As Misconduct Complaints Rise in N.Y.C. Schools, Investigations Decline

The New York City office responsible for investigating complaints about sexual misconduct, corruption and other potential wrongdoing in public schools has lost staff even as it faces a record spike in complaints, according to a new City Council report.

The office, the Special Commissioner of Investigation, operates mostly independently from the city’s Education Department, and its findings can lead to arrests and prosecutions.

Last year, the office received more than 10,260 complaints, a record high, compared with 9,630 in 2019.

Yet far fewer of those complaints are now leading to investigations, according to the City Council, which is holding a hearing to examine the agency’s performance on Tuesday.

The agency did less than half as many investigations last year as in 2015, even as the number of complaints nearly doubled, according to a report by the Council published as part of the hearing. The decline underscores “the growing strain” on the office’s ability to manage its caseload, the report said.

The office’s budget has been flat in recent years. At the same time, attrition has increased. More than a quarter of overall positions were vacant in 2022.

The watchdog office is not the only city agency facing staffing challenges. Budget constraints and insufficient staffing in New York have created high-profile challenges for a range of city services, from child care to libraries to trash cleanup in parks. New York City is the country’s largest municipal employer, but has struggled lately to recruit and retain employees, leading to delays that have often affected vulnerable New Yorkers.

Gale Brewer, the councilwoman who chairs the Oversight and Investigations Committee, said in an interview on Monday that for a branch of government as “huge” as the Education Department, the challenges facing the special commissioner’s office could have ramifications for students and the system at large.

“It’s a really important agency,” Ms. Brewer said. “You want to root out and prevent misconduct.”

The office was created following the arrest of a Bronx principal on a drug charge, which triggered a wave of complaints about corruption on local school boards. Its recent cases include employees submitting fake coronavirus vaccination cards, a former Queens high school teacher who was accused of having inappropriate relationships with students and an educator who requested sick leave while incarcerated in federal prison.

Still, the number of investigators at the special commissioner’s office declined by 17 percent from 2020 to 2023, according to a report from the Council. Two of those who left had been assigned to cases of sexual and inappropriate conduct.

The office, which is funded by the Education Department, said in a statement that it has a “mere” 51 total employees to oversee the Education Department and its more than 140,000 employees, along with many outside contractors. The statement added that the agency is “continuing to conduct meaningful and necessary investigations at a consistently high level.”

The office investigated 146 cases of inappropriate or sexual misconduct by Education Department workers or vendors in 2023, and substantiated allegations in about 30 percent of them, according to the agency’s data.

When the Special Commissioner of Investigation uncovers systemic problems, the office also makes recommendations to the Education Department for improving policies.

It has proposed on many occasions, for example, an explicit ban on employees contacting students on their personal cellphones or on social media, after finding evidence in dozens of cases in recent years of staff members having inappropriate conversations with students.

An Education Department spokesman said officials are in the process of updating their social media guidance for staff members.

But the office is also making fewer recommendations: It made eight in the first six months of this year and 34 in 2023 — compared to 64 in 2020. The change could reflect “limitations in the agency’s ability to guide policy,” according to the Council.

Ms. Brewer said she didn’t hear many policy recommendations from the office. “My question is, so you see corruption here. You see fraud here. What do you do about it?” she said.

The Special Commissioner of Investigation does not oversee all complaints over potential misbehavior in schools. An internal investigative arm that reports to the chancellor, the Office of Special Investigations, manages complaints over issues like corporal punishment or cases where children accused of wrongdoing.

Related Posts

What Kamala Harris’s Path to the White House Looks Like

Vice President Harris has begun a new concerted effort to reintroduce herself to the American electorate after President Biden endorsed her to lead the Democratic ticket. Zolan…

‘There’s No Way to Turn Yourself In’: Migrants Rethink Routes to U.S.

In Tapachula, Mexico, migrants en route to the United States are being forced to reroute their journeys after President Biden’s executive order suspending and limiting asylum requests,…

Young Republicans on Why Their Party Isn’t Reaching Gen Z (And What They Can Do About It)

new video loaded: Young Republicans on Why Their Party Isn’t Reaching Gen Z (And What They Can Do About It) transcript Back transcript Young Republicans on Why…

How Donald Trump Shaped the 2024 G.O.P. Platform

new video loaded: How Donald Trump Shaped the 2024 G.O.P. Platform Recent episodes in Latest Video Whether it’s reporting on conflicts abroad and political divisions at home,…

Republicans Share Their Wishlist for Trump

We posed a question to R.N.C. attendees in Milwaukee: If Donald Trump wins, what is the first thing you want him to do as president?

In Milwaukee, Black Voters Struggle to Find a Home With Either Party

Black voters make up roughly 5 percent of the electorate in Wisconsin. But in this swing state where the election is likely to be won by a…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *