying, and I don't think quote can be reasonably interpreted any other way. If as readers we have to doubt every quote, and check with the source ourselves, there would be little point in spending 75 cents for the paper, or even wasting a lot of time reading it online.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | February 9, 2010 5:03 PM | Report abuse

When I was in 4th grade, I was in a difficult inner city school. The teachers were really stressed. I had a teacher throw a desk out of frustration. None of us reported him and he continued to teach at least through the end of that year. I am 39 years old and I still remember how scared we were by that teacher's actions. While we want to beleive that teachers have children's well being in mind, I am not surprised that some teachers do loose it or are just bullies. What makes me nuts is that we don't really look at these situations, but want to deny them. Just as we turn a blind eye to domestic abuse. Ideally we would have a help line for stressed teachers and a principle that listens closely to what is said by children and parents.

Posted by: Brooklander | February 9, 2010 5:45 PM | Report abuse


You wrote:

"Mosisa and her husband could not get the school to tell them anything specific about what had actually happened, and what was being done about it."

Unless I'm completely misunderstanding you, I'm confused. You want schools to break federal law? It doesn't matter what D.C. parents or anyone else want in regard to what you are saying (If I understand you correctly) because that issue was settled by the Civil War. Federal law would prohibit the disclosures you seek.

I tried unsuccessfully to follow your link, but in a situation like that wouldn't the central office take over and tell educators in the building to not breath a word to anyone? In a situation like that, even without guidance from the central office, even the best educator would be likely be fired for breeching any confidentiality.

That being said, confidentiality laws can go too far. It wasn't long ago that our IEPs had to be hand-written with no wordprocessing or anything. We're still not supposed to e-mail students names to administrators, even though now we're supposed to use referrals on the computer. Nearly every day we hear from a counselor or an administrator that they would like to share information on individual student's troubles, but they're prohibitted. My school is extreme in its concentration of mentally ill and adjudicated yout, but I'd assume that most teachers have students who are off their meds and in great danger but they aren't allowed to know. And it really gets wierd when a kid has a pyschotic breakdown at school and the teacher is helping. The teacher and the counselor may be working as a team, and the student or parent are free to volunteer info if they can, but the counselor can't even share information in those potentially life and death situations.

On a broader level, any teacher who doesn't belong to a union is like someone who doesn't put on a seat belt while driving.

We're not supposed to break up fights either. So when a kid is laying unconscious and bleeding on the ground and being stomped or punched or choked, we're supposed to do nothing? I've broken up hundreds of fights, and I've been punched dozens of times, but I've never had an accusation. But then again, I'd never dare making contact while confiscating a cell phone or confiscating marijuana ...

And we're not even supposed to drive a student home?!?!? I can't imagine a caring teacher who hasn't done that.

Posted by: johnt4853 | February 9, 2010 6:47 PM | Report abuse

Where does one find the DCPS policy and procedure on alleged child abuse and corporal punishment?
The Archdiocese of Washington's is described here:

Posted by: edlharris | February 9, 2010 8:10 PM | Report abuse

I just think your focus should be on the abuse. I've never been up on corporal punishment charges; but if I'm not mistaken once a charge is made, the union is out of the loop. You're absolutely right, Nathan can defend himself and he does it very well, when given the opportunity. I just thought that you making a story based on a quote from another story was very lazy journalism.

Posted by: wtf1 | February 9, 2010 10:26 PM | Report abuse

Jay, the link to the DAwn Mosisa did not work.
This one does:

Here's a link to a book review (of sorts) Jay wrote. The book concerns false accusations about teachers:¬Found=true

Posted by: edlharris | February 10, 2010 2:52 AM | Report abuse

am waiting for efavorite to weigh in with her tired arguments, and also for inspiriation by evoking the soaring thoughts of great figures in our history (someone else's specialty). All of this is to obscure the WTU Teachers First policy.

Posted by: axolotl | February 10, 2010 7:16 AM | Report abuse


am waiting for efavorite to weigh in with her tired arguments, and also for inspiriation by evoking the soaring thoughts of great figures in our history (someone else's specialty). All of this is to obscure the WTU Teachers First policy.

Posted by: axolotl | February 10, 2010 7:16 AM "

Don't worry Michelle, I'm sure they'll way in.

And why you suggesting that any teacher accused of abuse should be fired?
That's what you said over at Bill Turque's article.

Posted by: phillipmarlowe | February 10, 2010 10:52 AM | Report abuse

As a new-to-DCPS teacher this year, I'll say there's something wrong with the rules. I was *shocked* that we had to attend a training session in August about corporal punishment. I was shocked and insulted. Seriously?! In the 21st century, this is still a questions? Corporal punishment should never be OK- the fact that DCPS even had to discuss it (and that there were teachers making arguments for it!)says *alot* to me about the culture.

In a similar vein, I had to sit in another hour-long session explaining to me that "special education" doesn't mean sending kids to some padded room somewhere. Again- seriously?! There is something VERY wrong in DCPS if they have to explain to new teachers that, yes, you will have some inclusion kids in your class if it's their LRE. Makes me really wonder what was going on here in the past.

Posted by: uva007 | February 10, 2010 11:09 AM | Report abuse

Thanks edlharris for the better link. I am beginning to think the links I create at home on my laptop don't work. As for johnt4853's thoughtful post, the federal law on this is not as relevant as you suggest, and speaks more to information on students than information on teachers. It is mostly state laws and case law we are dealing with, and at least one Maryland legislator told me he thought Montgomery County in the Mosisa instance was misinterpreting the law. Some hard work on this by lawyers who understand the issues might bring improvements, but nobody seems to want to devote too much time to it. It is just a few kids that get hurt. Why bother? That seems to be the attitude.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | February 10, 2010 12:24 PM | Report abuse

It's CYA.
That's why you also get the sexual harassment and the homeless "training".

Posted by: edlharris | February 10, 2010 12:51 PM | Report abuse

The usual.

Every parents of poor schools has probably heard personal stories from their children of being in classes where there are disruptive and dysfunctional students. School administrators of these schools simply dump these students with normal students and pretend the problem will be solved by the teacher using class management skills. There is no wonder that this policy produces in these schools rates of 40 percent or higher of failure to learn basic skills.

There are numerous incidents of teachers being assaulted by students, and students being assaulted by other students. Many students are simply afraid to go to school where the school administrators simply tolerate mayhem.

Do schools from the earliest grade on separate the dysfunctional students from the normal students? No. Instead the policy is to pretend that teachers should handle these students and that disruptive and dysfunctional students should be placed with normal students.

No one wants or tolerate abusive teachers but at the same time the problem of tolerating dysfunctional students is a far larger problem in the schools than the small number of teachers that are abusive.

Mr. Mathews continuously writes about public schools but has yet to write an article how students can be educated when disruptive and dysfunctional students are simply placed in with normal students.

Mr. Mathews served in the Army and he might use his imagination and think back on how the quality of his basic training would have been lowered if the Army simply tolerated disruptive and dysfunctional recruits by placing them with normal recruits. If he did this he might finally understand the reasons why public schools are failing in poor neighborhoods.

Posted by: bsallamack | February 10, 2010 1:35 PM | Report abuse

phillipmarlow: no, u are wrong. pls read it again. I am for due process, but NO RUBBER ROOM, as in NYC. In New York, alleged incompetent andor abusive teachers languish for 1-2, even 3, years while their union does everything to defeat the factfinding and adjudication process. Meanwhile, full pay and pension accumulation for all. We cannot afford that. Still, the WTU goes to great lengths to oppose the discipline or firing of any teacher for any reason. Teachers First is their position. The ones who suffer are the children. Make sense?

Posted by: axolotl | February 10, 2010 4:58 PM | Report abuse


The whole point of any teacher's union is to protect teacher's jobs, that is of course their sole function. They don't run schools, make curriculum or calendar decisions, hire teachers, make curriculum decisions, or place teachers in a given position. My question that I wish you would think about is why given that almost every school district has a teacher's union to deal with why are the DC school so out of control?

Posted by: mamoore1 | February 10, 2010 5:35 PM | Report abuse

Some hard work on this by lawyers who understand the issues might bring improvements, but nobody seems to want to devote too much time to it. It is just a few kids that get hurt. Why bother? That seems to be the attitude.

Jay, I agree that better disclosure could be helpful but I think your description is more than a bit condescending. Right now all districts are very careful about saying too much ( you Rhee does not seem to be so inhibited when talking , I don't think it serves the district well). Please interview a professional administrator from outside DCPS to gain meaningful insight as to why they say as little as possible. I think the answer is a little more worthy than the apathy your comment implies.

Posted by: mamoore1 | February 10, 2010 5:54 PM | Report abuse

axolotl ,
you're illogical and factually wrong.
A teacher in a "rubber room" who gets fired loses their pension.

And the teacher unions aren't the problem here.
If the school administration have good policies and procedures in place, these allegations would be quickly resolved.
But as we've seen with DCPS and special ed, they screw up and the lawyers take them to the cleaners (and not Judge Roy Peterson's).
Go read this article about how DCPS caved on an abuse lawsuit:

Posted by: phillipmarlowe | February 10, 2010 6:17 PM | Report abuse

A correction from my better half.
A teacher who is fired would keep their pension (just as they keep their social security).

Also, if you read the City Journal article
the union doesn't provide great representation.

Posted by: phillipmarlowe | February 10, 2010 6:38 PM | Report abuse

I assume posters here know that teachers union rules vary from district to district and historically, urban teachers union contracts include job and seniority protections based on factory worker rules. This is the kind of contract that exists in DCPS. Why are we treating teachers like factory workers-- as if they are simply compiling widgets on an assembly line?

The problem is not the union per se, the problem is how the contracts evolved in certain districts-- with sign off from former Superintendents and school boards.

In particular, transfer and excess rules in urban districts often require principals to hire candidates they do not want. This generally does not happen in suburban school districts- at most, these candidates are entitled to an interview. In addition, excessing is generally not strictly tied to seniority as it is in urban districts.

It would be useful for the Post to do an in-depth comparison of union contracts between Fairfax, Montgomery, DC, etc.

Posted by: trace1 | February 11, 2010 8:26 AM | Report abuse


I still can't follow your link so I'm still flying blind on the specifics. But when parents or anyone are asking specifics, even about a teacher in relationship with a small body of students, how do you disentangle the two? I can't imagine a system in education or elsewhere that wouldn't play it safe, craft carefully worded statements, and prohibit everyone from saying anything more. I understand the parents frustrations, and far be it for me to defend risk-adverse administrators but its unfair to expect any single group in our litigious society to take additional risks in certain situations.

Posted by: johnt4853 | February 12, 2010 11:13 AM | Report abuse

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