A Real Class Act 

A teacher who, among other things, allegedly assaulted a co-worker in front of her fourth-graders gets to keep her job.

Should Oakland schoolteacher Doreen Callender be fired? Should she ever be allowed to teach again? You be the judge.

Callender has taught in Oakland public schools for 21 years, and when the 2006-07 school year began, she was assigned to a fourth-grade class at Emerson Elementary. The students at the North Oakland school are among the most troubled in the city and desperately need good teachers. Nearly 70 percent come from families living in poverty, and the school consistently scores among the worst in the state on standardized tests.

Indeed, some of Callender's fourth-graders had difficulty writing simple sentences, yet on September 14, just two weeks into the school year, she decided the best course for them was to watch a movie. The sixty-year-old teacher had a pressing personal issue to deal with on her classroom computer, so important that students later said she yelled at them when they tried to get her attention.

She was doing her son's college homework.

That afternoon, as Callender typed away with her back to her students, Joy Callison, a social worker at Emerson, knocked on the classroom door and walked in. Callison is used to dealing with anger-management issues — she provides emotional counseling to the school's problem kids. But she wasn't prepared for what was about to happen.

"I walked over to Doreen, who had her back to me, and I leaned over, lightly put my fingers on her back and said in a whisper, 'Ms. Callender,' when Doreen immediately turned around and screamed, 'Get away from me!'" the social worker wrote in a sworn statement. "Doreen then stood up, put her hands on me, turned me around, and roughly pushed me across the room." Callison said Callender continued to push her outside, yelled, "Stay out of my room," and slammed the door. And all this in front of the kids.

One of the students later told Principal Wendi Caporicci that the teacher had told her class she'd lost her temper because she'd mistaken Callison for one of them. According to another, Callender said she thought the social worker had been reading her computer screen. A third student said Callender took her outside and demanded to know what she told the principal, and when the student clammed up, Callender scolded her for keeping "secrets."

Principal Caporicci immediately suspended Callender and told her not to return until further notice. But a few days later the teacher defied the order. School officials said she sneaked back into her classroom, changed her computer passwords, and deleted her personal files so that school officials would not know what she was working on during the incident.

To summarize: According to the social worker, students, and district officials, Callender used a movie to babysit her class while she cheated for her son. When she thought she was caught, she erupted and roughed up a social worker in front of a bunch of nine-year-olds. Then she told her class she did it because she thought Callison was a student — a not-so-subtle threat to the children. She harangued a kid for keeping "secrets," and finally, violated a direct order to conceal her bad behavior.

Is all that enough to fire a teacher? Two weeks ago, it looked as though it might be. Now, apparently, it isn't.

For the past few months, it appeared Kimberly Statham, the state administrator who oversees Oakland schools, would take a tough stand. On October 25, Statham told Callender she planned to fire her, and placed the teacher on unpaid leave a week later. It was a bold move, because California's complicated tenure rules make it nearly impossible to terminate teachers.

But Statham and Roy Combs, the district's top attorney, had a plan. They decided this teacher's behavior had risen to the level of "immoral conduct," a designation that would allow them to circumvent some of the tenure regulations. "Yelling at and shoving the social worker out the door constitute immoral conduct in that it contravenes all acceptable standards of behavior for educators," Statham explained in her official accusation, dated January 11.

Under the usual tenure rules, Statham only could have issued a warning, which would allow Callender to keep teaching and give her at least ninety days to improve. But the immoral conduct charge kept Callender away from the kids until her termination hearing, which was scheduled for this week.

Predictably, Statham's decision outraged the Oakland teachers' union. Attorneys hired by the union to defend Callender sued the district on January 23 and asked a judge to throw out the immoral conduct charge. The union argued that California courts have traditionally limited the "immoral" stamp to crimes involving sex, drugs, and theft. "There is no California case that deems 'immoral' any teacher conduct outside these three areas," union attorney Jason Rabinowitz wrote in court filings.

The union also was worried that if Statham's decision went unchallenged, then Oakland and other school districts might increasingly use the immoral conduct charge as a way to circumvent tenure protections, cut off a teacher's livelihood, and force her to quit. "It's a troubling trend," Rabinowitz said in an interview last week "The danger is that anytime they want to get rid of a teacher ... they can assert immoral conduct where there is none. Then they can starve her out."

The district responded in court papers that Callender's behavior, when viewed in its entirety, was clearly immoral. Lawyer Combs also maintained that the courts have yet to clearly define immoral conduct in a classroom context. Regardless, he argued that the court should not interfere because Callender had not yet had her administrative termination hearing.

On February 23, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Winifred Smith agreed with Combs and dismissed the union's lawsuit. But despite the victory, Statham appeared to lose her nerve late last week; she and Combs agreed to settle the case and reinstate Callender.

Lawyers for both sides refused to discuss details of the settlement. Combs cited "personnel reasons," while Rabinowitz said last Friday that he wouldn't talk because the settlement was not officially finalized. Combs also refused to say whether Callender will return to Emerson or if Statham plans to assign her to another school.

So why the sudden capitulation? Could it be Statham wanted to spare the fourth-graders from having to testify at the termination hearing? Perhaps. But it also could be that she was worried about losing in court and setting a bad precedent.

Rabinowitz said the union was determined to appeal the judge's ruling, and the outcome was anything but certain. If the appellate courts chose to define immoral conduct narrowly, then school districts across the state could no longer wield the charge against a teacher like Callender.

Union officials were ready to go to the mat on this one, so much so that they publicly disclosed the details of the case in court records. That, in fact, was the only way Full Disclosure could tell you what went down — teacher discipline matters are usually tightly held secrets.

Rabinowitz said Callender has denied any wrongdoing, and that she has not yet had an opportunity to tell her side of the story, although neither she nor the union challenged the truthfulness of the allegations in court. Her lawyers also noted that she had "an unblemished record" prior to these allegations.

But that simply could be an indication of how poorly Oakland schools keep tabs on their teachers. After all, it's hard to believe Callender would suddenly start yelling at kids, ignore their needs, cheat, and turn physically abusive after twenty years of teaching. Then again, it's also hard to believe this teacher is headed back to the classroom.

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