Baltimore Whistleblower Teacher Part II: ‘I Could Lose my Job for Standing up for These Kids’
In the second part of our exclusive interview, a Baltimore teacher says one of the biggest obstacles to reform is threats to employees who tell the truth about the chaotic conditions inside city schools
WHISTLEBLOWER: And you’re telling me that I could lose my job if I stand up for these kids, which is one of the reasons I get surplus, because I say something, and then I become a problem.
TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham, reporting for The Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.
As we previously reported, the Baltimore City School System is facing a $129 million deficit, and the prospect of laying off nearly 1,000 school employees. But amid the fiscal pain The Real News has gone behind the scenes, to find out what’s really happening inside a school system that many say fails both students, and the community.
To do this, we have conducted an in-depth interview with a whistleblower teacher, who has come forward to give us an unvarnished view of what’s going on inside city schools. In part one, he talked about school conditions, student discipline, and the lack of support from administrators. In this segment he talks about politics, perception, and some of the external forces that set up schools to fail.
But first, I’m joined by investigative reporter, Stephen Janis — to give us some background on what’s going on, and the implications of what the whistle-blower teacher had to say. Stephen, can you give us some background?
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, first of all, we spoke to a teacher who had really become incredibly frustrated with the school system, and you know, in the first interview he talked about the conditions, some of the horrible things. But the other thing we did is, we took his interview and we gave it to other city officials to get their reaction.
We did not hear back from the Mayor. We did not hear back from the Board of Education, or the city school system. But we did hear from Councilman Zeke Cohen, who actually chairs the Education and Youth Committee. And let’s hear what he had to say, because he had some interesting things to say about his reaction to the interview.
You are the Chairman of the Education and Youth Committee. We showed you a video of a schoolteacher. What kind of concerns did, what he was saying, raise for you, as a person who is in a pivotal position to oversee schools?
ZEKE COHEN: Yeah, so, I used to be a teacher myself. I taught in West Baltimore, and in Curtis Bay. And there is no question in my mind that some of the conditions in our schools are deplorable. You know, I feel like there is a systematic attempt to rob Baltimore of a decent, or even adequate school system. And so, what I saw in that video, some of it really rang true.
Now, I look at it from a few different angles. One is that we do need better fiscal accountability. You know, I understand from my perspective as a taxpayer, and as a former teacher, it does feel like North Ave. sometimes fails to have itself together when they’re doing budgeting. And we do have a large bureaucracy.
That being said, I do believe that we are systemically underfunding our children in this city. And that when we look at the Adequacy Study, what it found was, not that there’s all this fiscal mismanagement, but that we are short-changing our kids from the state considerably, in the 2 to $3,000 range per child. And so, I’m hoping that with the Kerwan Commission; with the discussions that are going on in Annapolis, that we will start to see some movement from the state to do better.
I think it sends so the wrong message for a governor who promised to be a partner to Baltimore. Who came to our mayor’s inauguration, who then dips his hand in, and takes $42 million out of our school system — shame on him, and shame on anyone that would support that.
Baltimore City children deserve an excellent education, and as a councilman I will continue to fight for our kids, and for our schools.
TAYA GRAHAM: So, Stephen, do you have any updates on the budget crisis?
STEPHEN JANIS: It was very interesting because one of our fellow reporters, Jane Miller, released some statistics on the city budget, which I think are very pertinent to this question, because we are facing $130 million deficit. And one of those statistics showed that we are spending more on police, and fire, and city pensions, than we are on the entire budget gap of the…
Yeah, $200 million is going to pensions, not to city schools. And so, as we showed before, the police funding is almost around $500 million. Add in the pensions, it’s around $6 or $700 million.
So, we’ve probably spent, over the years, three to four times every year on policing, prisons, whatever, than on education.
And I think that is clearly an example. Now the other thing Zeke Cohen brought up, which is very important, is the fact that the state has not funded us adequately.
TAYA GRAHAM: Right.
