The school board has abolished the district’s infamous “rubber room,” a space at the central office where employee being investigated for alleged misconduct were held until their cases were resolved.
With the abolition of the holding room, employees will be placed on paid leave pending completion of investigation, said school officials.
Some teachers languished in the so-called rubber room for months and years. One former teacher, Noreen Sweeney, sued the district for discriminatory assignment to the rubber room. She spent two years in the rubber room doing nothing, she said in her lawsuit that was settled for $200,000.
“The ‘rubber room’ derives its derisive nickname from the rooms typically thought of as being in insane asylums and hospitals for the mentally ill,” said Sweeney’s court complaint.
Sweeney described her experience as “very demeaning” and “humiliating.” It had a reputation in the district for being a detention center for staff members “doing a poor job” or having “exhibited violence towards students.”
“It’s been a year in the making,” said school board member Emanuel Capers, who crafted the policy to abolish the rubber room, on Wednesday night. He said the policy, which his colleagues voted and approved, had been delayed for an entire year.
In 2017, he said he authored a policy that a time restriction on investigations. An investigation had to be done in 30 days unless “exceptional circumstances exist,” according to that policy.
“It’s an embarrassing thing to do to a human being,” he said of the rubber room. “That’s no way to treat a person.”
The rubber room had no more than half-dozen occupants at a given time, said school officials. Capers said sometimes the assignments were done in a selective manner. Sweeney’s lawsuit cited this issue.
Sweeney had to spend two years in the rubber room. She was accused of making a derogatory comment against her school’s vice principal. Another district employee, who was under investigation for allegedly taking a selfie with two students watching pornography on a cellphone, was not assigned to the rubber room.
Sweeney viewed that as discriminatory treatment. Coincidental, the school board adopted the new policy the same night it settled her lawsuit.
“For years, I have had members who were accused (many times unfairly) of various allegations that were reassigned to the employee detention center for months if not years,” said John McEntee, Jr., president of the Paterson Education Association, the teachers’ union, which represents more than 3,000 employees. “During that time, those members had to live the stigma of their fellow employees thinking that they in fact did commit these transgressions when no investigation had been finalized yet. “
McEntee praised the decision to abolish the “employee detention center.”