Iris Stevenson hurt no child, seduced no teenager, abused no student at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles. This is what her supporters say in rallying outrage that this exemplary teacher has languished for months in the gulag of administrative detention known as “teacher jail”: she doesn’t belong there.
And she doesn’t.
Days before being removed from her music classes in December and ordered to spend her workdays isolated on a floor of the LA Unified School District (LAUSD)HQ with other suspect teachers, Stevenson, a legend in South LA and beyond, was at the White House directing the renowned Crenshaw Elite Choir as it sang for President Obama.
She has not been officially informed of the charges against her. Unofficially, Stevenson is said to have swept off the choir to perform first in Paris and then in Washington without permission—an absurd claim, since parents had to consent, and Stevenson has conducted such foundation-supported field trips untroubled for decades. District authorities say only that Stevenson is under investigation.
If she were a de facto kidnapper, police should have been called long ago. But, no, this is not about criminality or even misconduct; it is about a larger game of control being played by School Superintendent John Deasy. That game owes quite a lot to sex, because a few years ago a scandal tripped the panic button, which Deasy has kept his finger on ever since, exploiting justified public anger over a classroom pervert to pursue a war on teachers.
The political question, then, is not just whether Stevenson belongs in teacher jail but what this institutionalized containment regimen, this sub-bureaucracy of punishment, exists for in the first place, and how the specter of sex is the cowing excuse to go after anyone.
Some form of disciplinary netherworld has long existed in the LAUSD, but teacher jail, also known as “housed employee” locations, entered its high rococo period in early 2012, not long after Mark Berndt, a teacher at Miramonte Elementary School now serving twenty-five years in prison, was arrested for lewd conduct.
For years, administrators had swatted away complaints about Berndt. When he came under suspicion in January of 2011, they removed him from the classroom but initiated a secretive internal process to pay him to resign. Following his arrest a year later, instead of making a sober assessment of administrative accountability, Deasy pulled the entire staff out of Miramonte. All but the principal were sent to an empty school; there, custodians, cafeteria workers and office staff would perform their regular jobs while seventy-six teachers were to sit facing the wall for six hours for the rest of the school year. The leadership of the teachers union was paralyzed. (It was recently swept from office by a progressive reform slate.)
The teachers, too, were paralyzed initially but resisted the seating plan and made the best of it together over four months, while the media made hay. The LAUSD’s questioning was minimal. Most were never interviewed by police. All were cleared. Not all got their old jobs back, because in the interim Deasy restructured Miramonte, cutting the teaching staff by almost 50 percent. The new form of district discipline was set.
Now about 450 teachers languish in sites around the city. They are given no formal explanation. Overwhelmingly, they are past 40. Disproportionately, they are black; disproportionately, they are LGBT, according to Alex Caputo-Pearl, a leader of the union’s progressive slate and the likely next union president. Some, like Stevenson and Michael Griffin, also from Crenshaw, who spent more than a year in teacher jail before the district acknowledged there were no grounds, have actively opposed efforts to privatize their schools. (The district’s “reconstitution” of Crenshaw is its own story.)