Mother Sues NY DOE for Keeping Allegedly Abusive Teacher
A woman is suing the New York Department of Education (DOE) for allowing a teacher who allegedly hit her daughter back into the classroom after he was disciplined for other such incidents.
Fatai Okunola, a teacher at I.S. 219 New Venture School in the Bronx, was arrested and charged with assault in October 2017 after he allegedly asked a 12-year-old student what the word “puta” (Spanish for “whore”) means and then slapped her. The student’s mother told The New York Post in November 2017 she planned to sue the DOE for employing Okunola after he had already been disciplined numerous times for similar behavior.
Robert Vilensky, the attorney representing the mother of the girl Okunola allegedly hit, told School Reform News in December he had filed a notice of claim to alert the DOE to the lawsuit. The Post reported at the time of Okunola’s arrest that he was due in court in January and was still collecting his $98,000 salary.
Policies, or Errors?
Okunola was suspended in 2006 for making inappropriate comments to students and was disciplined in 2014 after being accused of using corporal punishment. Vilensky says teachers union protections may have kept Okunola in the classroom.
“I have not been contacted by any union official whatsoever, and I have seen no statements from the union supporting his actions, which is a good thing,” Okunola said. “But it’s got to be the policies of the union that kept him there. Or if it’s not the policies of the union that kept him there, then clearly there has to be an administration error that did. That’s what I intend to find out.
“The district wouldn’t tell me what happened to him,” Vilensky said. “I had heard he’d been fired, but I don’t know that for a fact. What I do know is that somewhere, the administration failed this student.”
‘Typical in Unionized Districts’
Larry Sand, president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network and a veteran teacher, says this situation isn’t surprising.
“This is typical in unionized districts,” Sand said. “The appeals process goes on forever, and during it, the teacher doesn’t miss a payday, keeps his health benefits, and accrues pension time. Without an overbearing union, this type of situation doesn’t happen.”
Vilensky says there’s no excuse for leaving repeat offenders in classrooms.
“This was either the third or fourth incident we’re aware of, and that doesn’t count incidents we’re not aware of,” Vilensky said. “If a guy does this two or three times before, I don’t care how many rehabilitation classes he goes to or anything like that: How can they put a guy like that in a classroom? Certainly the teachers union in the city of New York is very strong—there’s no question about it. And certainly they must have regulations that say that he must be put back if he goes through some sort of training or conditioning. But there has to be some limitations somewhere.
“New York City has several buildings known as the ‘rubber rooms,’” Vilensky said. “That’s where they put teachers and employees they can’t fire. But if a teacher hitting a student isn’t a fireable offense, then what is?”
‘It Affects Teachers Also’
Sand says students aren’t the only ones who suffer from unfit teachers.
“Obviously, students and parents are affected by having a child spend six hours a day with an incompetent—or worse—teacher,” Sand said. “It affects teachers also. For example, when my middle-school kids came to my history class after being with a teacher who had no classroom management skills, I had to spend the first part of the period, or longer, calming them down.”
School Choice to the Rescue
Sand says if parents had school choice, they could protect their students better from abusive teachers.
“If my kid were in a school with incompetents, or abusers like Mr. Okunola, she wouldn’t be there long,” Sand said. “I would simply move her to a school where teachers who can’t teach and those who abuse kids are not protected by a union.”
Kenneth Artz (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes from Dallas, Texas.
Charlene K. Haar, “Teachers Unions: Roadblocks to Reform,” The American Enterprise, September-October, 1996: https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/teachers-unions-roadblocks-to-reform?source=policybot