The suspension of Iris Stevenson, an award-winning choir director at Crenshaw High School in December 2013, not only sparked public outrage and growing criticism from United Teacher Los Angeles (UTLA), but drew attention to what educators claim is an unfair disciplinary system that have long been a source of frustration – “teacher jails.”
“Superintendent John Deasy has created an industrialized prison complex for teachers. He has imprisoned 350 teachers; with more added daily,” said Randy Traweek, a former assistant principal at Crenshaw High School, in his opening statement last January 2013 before the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education (LAUSD).
Traweek’s scathing indictment highlights growing tension between top administrators and LAUSD officials over disciplinary procedures that have seen hundreds of veteran teachers reassigned to the districts offices – often called “teacher jails”.
Over the last four or five years teachers have reportedly been removed from the classroom on minor offenses, such as paperwork errors says (UTLA) President Warren Fletcher, who expressed deep distrust in the superintendents disciplinary approach.
“We have been lobbying for reform for a long time because when a teacher is removed from their classroom during these Deasy years, they stay out for months or sometimes years. It is UTLA’s job, says Fletcher, to ensure that teacher’s rights are observed.”
Caroline Owens-Horton, a Crenshaw High School educational assistant and former aid to Stevenson, said Stevenson’s suspension sheds new light on the need to address arbitrary dismissals.
The Board suspended Stevenson following what was unofficially reported as an unsanctioned fieldtrip.
“Stevenson filled out all the necessary paperwork before taking her students on the fieldtrip,” Owens-Horton said. “Yet, the district released a statement to the press claiming she didn’t follow appropriate procedure.”
“That is a complete lie because we know for a fact Stevenson did everything right – including having the parents sign permission slips.”
In a lengthy letter addressed to LAUSD school board members, UTLA Secondary Vice President, Gregg Solkovits expressed lingering dissatisfaction with the district and called on the Board to end what he referred to as “abhorrent practices.”
“I am calling on LAUSD officials to immediately return Iris Stevenson to her classroom, or charge her with a crime,” Solkovits wrote in the letter to the Board.
But at a recent town hall meeting held in Portola Middle School, Superintendent Deasy wasn’t backing down. Addressing parents and teachers, Deasy said, “The LAPD, FBI, sheriffs are the agencies that bring to our attention issues that have occurred. Unfortunately, those issues are usually very serious. A teacher could be accused of drug trafficking, child molestation, prostitution, etc.
“We don’t tell an employee anything unless those law enforcement agencies tell us what they decide.”
To which someone in the audience yelled “What about the Crenshaw music teacher, Iris Stevenson?”
Deasy, clearly bristled by the question, responded saying, “LAUSD will take as long as necessary to do its investigation, to protect the rights and safety of children.”
UTLA President Warren Fletcher said, “The problem here is Stevenson hasn’t even been accused of anything that we can figure out related to students safety. If we’re going to defend Stevenson, we need to know what the allegations are.”
According to LAUSD’s Human Resources Policy, Article 10 – Evaluation and Discipline procedure, states, suspension or termination – the administrator shall notify the employee and specify which action is about to be taken, and that a meeting will be held to discuss the matter.
Owens-Horton said the district hasn’t informed Stevenson on what the charges are against her, saying, “Stevenson’s suspension has already exceeded 45 days and she still doesn’t know why she was sent to teacher jail,” speculating that the district isn’t following its own policy.”
Owens-Horton called the probe on Stevenson a secret witch-hunt, alleging LAUSD officials are using the fieldtrip as a smokescreen to obscure their real intentions. She said it was Stevenson who led the effort against changing Crenshaw High from a public high school to a private charter school. LAUSD officials are using bullying and intimidation tactics hoping she’ll quit since they know they can’t fire a public school, tenured teacher.
“What you have to understand is Crenshaw High School is a predominantly minority school,” Owens-Horton said, “if they turn it into a charter school, it’ll destabilize another inner city school that caters to students of color. The superintendent’s reconstitution initiative will dismantle an entire staff of teaching jobs – and if any teacher wanted their jobs back they’d have to go through a reapplication process.”
Hoku Jeffery, an organizer for BAMN, (By Any Means Necessary) – a national outreach coordinator and advocate for equality, said “Charter schools are not required to enroll students with special needs, or students who speak English as a second language like public schools are obligated.”
