Education

‘Teacher Jail’: HISD Educators Under Investigation Can Spend Months Doing Nothing While Still Being Paid

The accused teachers are required to report to an HISD location all day every day until the investigation concludes. Many are found to have done nothing wrong.

HISD’s Education Learning Center in northeast Houston is one of several buildings throughout Houston that house teachers accused of wrongdoing.

Ashley Williams has taught special education for years. In the fall of 2020, she had just started her first year at Anderson Elementary in southwest Houston, after teaching both high school and middle school.

The assignment was short lived.

Just after Thanksgiving, Williams said one of her students — a 6-year-old girl with autism — climbed into a cupboard and wouldn't come out. After repeatedly trying to coax her free, Williams said she finally gave up and continued teaching the rest of the class.

At some point, she said, her performance appraiser came in.

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"(The appraiser) made a big deal or a scene saying I made her get into the closet, which I absolutely did not," Williams said. "And it was crazy that she would even say that, especially since I had been asking for help."

After that, Williams said, she was sent home until the winter break. And for the rest of the school year, she had to spend every day at an HISD office building in northeast Houston, about an hour drive from the school at which she was employed.

She was told to stay there until the school district had completed its investigation into what happened. But if the school district did an investigation, she said she didn't hear about it. And except for a few times where she would do small jobs like unpack boxes, she said she did absolutely nothing.

"I went to a building, sat in a room and stayed there," Williams said.

Unsure whether she would still have a job after the summer, she finally resigned in June, without ever getting the results of an investigation.

The teachers who are "reassigned" to this and other locations throughout the district refer to it as "teacher jail." And the length of Williams' "reassignment" is not unusual.

A Houston Public Media review of data from HISD shows that in the 2018-2019 school year teachers spent a total of 26,257 days on administrative leave based on 178 total allegations of misconduct – an average of 148 days per accused teacher. A school year has about 180 days.

While last school year there were fewer allegations overall due to the pandemic, the average time per allegation was the same.

Teachers receive their full salaries during this time, while their class is taught by another teacher or substitute.

Sonia Gonzalez, attorney for the Houston Federation of Teachers, said this has been going on for years.

"I've had cases where HISD employee relations, which is the department that conducts investigations, their investigators tell me it's almost done, and then they're like, ‘oh sorry, my boss wanted me to change something, so it's not ready yet,'" she said. "And this just goes on."

Allegations include excessive force, inappropriate discipline, and relationship with a student.

Of the 178 allegations in the 2018-2019 school year, 115 were substantiated and 41 were not substantiated. The rest were either inconclusive, not able to be determined, or resulted in criminal charges.

Gonzalez blames the long delays on a shortage of investigators as a result of low salaries. And she said some smaller cases are put on the backburner while more serious allegations are investigated.

Gonzalez said the prioritization is understandable. But, she said, the long wait times aren't fair to teachers waiting for a low-level or "ridiculous accusation" that the district nonetheless has to investigate.

"We understand they have to, we just wish it would be in a more timely fashion," Gonzalez said.

The long wait times also impact students, who end up going months without their regular teacher, she added. And Gonzalez said she's worried about students using the system to their advantage.

"We have several students who have told our teachers before, ‘I can get you fired,'" she said. "Many teachers do feel that students make false statements against them and get two or three friends to corroborate their statements, and that will be the end of someone's career."

HISD did not make anyone available for an interview. In an emailed response to questions, the school district said that "the safety of all students is paramount" and that it takes allegations of misconduct seriously and investigates them thoroughly, but it didn't explain why it takes so long.

Dan Weisberg, CEO of TNTP, a national nonprofit focused on educational equality, said the length of investigations is an issue in school districts across the country.

"You don't want people who are potentially committing misconduct, injuring students in different ways, you don't want them in front of kids, so that's a really important safety issue and just education quality issue," he said. "But you also want to make sure that you have a fair system."

In some places — like in New York City, where the "teacher jail" is known as the "rubber room"— teacher union contracts bear some responsibility for the long delays, Weinberg said. Certain contracts require arbitration for any time a teacher is charged with wrongdoing, and that can draw out the process.

That's not the case in Houston. Still, Weisberg said, due process laws ensure teachers can't just get fired when they are accused of something.

One way to accelerate the process would be for the Texas Legislature to set mandates, like deadlines by which a case has to be resolved.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, after being made aware of the matter by Houston Public Media, said it's something he would consider.

"They're either unwilling or unable to get the job done in an adequate period of time. The problem with this is that it leaves people that are under investigation open-ended and the taxpayers have to pay for it," Bettencourt said. "So this is not the right administrative solution, and if necessary, we'll have to do a legislative solution to fix it."

As for Ashley Williams, she found a new job with a different school district. And she said she feels good about her career going forward.

"I'm probably foolishly optimistic about it," she said. "I still feel that I'll go on and do great."

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Florian Martin

Florian Martin

Business Reporter

Florian Martin is the News 88.7 business reporter and also covers criminal justice, guns and shootings.Florian's stories can frequently be heard on other public radio stations throughout Texas and on NPR nationwide. Some of them have earned him awards from Texas AP Broadcasters, the Houston Press Club, National Association of...

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