Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A little more Human and a little less Resource, please.

In September 2005, Seattle Public Schools placed longtime Broadview-Thomson Elementary School teacher Ronald Langston on paid administrative leave.

Within two weeks, a district investigation found that Langston had caught a fourth-grader eating a cookie in class, grabbed him by the collar, dragged him to a trash can and forced him to spit it out. An investigator concluded that Langston had had "inappropriate physical contact" with a student. Langston, who confirms that the incident occurred but disagrees with the characterization of it, eventually was fired last November, but not before the district paid him $52,000 plus full district benefits for 374 days of leave.

Langston's pay contributed to the nearly $2 million Seattle Public Schools spent in the past five years on administrative leaves for teachers, principals and other staff members.

Administrative leave is different from medical or family leave and is specifically for investigation of misconduct. Such leave is supposed to last only as long as the investigation that sparked it, but the district has no official procedures or expectations about how long investigations should take.

Records obtained by The Seattle Times show many cases in which investigations have stalled and proceedings have languished. The district acknowledges struggling with staff turnover and confusion over which cases should be a priority.

As of February, when the district released records to The Times, 13 employees were on administrative leave. One of them, former John Marshall Alternative School principal Joseph Drake, last week agreed to resign from the district in August in exchange for two years' pay.

Drake, 66, was placed on paid administrative leave in August after a consultant's report blamed poor leadership for problems at the school, which is closing at the end of this school year.
In the past five years, the length of time employees spend on administrative leave has grown. In 2003, most leaves lasted less than 100 days. The longest was for an elementary-school teacher who was paid for 201 days off work before leaving her job for good.

In 2006, five teachers spent more than 300 days on leave. One teacher resolved his case in 2006 after being on paid leave for 596 days — the equivalent of three school years.

3 directors in 4 years
The district's human-resources department has had three permanent directors in the past four years and has been without a full-time director since February.

The discipline process is "one area of particular concern," said Gary Ikeda, district lead counsel, who oversees the department. "It's obvious to me that cases have languished ... much longer than is acceptable."

The district has no universal tracking system, he said, and doesn't always prioritize cases where employees are on paid leave. One of his goals is to establish expected time periods for resolving discipline cases.

Union representatives believe the district has overused paid administrative leave, isolating employees and making it harder to investigate what happened.

"In many cases, the length of time it's taken the district to do the investigation is just way out of line," said Steve Pulkkinen, executive director of the Seattle Education Association, which represents the district's 6,000 teachers.

In one case in September, a fifth-grader at a South Seattle school told friends at a slumber party that she was uncomfortable with the way one of her teachers had touched her shoulders. The girl's mother approached the teacher, who e-mailed the principal about it. The teacher was put on leave the next day.

It took the district five weeks to hire an investigator. It took the investigator less than a week to interview students and determine that the teacher had not done anything inappropriate. The teacher was cleared and put back on the job after 11 weeks off.

In several cases reviewed by the Times, district officials had only partial files about employees' leaves. In three cases, district officials couldn't locate any documents that showed why employees spent more than 180 days on paid administrative leave.

A leave of 596 days
Ikeda said cases where employees are on paid leave should be the human-resources department's top priority. It hasn't always happened that way.

The district put a John Marshall Alternative School teacher on leave in March 2006 after colleagues said he verbally harassed and physically restrained students, grabbing them and pushing them in and out of classrooms. An investigator collected statements from students and staff within a couple of weeks.

But then, district documents show, nothing happened for more than a year. By the time work resumed on the teacher's file, district officials recommended he be allowed to resign. In all, the teacher spent 596 days on leave before he resigned in November 2007. It was the longest administrative leave in the district in the past five years — and perhaps ever.

"That was a case, it should never have taken that long," said Pulkkinen, the union director. "We would ask HR regularly, 'What are you doing?' and 'When are you going to made a decision?' and 'Why aren't you acting on this stuff?' It was during one of their upheavals of who was in charge, and he [the teacher] just kept getting lost. Frankly, he reached a point where he was drawing a paycheck and getting on with life."

Backlog of cases
Handling of administrative leaves can vary from district to district.

Chuck Christensen has been human-resources director for Federal Way Public Schools for eight years. He said the longest paid administrative leave he could remember lasted perhaps three months. "I start getting uncomfortable when a leave lasts longer than a month," he said, but his district — about half the size of Seattle's — doesn't have a specific policy to govern how long a leave should last.

Some cases, said Ikeda, the Seattle district's lead counsel, are so complex that they simply take longer to resolve. The district has been working for the past six months to address the backlog of employees on paid leave, he said.

"For a school district of this size, with 8,000 employees, we did not have an adequate system to process the number of cases in a more timely fashion," Ikeda said.

Langston said that during his leave, he called the district every week to ask how much longer he would be away from the classroom. The human-resources department never had an answer for him.

"They'd always say, 'You're getting paid,' and I could not argue with them, because they're right. I'm getting paid," he said.

To pass the time, he played a lot of chess, he said.

It wasn't the first time he had been in trouble. He'd been on paid leave for four months in 2004 after two of his kindergarten students left the school and crossed the street during his class. The case was resolved when Langston was given five days without pay.

In the year before his leave from Broadview-Thomson, he had been reprimanded for insubordination, bullying behavior, coming to work late and leaving early.
Langston said the district never did give him an estimate of how long he'd be spending on paid leave.

"That's like, 'How long are you gonna have those chicken pox?' " he said. "They don't know."

Emily Heffter


Anonymous said...

I wish Edmonds could boast that we have had three directors in the past four years. Makes me jealous of Seattle.

Anonymous said...

Well, if you've been paying attention, I don't have to go over the Distirct's use of "administrative leave" as applied, or rather, misapplied in my case.

Just this: Originally, Tam Osborne told me that I would be on "administrative leave for investigative purposes" until the "investigation" was done. This was on a Tuesday. He assured me that the "investigation" would be finished by the following Monday (and that I'd be able to tell my side on Friday). Six days. Seemed resonable.

Six weeks later, I finally got to tell my side of the story. When I asked the union folks when things would happen, they told me that HR was "too busy" with "other things" to "investigate." See that's another part of the bullying thing; you try to make the object of bullying feel insignificant.

If HR was trying to treat me like a human resource, they failed miserably. If they were part of the bullying, they hit just the right notes. Who knows? Tam? Ken?

Absent other evidence, what other conclusion can I come to? That's not paranoia; that's a legitimate question. The District has cut off all communication with me (except through Ken and he doesn't actually answer his phone or return messages) so what evidence do I have of the District's good intentions?

The no trespass order? Hmm. Seems thin.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Edmonds school district now you layoff the porn king. No, he should have been FIRED!
Edmonds School District is run by a bunch of wacky people.

No, layoffs in Hr?

Anonymous said...

no layoffs in the Supt. area! student enrollment has been declining since 2001 and our district is just now thinking they need to make cuts - what's that! With less students and support staff then that should mean less Assit. Supt. and secretarial staff. Am I thinking wrong??

Anonymous said...
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