STEPHEN JANIS: So, that’s another thing that’s going to be a big contention out in Annapolis, to see if our mayor, Catherine Pugh, gets the money back from the state. So, let’s go to the interview of this schoolteacher, and see what else he had to say about these problems.
WHISTLEBLOWER: And they’re sitting in classrooms with their stock… the teachers are very limited on what they’re allowed to do, like freedom of movement and all these types of things, or whatever you’re doing in your classroom. And you don’t even have up to date equipment. So, it’s not like you can, you know — you have to be very creative.
Cell phone policy is outdated, and they have no control of it, no one enforces the policy. They’re supposed to be locked up in their lockers and turned off. All these kids have cell phones, and the reason there is that policy, is because they’re calling people, and they’re fighting.
They’re calling their parents and complaining… Whatever it might be. But you know, you just… they only follow the teacher contract. And the union colludes with the city.
Union president, you know, has been there 400 years, and the elections are already fixed. She’s always the president. She already spent a million of our dollars to upgrade the union headquarters But they can’t even protect me to make sure I have the heater air –- for us. They should be in jail. You know those kids, when they had the riot last year; I was told about that, walking into the school. Kids came up to me — said there’s going to be a purge.
There was nothing about Freddie Gray. A bunch of kids going out doing a purge, they’re going to meet at Mondawmin. Kids were leaving my room throughout the day to go join up and, you know, do the purge thing. It kind of later morphed, and some people were making this about Freddie Gray, I would say, kinda like the press. And white people came into the neighborhood and saw black people freaking out, and said, oh my goodness.
So, figure out why these poor minorities are… but that’s not what the kids were sending around on their Facebooks, and their texts.
STEPHEN JANIS: What were they saying?
WHISTLEBLOWER: They were saying it was going to be a purge, like the movie. They were going to go out, and they were going to do dumb things, which they were doing, right? They were throwing rocks, ripping motorists out of their vehicles, and breaking stuff, and stealing stuff out of the shoe store. They weren’t marching. No one was saying, you know, we’re doing this for Freddie… we’re tearing up our neighborhood for Freddie Gray. No one was doing that. That kind of came, you know, on the back of the beginning of the riot.
I think what happened is, it got out of control when they shut down the bus and the trains there, and the kids got stuck there. Seven or eight high schools’ worth of kids got stuck, and then they come out. There’s armed police in riot gear, and it just, I think, exploded from that. So, you know, I don’t think it was solely about, you know, Freddie Gray.
OFFICER SPENCE: Y’all go home together! Get the fuck outta here! Y’all go home together! Get the fuck outta here!
WHISTLEBLOWER: And then that particular incident, from what I understand — and both those police officers had a reputation for hands-on action, again hearsay, but I have pretty good sources. And apparently, the boy had spit at, or on, the female officer.
So, what you didn’t see, was that he had basically assaulted her, and they had words. And then you just got the part where the guy got in his face and slapped him around, and basically kicked him in the butt to get him outta there.
Now, he was kinda harsh. But these kids are rough. They’re, you know… So, it’s easy to look at that one little bit and go, “I can’t believe what this guy is doing.” But you know, my day, every day, as police officers, every day, is physically and verbally postured, and threatened, and sometimes attacked. Daily. Not occasionally, and even if it was occasional, that’s too much. This is daily.
So, any time you challenge a child, you’re going to get challenged back, and they’ll threaten you just for saying, “Go to class.” They’ll cuss you out. They’ll threaten you. They’ll jump at you. They’ll escalate very, very quickly just because you addressed them, because, “You’re not my teacher,” or “You don’t know my name,” or you know, “Don’t talk to me, yo…” That kind of thing. If you are down the hallway and address them, you’re in their face. That’s how aggressive the children are.
STEPHEN JANIS: Why do you think they’re so aggressive?
WHISTLEBLOWER: Well, I mean, we could talk about all the social economic issues, and what they’re coming from, and fetal alcohol, crack babies, huge neglect, they didn’t get hugged, and they never imprinted, you know, empathy. We could get all the science, eight to ten times the testosterone level, all these studies that have been done. All those things, you know, are true.