He added, “Crenshaw High has one of the highest number of students in the district with special needs, and they can attend Crenshaw High because it’s a public school. This is why students need teachers like Dr. Stevenson in public schools. She’s a role model. She brings out the best in all students by encouraging their creativity and individuality. But while she sits in “teacher jail” – students are losing out on quality education.”
This, says Jeffery, is the reason he’s calling for Deasy’s resignation, saying, and “The superintendent’s policies are an attack on public education His policies are committed to intimidating and detaining teachers on secret charges to destroy public education in LAUSD.”
Critics have argued that LAUSD’s disciplinary process is a waste of very limited resources. Teachers removed from classrooms under investigation are still collecting their full salaries and benefits – averaging $6,000 a month – with an additional $856,000 for substitute teachers who fill the vacant positions. This cost the district a total of $1.4 million a month in salaries. However, Superintendent Deasy says the cost is worth paying – to protect students.
The district implemented a strict zero tolerance policy – pulling teachers out of classroom for minor infractions in the wake of a sex scandal in 2012 when an ex-Miramonte Elementary school teacher, Mark Berndt was arrested and convicted of sexual misconduct against 23 students.
Stories of false allegations are all too typical of what is happening in schools where teachers are forced to go on administrative leave, said a teacher who’s currently facing disciplinary action and wishes to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from LAUSD officials.
“Hundreds of LAUSD teachers have been reassigned to teacher jail on fabricated complaints of misconduct,” she said.
“I was falsely accused of wrongdoing by a student. The funny thing is – what I’m accused of doing, the day the incident supposedly occurred, I called in absent that day. Also, what LAUSD officials do when they’re investigating a teacher is they’ll usually call a teacher in for an interview and ask the teacher a bunch of stupid questions like what were you doing last Sunday? This, to me, is making a complete mockery of due process.”
She also alleges LAUSD officials routinely target teachers who are over 60-years-old because the district doesn’t want to continue paying the 8.25 percent in pension cost and health benefits for older veteran teachers.
“It is obvious this is a clear-cut-case of age discrimination and how LAUSD is using trumped up charges just to try to get rid of teachers or force us to resign,” she said.
Though the district denies they are targeting older teachers – a survey conducted by L.A. chapter of Educators 4 Excellence found that the majority of the educators currently reassigned to district offices across Los Angeles are older teachers. UTLA President Warren Fletcher was outraged by the report and vowed to file federal and state age-discriminatory complaints against the Board.
Administrative staff at UTLA had initially contacted LAUSD requesting the district provide them with proof of the age of all the teachers currently under investigation, but the district refused.
This prompted Lisa Karahalios, a LAUSD teacher and a member of Unjustly Jailed Teacher Committee request the birth records through the Freedom of Information Act database, where she found that out of 493 teachers under investigation – 453 are veteran older teachers.
Alex Caputo-Pearl, an elected member of the UTLA Board of Directors, said, “The district has embarked on a campaign targeting teachers with seniority, most of whom are over 40-years-old and paid higher salaries. As of last year, 33 teachers were removed from Crenshaw High – mostly over the age of 40, and “many of them were institutions on the campus.”
Caroline Wong, also with BAMN, notes that another reason why older teachers have become a target for LAUSD disciplinary action is because older and more experienced teachers are trained in critical thinking methods, while younger teachers use a test driven regiment to produce high student test scores. This does not provide students with the critical skills they ‘ll need for the rest of their lives; Wong said.
She says it is no coincidence that out of nearly 500 teachers banned from school property, less than 20 of them are under 40-years-old.
“I can say this specifically based on concrete research, that school district after school district the board is targeting older teachers, who so happen to be minorities as well,” Wong said.
Caputo-Pearl said, “We need to highlight the cynical agenda behind teacher jail, which is to basically have a place to put anyone who disagrees with the administration. I’m going to do everything in my power to stop this cynical attack on teachers that not only creates a climate of fear but also destabilizes schools,” Caputo-Pearl said.
A former student at Crenshaw High, and leading voice in the Team Iris Stevenson Movement, Vanity Brown said, “The sad part is most of these officials on the Board are making decisions for inner city schools and they don’t even live in the inner city. They don’t have an understanding what the needs are for minority students. This is completely negligent.”
