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Iris Stevenson and Greg Schiller met in purgatory. It was a room with cubicles facing blank walls, no phones or computers. Here, every weekday, the veteran teachers would sit and write lessons plans for nobody.
The Los Angeles Unified School District still hasn’t officially told Stevenson what allegations landed her in so-called teacher jail. She teaches a nationally acclaimed music program at Crenshaw High School. And almost every year since 1985, she has taken her choral groups on the road to music festivals in Jamaica, Korea, Belgium and, most frequently, France. Last December, their Paris trip was capped by a private performance for President Obama at the White House.
Though the school district did not speak about the allegations against her, the United Teachers Los Angeles union said it heard that Stevenson is alleged to have jetted her students to Paris and Washington without permission. Stevenson said that’s untrue, and that the district has approved her trips every year.
“They knew the exact itinerary,” she told America Tonight, “down to the telephone numbers.”
Schiller, an AP science and psychology teacher at Ramón C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts, knows what his alleged misconduct is: allowing students to create experiments with the word “gun” in the title for a science fair.
At first, he said he was told to stay home for five days. And then it was off to teacher jail.
“Absolute, complete and total shock,” Schiller said about his reaction. “I worried a lot about my students. What were they going to do without me?”
The experience in jail depends on where the teachers serve time. Schiller said he was allowed to talk, but knows of other places where you’re forced to sit in silence. In his jail in the district’s headquarters, he was told to make lesson plans, but said he was banned from giving them to the substitute teacher.
Stevenson spent her time writing music that her students would never sing.
“I saw in teacher jail many individuals who were broken, depressed, suicidal,” she said.
Teacher jail is a place shrouded in mystery. No one knows for sure how many Los Angeles educators are “jailed” or how long they’ve been there. Under pressure, the district changed its policy in May to relocate teachers on paid detention to serve times in their homes, rather than administrative offices. But district teachers and their union say the whole system is still unjust, with a seemingly endless wait for investigations into behavior that pose no imminent danger to students.
The union also believes there’s something suspect about the types of teachers that end up in jail in the first place.
In the L.A. school district, there are at least 355 educators in teacher jail, according to Alex Caputo-Pearl, the new president of UTLA, and some have been there for more than three years. But exact figures have been nearly impossible to get.
“We have made consistent requests to the district for demographic information, for time information, etc.,” he said. “We can ballpark it, but we haven’t gotten that information from the district.”
But from what he has found, Caputo-Pearl believes veteran and more outspoken teachers are more likely to end up “jailed.”
“Many of them are over 40. Many of them are minorities. Many of them are very active in the schools,” he said.
The district’s own policy memo on employee investigations is clear. It "sets strict timelines for investigations," calling for them all to be completed within 120 calendar days. Investigations that don’t require law enforcement must be completed “within 30 days.”
But Caputo-Pearl said teachers are left in limbo for months or years for alleged behavior that’s a far cry from criminal.
“To be clear, no one is arguing that educators who are found to be imminent danger to kids should be in a classroom or at a school. I’ve got a 6-year old daughter. I’ve got a 9-year-old son. They go to LAUSD schools,” he explained. “But many of [the alleged behaviors] are nothing that would rise to the level of pulling someone out of a school and destabilizing a program.”
John Deasy has been the superintendent of L.A. Unified School District for four years. While he would not discuss specific cases, he did defend the district's current detention policy and process.
"I think we’ve done a tremendous amount of fixing in the time that I’ve been superintendent," he said. "I think the way LAUSD operates is under the complete obligation of child safety and the obligation that no decision will ever be made about adult employment without complete information."
He said the investigations "take as long as necessary to ensure the rights of adults and the safety of children" and that "the time a teacher has been teaching in the district has nothing to do with making sure a child is safe."
He also said the number of teachers that have been removed from assignment, or what he calls "housed," is approximately 251. "There are other employees as well," he added, "not just teachers."
A job to do
Schiller’s school wouldn’t let him stay in limbo very long. Supporters launched a Facebook campaign, and in April, students, parents and fellow teachers staged a walkout in protest. Two months into his detention, Schiller was reassigned back to his classroom in time to prepare students for their AP exams.
“I had a job to do,” said Schiller. “The kids were very supportive. The parents were incredibly supportive.”
On the heels of that protest, Superintendent Deasy changed district policy to relocate teachers on paid detention to their homes, rather than administrative offices.
“They’re on the defensive,” said Caputo-Pearl. “They know they’re not doing what they need to do and that’s why they made that move. And we’ve just got to make sure they don’t use it to sweep it under the rug.”
The district's investigation of Schiller isn't completely closed, but like the community that rallied to support him, Schiller now rallies fellow teachers to action.
"I meet with my colleagues, the Unjustly Jailed Teachers Committee. We meet at the union headquarters once a month," he explained. "I offer whatever suggestions I can to help."
Come the new school year, Stevenson may still face detention in her home. Her investigation is ongoing. She doesn't know when it will end, or when she'll be able to once again connect with the students and community she's been making music with for years.
She’s been advocating against the teacher jail system, while acknowledging that this may be putting her career at risk.
Yet Stevenson is hardly dispirited. On the day we visited her, the Black Business Association was honoring her for her contributions to the community.
“Oh, I just keep going,” she said with a laugh. “I just keep going. I just keep going. I’ll always teach. That’s what I’m called to do.”