But I think also, you know, kids like structure. And if you come to a place where kids can do terrible things to people, and say terrible things, and there’s no consequences — all day, every day — what kind of environment do you think that’s going to, you know, continue to grow into? It’s an environment of dog eat dog; the strongest survive, you know? So, a cop was going to put a foot in your ass? You respect that guy.
I’ve watched teachers come out… I watched a college teacher once, come in to one of the schools I was in. First day she came, she was all excited, a black woman, professor on a high level, blah, blah, blah… She was so proud of herself — and didn’t even get to the end of the day. I saw her running out, mascara, hair disheveled. Clothes wrecked, the suitcase that she had wheeled in behind her with all her academic paraphernalia, she left, and she was literally running out the door.
I’m like, “Where you going?” “These kids are animals.” And just ran out. I said, “What about your stuff?” “You can have it.” And she just left. I mean, no joke. I mean, the stories I could tell you on that, is… you wouldn’t believe them because you’d have to be there to see it. I mean, it’s that crazy.
STEPHEH JANIS: And we’ve seen videos surface of students confronting teachers, which are kind of shocking. You’re saying that’s a daily occurrence?
WHISTLEBLOWER: Oh, it happens all the time, the schools under-report the violence. I got assaulted last year, the year before last. I was assaulted by a student.
STEPHEN JANIS: What happened?
WHISTLEBLOWER: So, one of the teachers had given a couple students permission to go into the teach… our office, that we share, because they were selling things at lunch. And so they go, and they put the money back and you know, grab stuff for each lunch period, two kids. When I opened the office door, it was like eight kids in there. And this has been a problem, I’d been complaining about this.
First of all, they shouldn’t be in there unsupervised. You’re not supposed to give kids your keys to go do anything. So, this teacher kept doing those things — and that’s a separate issue. But I opened the office, there’s like eight kids in there. And kids are under the desk, and like, on the floor under the desk. Kids are on the desk; kids are holding each other inappropriately. You get the idea, right? They’re kids, young people.
So, I’m like, “Look, I’m not going to say anything. I just need all y’all to leave. Only two people are supposed to be in here.” Immediately, you know, I get the verbal sparring and you know, cussing me out, and so and so said I could be here and … I said, “But I need the office, so I don’t care who said you could be here. I’m telling you, you have to leave the office now. You’re not even supposed to be in here. None of you are even authorized to be in here.”
And a girl was trying to get in the office. And I was basically just an obstacle, like, you know, “Who are you?” And so, she starts cussing me out, and this is a girl who has a track record, her family, not just her, of being extremely difficult, these individuals. So, I won’t let her in. She doesn’t like me anyway for, you know. She was in my class and you know, she wanted to run things. I think she was actually in the class twice out of the whole semester I taught her, because she would just cut, because I actually enforced my rules, and she’s not having that.
So, she takes the door and she slams the door on me, slams the door into me, as I’m trying to address these other students. So, eventually, you know, one of the boys started getting real aggressive. He’s an athlete, and he was running at me. A bunch of kids stopped him and he’s trying to swing at me, and fighting. And I said, “You know what, no problem.” I just left the circumstance, went down to the administrator’s office to get an administrator and the school police.
They were downstairs because there had been a brawl in the lunchroom. And so the school police, and the administrators were all caught up in that. One of the administrators was in a meeting with another issue. And the other people were dealing with a brawl in the cafeteria. So, I finally found one of the administrators coming up from the cafeteria, informed them what happened. As I get up to the office, the boy who tried to attack me initially, tried to attack me again when he saw me with the administrator.
So, I’m pulled into the office by the principal, and a vice-principal and they have an hour-long conversation. They drill me with questions about my conflict resolution skills. And apparently, I hadn’t made the, you know, right decision about not antagonizing the students any further and going and finding a school police officer, or an administrator, which wasn’t available because there was so much else going on.