Dr. Frances Copeland of the UTLA African American Committee wrote a letter to the superintendent requesting the Board provide the numbers of the proportion of African-American teachers who are in teacher jail, and the ratio of those same teachers in the district. School district officials have yet to respond.
Who Is Iris Stevenson?
Iris Stevenson’s outstanding career as an LAUSD teacher came to a screeching halt last December, and after four months, she still doesn’t know why.
The award-winning choir director isn’t saying much, because there isn’t a lot to say, after she gave her pupils the opportunity to perform for the President—and was immediately suspended from her duties with no clear date for reinstatement. She has been left without a choir, without a classroom, and without the students to whom she dedicated nearly 30 years of her life nurturing, teaching, and motivating.
LAUSD’s hesitance to file specific charges against Stevenson has left her uncertain about, and unable to predict, her future. But Stevenson is no stranger to unpredictability—and as she waits out the clock on what is surely the biggest hurdle in her career, she can reflect back upon what has been an impressive list of accomplishments.
As the leader of an award-winning choir, it is no surprise that Stevenson began pursuing her love of music at an incredibly early age. A child protégé in her own right, she began composing at the age of three, performing at seven, and was accepted into the prestigious Villa Maria Institute when she was thirteen. She went on to earn a full-ride scholarship to Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and became a successful gospel artist, who signed with Atlanta International and released an album called Restore My Joy in 1990. She collaborated with several gospel greats, including Mattie Moss Clark, Judith Christie McAllister, Heritage, and Janice Robinson.
The Buffalo, NY native’s journey also became the inspiration for Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, after producer Dawn Steel read about Stevenson in an article about LAUSD teachers. Upon observing her in the classroom, Steel was convinced Stevenson was the perfect paradigm on which to model the film sequel to the first installment of the Golden Globe-nominated Sister Act. The sequel went on to win a Kids’ Choice Award, and a nomination for Best Family Motion Picture at the 1995 Young Artist Awards. Whoopi Goldberg, who played the character that was loosely based on Stevenson, was also nominated for an MTV Movie Award for Best Comedic Performance.
From the money Stevenson earned from Disney for optioning her story’s rights, she, of course, spent it on her students, sending them to the Worldwide Music Festival in Nice, France.
Stevenson, who grew up in a working class family, was bent on helping children who were growing up in similar means. She came to Los Angeles in 1985 and began what is now a famous choir at Crenshaw High School. The Elite Choir’s size rose from a meager six students to over six hundred today. She has taken her kids to perform on several television shows, including the Arsenio Hall Show, an HBO special, and Chez Whoopi. They have also traveled to countries around the globe, including Jamaica, where they won the Jamaica Jazz Festival four years in a row, England, Japan, Germany, the Netherlands, and more. Last December, she brought them to perform for President Obama.
“We never knew we could go and sing for the White House,” Stevenson said. “We did not initiate contact with them – it was the White House social office that contacted us.
“It was an amazing experience for the students to sing before the first African American president. In fact, after they met the president they broke down and cried. They couldn’t believe they had just met the President,” Stevenson said.
But Stevenson has accomplished quite a bit right here in Los Angeles as well. She also started the “Shared Experiences, Common Ground” program at Crenshaw, which is designed to encourage cross-cultural diversity amongst her students.
“We believe in a classroom without walls,” Stevenson says. “That’s why I started taking our young people to countries like South Korea so they can actually understand other cultures. I feel that our young people have to take advantage of these experiences offered to other communities but not necessarily offered to African American and Hispanic students.”
Stevenson believes all teachers should be following her lead, as well.
“We as teachers have a responsibility preparing students in speaking the language of commerce, so they can succeed in a global society. They cannot do that speaking Ebonics.”
At Crenshaw, Stevenson is not only known for her musical clout and tenacious ambition. Her students proudly spoke of their connections to her, and her warm, open, and inviting nature that made it easy to approach her with personal problems, for which she was never without advice. One student cited Stevenson as a major influence in getting through her depression. Many of her pupils call her “Mama.”
As Stevenson waits to find out whether she will be able to return to her post as LAUSD teacher and unanimously loved choir director, she remains hopeful.