Last week I wrote that a major reason why there is a lack of Black and Brown male teachers in the classroom is because Black and Brown men have a higher rate of felony convictions. This precludes them from garnering the certifications required to become teachers in New York State and/or New York City. While this point was not the crux of that blog post, it provoked a lot of commentary and conversation. It was as if people thought I’d reached some educational epiphany, but to me it just made sense. With racial profiling protocols like “stop-and-frisk” putting Black and Brown men in more direct and often combative proximity to police officers and, thus, the criminal justice system, the chances of them even being eligible to become teachers is greatly diminished.
The educational laws of New York that govern granting teaching certification include eight points by which each candidate’s eligibility is measured. So, to be clear, having a misdemeanor or felony conviction does not preclude a potential teacher from applying and receiving certification. However, the seriousness of the offense, the time that has elapsed since the offense was committed, and the age of the person at the time of the offense are all factors in certification. This is where things can become quite subjective and where many questions are raised in my mind.
How does one determine the “seriousness” of an offense from an ethical standpoint? Serious to whom? What were the circumstances surrounding their crime, not just the sentence? There are some crimes that are clearly outlined as rendering one totally ineligible to become a teacher in New York. Also, if the person has served time for their offense, thereby paying their debt to society and going through the extensive reformation process, is it just and fair to continue to make that person pay for the crime he/she committed by denying them a career opportunity as a teacher?
As I asked these questions and sought answers to them, I morphed into a law clerk. I came across a lawsuit that set educational precedence which school districts can use to deny teaching certification where a drug conviction is involved. This case and the court ruling are reflective of ongoing practices that keep men of color (and woman, for that matter, since our rate of arrests and incarceration is steadily advancing ) out of the classroom as teachers.
In this case, Jose Luis Arrocha asked the New York City Board of Education for a license to teach high school Spanish in 1996. In his application, he divulged that he had been convicted in 1987, at the age of 36, of criminal sale of a controlled substance (a B felony) for selling a $10 bag of cocaine to an undercover officer. He subsequently served the minimum of a two-to-six year prison term.
Arrocha submitted a certificate of relief from disabilities. Courts have discretion to issue such certificates to ex-convicts, which are intended to remove any automatic bar to employment or licensure (Correction Law Section 701). Arrocha also submitted letters of recommendation attesting to his skill as a teacher.
His application was rejected on the grounds that his criminal conviction was “serious in nature” and that employment as a teacher “would pose a risk to the safety and welfare of the student population and Board of Education employees.”
If having a drug conviction stops someone from not only getting financial aid funding, but also a career in education, tens of thousands of Black men who are sought after to join the teacher ranks are rendered ineligible.
According to a thorough analysis of the landmark case,
high school teachers must serve as role models to students at an impressionable age and are held to a high ethical standard ( see, Correction Law § 753[b] [consideration of specific employment responsibilities]) and that petitioner’s conviction might impact his ability to serve as such a role model ( see, Correction Law § 753[c] [bearing of prior conviction on applicant’s fitness to perform responsibilities]). The affidavit submitted by the Board noted that petitioner was a mature adult when he committed thecrime ( see, Correction Law § 753[e]), and that the offense was a serious felony conviction ( see, Correction Law § 753[f]). Finally, the Board considered the fact that criminal sale of a controlled substance is one of the six specifically enumerated crimes that the Board has deemed to be of special concern with respect to carrying out its duty to protect the welfare of New York City school children ( see, City School District of the City of New York, Chancellor’s Regulation C–105 § 4, at 4; Correction Law § 753[h] [interest of public agency in protecting welfare of specific individuals]).
This is where those in charge of granting teaching licenses guarantee the continued shortage of teachers of color. The first-hand experience that teachers with prior convictions would bring to the classroom is something that education courses in undergraduate and graduate school just can’t teach. Through their mistakes and the overcoming of those mistakes, reformed teachers of color with prior criminal convictions become demonstrative pillars of resilience to students who look like them and who very well may be or have gone through similar challenges with crime. That level of transparency can bring about marked transformations in the motivation, retention, and graduation rates of students of color who are most in danger of becoming prey to the school-to-prison-pipeline.
Restorative laws and practices need to be enacted that allow for a school-to-prison-back-to-school-pipeline, filled with Black and Brown men who truly give back to their communities that are in such desperate of need of them.