By the way, the girl that I was assaulted by, they never did anything with. And when you’re assaulted, the kid is supposed to be removed. It’s quite clear in the contract. There’s supposed to be a panel made up of school board members and other people and myself, determining the place of the student, pending the outcome of the investigation, all these things.
They never reported this to the union. This happened many times, I’ve been assaulted. The principals never reported it to the union. These processes never happened. They never follow the process. The union is completely useless, in collusion with the city. And they never follow the processes correctly, unless of course you don’t follow the process in some way, the teacher, then they’re all over you with the rules and the contract.
TAYA GRAHAM: How many times would you say you were assaulted, since working in the Baltimore City school system?
WHISTLEBLOWER: I mean, I guess it would depend on what you would call assaulted — physically assaulted, many times. Most of the time I’ve written it up, I haven’t gone to court, but two or three times. But physically assaulted, kids have tried to attack me pretty much every year.
STEPHEN JANIS: Is it common for teachers to get attacked and the school does nothing about it?
WHISTLEBLOWER: Very common. It’s very common. They won’t report it. They don’t even want to report it. And the school system won’t even let them suspend people who have committed assaults, so… There was a young man who tried to assault me this year. He had to be held back by the Student Service Rep., one of the people they hired to keep control of the hallways. But that was only after I had confronted him from being in the hallway, and being all loud with two or three other people and disturbing classes, using foul language, all this stuff.
When I came out and asked them to move along, I got cussed out. The office for the Student Service Rep. was across from my room. I went in there, and he’s just sitting down at the computer doing him, not doing what we’re paying him to do. And so, of course, the boy and his crew follows me in to the Student Service Rep.’s office because apparently they have cart blanche to move around wherever they want, and do whatever they want, and is trying to argue with me while I’m trying to talk to the other adult.
Of course, that exacerbates the situation. I tried to go back to my room, but he threatens me, you know, “I’m gonna fuck you. I’m gonna fuck your bald ass up — blah, blah, blah, blah blah,” That kinda thing. He comes back up the stairs towards me. Now, I’m not a little mouse. I’m not going to run away.
I’m the adult. I’m not going to run away in my room because, you know, this person is threatening me. Student Service Rep. is there, and he finally comes out of his office and he’s gotta stop the kid from coming, ’cause he’s, you know, trying to come at me. And you know, I’m to the point now where I’m just like, “Well, let him go.” You know, what am I supposed to do? I can’t go around every day hiding behind my door because some kid might be upset.
You know, it gets to a point where it’s like, look, you know, this has got to stop — because that student… they didn’t really do anything. They brought the parent in, basically accused me of being this terrible person. I could press charges. They were going to press charges against me, because this person was Special Ed, so apparently, that meant that he shouldn’t be, you know… and this kid has, like, folders thick of these types of incidents, this is not….
So, I decided not to press charges. I actually got him a card ’cause I heard he had no money. So, I got him a gift card from Target, okay? Within a week and a half, he had assaulted two… he and his brother, had assaulted two more kids. Stomped them in the gym, literally ganged up on them and beat them and stomped them.
It took the second child being assaulted, and the first child was assaulted for no good reason at all. He had loaned someone money. All he did is ask it back. She got upset he asked for the money back that she promised to pay him. Told the other kid, and they stomped him. He never came back to the school. Yeah, I mean, stomped, bloody, like to the hospital type of thing — stomped his face in.
And in Maryland that is felony assault. Okay? They didn’t put him out over that. He stomped another kid. He and his brother stomped another kid in the gym, again. Finally, they put him out for 45 days. They let him back in at the end of the school, and another kid who he and his girlfriend, 18, 19 years old, stomped a… went to a girl’s math class that they’re not in, and stomped a girl and cracked her cervical spine.
