Actions of public schools are deemed “state action.” As such, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment applies to actions by public schools towards their employees. The Equal Protection Clause prohibits discrimination on the basis of national origin, race, color, gender, religion, age or disability. In addition to this Constitutional protection, teachers are protected against similar discrimination by the New York State Human Rights Law, New York City Human Rights Law (if you live in New York City). and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
When teachers are first hired they are at-will employees, and remain so for three years until their initial probationary period is over. Once the probation period ends and a teacher has fulfilled all the requirements for their professional certificate – teachers are granted tenure in their license appointment area. Tenured teachers have the right to a hearing before an independent arbitrator regarding any charges brought against them. This due process right protects teachers from being fired for personal, arbitrary or political reasons. While this is the one of the purposes of tenure, it is not always the case, and teachers are sometimes brought up on sham charges in an effort to dismiss them.
Pursuant to Education Law 3020, tenured educators have the right to retain their positions and may only be terminated if there is “just cause.” Part of the due process rights afforded to teachers is the right to a hearing provided under NY Education Law 3020(a). New York teachers accused of misconduct, incompetence, negligence, and/or dereliction of duties, who may be subject to dismissal, have the right to a formal hearing, commonly referred to as a “3020 hearing.” First, formal charges are filed against a teacher with the employment board. Next, the employment board must make a probable cause determination regarding the charges. This determination must be made within five days of charges being filed. If the employment board finds probable cause the must send a written statement to the accused teacher indicating the nature of the charges, the potential maximum penalty, and a detailed explanation of his or her rights by certified mail, with return receipt. The teacher then has 10 days to respond and indicate if he or she wants a 3020 hearing. A teacher’s failure to respond within the specified period of time will result in a default waiver of the hearing. Waiving this hearing allows the employment board to make a decision by majority vote within 15 days of the waiver without ever hearing the teacher’s side of the story.
Under the statute, the employee shall have a reasonable opportunity to defend himself or herself during the hearing, as well as the opportunity to testify in his or her behalf. However, employees are not required to testify. Additionally, each party has the right to be represented by counsel.
In addition to your Constitutional and statutorily protected rights, teachers have rights under their union contracts. Union contracts speak to absences, certification, class size, disciplinary charges, excessing, grievances, leave of absences, observation and evaluation, salary, shortage areas, tenure, time, and transfers, among many other things. You should read your contract fully to understand the rights specifically afforded to you under the contract. While your union provides you with representation for many issues surrounding your contract, as well as certain disciplinary issues, if you feel your job is at stake, or your rights have been violated, you should contact an attorney immediately. In addition, teachers can bring an Article 78 proceeding to review a determination made by their school district. Article 78 proceedings are proper to review a decision of a state body or officer that was based on insufficient evidence; to review of a decision of a state body or officer that was obviously incorrect or unreasonable, or based on an error of law; to compel a state body or officer to act; and, to prohibit a state body or officer from acting beyond its authority. For a complete explanation of Article 78 proceedings, click here.
Teachers living on Long Island, in either Nassau or Suffolk counties, or in one of the five boroughs; Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, the Bronx or Queens who work for the state, a state agency or municipality who would like to challenge a determination about your employment should contact an attorney as soon as possible to properly assert your rights.