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As child abuse allegations in Philly schools rise, ‘teacher jail’ thrives and reputations are at stake

One pupil was bothering another in James Slater's classroom at an Olney elementary school, so Slater grabbed a chair to move the 8-year-old aggressor away. The pupil told authorities he fell and was hurt. Slater denied that, but was cited for child abuse in January 2017, and hasn't returned to work since.

School bus. .File photo.Steven M. Falk / Philadelphia Daily News
School bus. .File photo.Steven M. Falk / Philadelphia Daily NewsRead moreSteven M. Falk

One pupil was bothering another in James Slater's classroom at James R. Lowell Elementary School in Olney, so Slater grabbed a chair to move the 8-year-old aggressor away. The pupil told authorities he fell and was hurt. Slater denied that, but was cited for child abuse in January 2017, and hasn't returned to work since.

The allegation against Slater was among 280 last year in which Philadelphia school employees were accused of violating the state's Child Protective Services Law, which protects children from abuse. From January to October, he sat in the reassignment room at School District headquarters at 440 N. Broad St., a room widely known among school personnel as "teacher jail," or less so as "the rubber room."

The city's Department of Human Services ultimately determined that the case was unfounded, but the School District still recommended that Slater be terminated, according to a district spokesperson who declined to elaborate. Meanwhile, he's suspended without pay, pending a hearing before the school board.

Child abuse reports statewide have skyrocketed since 2015, when an amendment added teachers, administrators, and personnel to the definition of perpetrators of child abuse. That year — the first full year in which the amendment was in effect — there were 126 reports of suspected child abuse by a school employee in Philadelphia. The previous year, there were four.

DHS Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa offered a simple explanation for the increased numbers in the city: "We are in Philadelphia County, we have more complaints because it's the largest."

Last year, state authorities received 1,207 reports alleging abuse by Pennsylvania school employees. Of the 280 in Philadelphia, only 18 were substantiated.

The updated legislation, amended in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal, took effect at the end of 2014, and the most significant change came in the "chain of command" reporting procedures that educators must follow. Every school employee is now a "mandated reporter" and must report any suspicion of child abuse to the school principal or dean, who is required to report the incident to DHS. Under previous guidelines, only specific school employees were mandated reporters.

Union leaders welcome legislation that protects children, but they're concerned it may come at the expense of school employees' reputations. "It's been taken to the extreme," Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan said. "They're devastated when the accusation is made."

At a protest last month in South Philadelphia, Robin Cooper, president of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, demanded that legislators revisit the changes to the law, which she said have made teachers hesitant to defend themselves and their students.

"It's part of my job, I have to touch kids every day to break up a fight, so if by chance it gets reported, I have to wait for DHS," which can take several months, Cooper said in an interview. "Now you're humiliated, you're under suspicion of child abuse. But how can you keep children safe if you can't touch them?"

Accused employees are removed from job duties while DHS and the School District complete separate investigations. While those investigations proceed, the employee must report to the reassignment room. Accused employees continue to be paid and are encouraged to complete administrative work for the district, prepare courses, or grade papers. But they cannot work on personal projects or discuss with colleagues from their school the incident that landed them there.

Twelve teachers were in the reassignment room at the end of the 2017-18 school year. A spokesperson for the School District said such rooms are a "longstanding practice in public education."

Although the law allows the use of force for safety, control, and supervision, school employees still must report any suspicion of abuse. DHS must be shown substantial evidence to prove abuse.

Marianne Kennedy, a teacher at Willard Elementary School in Kensington, was accused in September 2017 of child abuse for trying to stop a student from banging his head against the floor. She sat in the reassignment room for six months, eventually was cleared of the charges, and returned to school in February.

"I didn't sleep at all," she wrote that month in an email to her colleagues when she learned she'd been reassigned. "To know that my nightmare is over and I am just waiting to be returned has made me so excited."

Richard W. Migliore, a Havertown lawyer who represents Slater and represented Kennedy, said the new guidelines leave teachers in a bind.

"If they fail to act in such situations, then the teacher can be accused of wrongdoing and even prosecuted for child abuse," he said. "If they do act, and a child falls or gets hurt, then they are also open for an allegation of child abuse or other wrongdoing."

Meanwhile, an allegation can land an experienced educator like Slater or Kennedy in "teacher jail."

"It's a very negative place," Slater said. "Everybody there is very unhappy."