They let him back in. So, I guess their graduation numbers could stay up. I mean, I could go… another boy that I had in my class, jumped on one of the administrators and started pounding his head. He was supposedly suspended. They let him back in. Another boy got in a fight. Well, last year he pushed… attacked a pregnant teacher. They put him back in her class this year. We see that all the time. Kids that threaten us and attack us, they put them back in our classes. If they fail they put them back in our class. So, we got to sit in a class with a kid that’s tried to traumatize you, victimize you. They do this all the time.
This year, he threatened her with a fire extinguisher. They put him out for only 10 days. Came back the same day, assaulted a brand new teacher, slapped her in the face when she wouldn’t let him in the room, after threatening to shoot a boy in the face. Went out, got a gun, waived it around at the class, chased by the cops, got away. The cops never went and arrested him at his house.
TAYA GRAHAM: Gerry, you said that in one incident the child was suspended for 45 days. What happens during that suspension? Are they given any kind of, like, psychological counseling? What happens?
WHISTLEBLOWER: Well, it all depends on the circumstances. They’re not supposed to be placing them back in the school, and you know there are actual procedures they’re supposed to do. What happens is, North Avenue ignores that because, you know, a couple of the administrators are really good people, and they really work really hard and they’re just told, “No,” by North Avenue and they’ll just bounce, pass him back.
The boy who threatened to shoot me in the face for asking, you know, about his uniform, he had been put out a couple years before for the same type of thing. And I heard from the administrator, after talking to the parent, that he had torn the parents’ house up, and when he was at Juvenile Detention, tore that up. He is just so uncontrollable. And then the judge felt sorry for him and said, “You know, if they had me on those drugs too, I’d be upset,” because he was bipolar, and decided to send him back to school.
So, the mom can’t handle him. He tore that house up. And he tore up Juvenile Justice. So, apparently, I guess the most rational place to put him back in, is back in the school… Well, that’s part of the issue. It’s a hostile work environment, and I have a lot of kids that don’t come to school because of this stuff. And I’m a very engaging teacher, so I won’t have it in my room. So, you can imagine that I’m going to be in a confrontation at some point in the year, because kids will tell you, “I can do whatever I want, and I’ll just be back tomorrow.”
And so, I just, I don’t care if they think they’re going to be back, I’m going to challenge them. If they behave a certain way, I have the right if they, you know, threaten my students, or they stop instruction or distract… I have the right to put them out of my class, and not let them back in. They just cover stuff up, and ask you to continue to take kids who have threatened you, or are constantly disruptive, or whatever it is.
Not only is it so disorganized, and mismanaged, but money disappears. They didn’t balance the books. They had to quit because they didn’t even want to have their name tied to how, you know, there’s no method to the madness. We’re in debt, but we have all this money that we got, but CEOs can be paid, you know, forever and they’re not even in the job. They can make a contract, stay for a year and then get paid three years for a contract where they failed.
Let your certification slip, they will send a letter home to the parents of your students saying you are not a highly qualified teacher and you’re not certified. But we can have a teacher, Edwards, as part of this, you know, be the interim CEO, who didn’t even qualify. She didn’t even meet the qualifications. The excuse was well there’s a loophole for Baltimore City. And so, I would make those type… I would make every student an on-line student, every single student. There are amazing programs out there that can track kids, you know, their skills, suggest the appropriate programming. There are all kinds of interactive stuff.
I would pull those programs in, and any kid that’s a behavioral problem, especially at high school level, they can’t be in the facility. You can get your education on-line. Nowhere in Maryland, or any state, does it say we have to babysit your children. We have to provide you with an education, and that can be done in many different ways. But we need to stop worrying about whether or not we have some felon who’s going to shoot or stab someone, who’s got some sort of deficiency. Right?
We can, you know, this is the 21st Century. We can deliver education, and every high school should have some sort of trade or something to go into, not just academics. And I’m a person who’s for national service. So, if you have some sort of national service, you should automatically get two years of community college free.
And in this state, if you do a B or better, you get your junior, senior year paid for in a state university. Right? And you’re telling me that I could lose my job if I stand up for these kids, which one of the reason I get surplus, because I say something. And then I become a problem.
TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for The Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.