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Firing Melissa Petro Would Be Indefensible and Intolerable

2010 December 9

Melissa Petro

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has called for the dismissal of Melissa Petro, a New York City public school teacher, because he recently discovered something her employers knew when they hired her in 2007 and when they granted her tenure this past fall: she had previously solicited sex.  Petro’s history, while known to her superiors, was made public in September when she wrote for The Huffington Post in defense of Craigslist’s ‘Adult Services’ section (which had recently been under attack and was subsequently removed).  Her article defines clearly her own use of Craigslist for what city officials have called ‘conduct unbecoming a teacher’.  When The Huffington Post encouraged her to use a pseudonym for the article, she responded, ‘I’ve never been one to shy away from publicity. I suppose I could be fired, but for what exactly?’  For what, indeed?

Presumably her sexual exploits remain, in practice and discussion, outside of the classroom.  One’s sexual history, whether public or private, is entirely unrelated to one’s ability to adequately educate children.  If she is deemed unfit to instruct, this allegation should be based upon her deficiencies in the classroom and upon nothing else.  The debate should end there.  Yet, it will continue before the Department of Education in a disciplinary hearing scheduled to take place within the next two months.

The perpetuation of this absurdity is contingent upon the assumption that her actions deserve reprimand at all.  The enduring debate over the immorality of sexual solicitation needs no explication from me.  Though, I must confess I have duties far more pressing than the condemnation of the sexual exploits of two consenting adult persons who, incidentally, should surely have dominion over the commerce thereof.  Sex is frequently exchanged for all sorts of things, the most direct and honest of which might well be currency.

Much of the horror seems to surround the possibility that her students might discover the details of her previous employment, which they surely have by now anyway.  Perhaps this knowledge will incite disrespect or mistrust in the classroom and consequently compromise her effectiveness as an instructor, but these are issues that can only be judged as they occur.  And anyhow, one might hope that parents in this situation would guide their children away from such misplaced and unwarranted disparagement and choose instead to teach permissiveness and a nuanced understanding of human character.  There are distinct lessons to be learned from Petro’s prompt dismissal, however: that, in regard to the judgment of personal character, one’s private sexual exploits overshadow one’s otherwise praiseworthy performances (a lesson we teach repeatedly in regard to military service); that one should withhold publicly the innocuous and unrelated details of one’s private life on threat of vocational disbarment; and that sexual solicitation (or indeed any other sexual practice between one, two or any number of consenting adults) is worthy not only of social discouragement and ridicule, but also of civic punishment.  These lessons are miscarriages of moral teaching; I can put it no other way.

What we are confronting is the simple fact that people have lives of their own.  We have always known this.  This, certainly, is not what brought these headlines to print.  The difference is that the details thereof are now more easily known.  It should be no mystery that this facility has been catalyzed by radical developments in the way people use the Internet and, thusly, have access to the personal information of others.  The privacy of one’s private information has become severely, and often willingly (as in Petro’s case), compromised by the utilization and general embracement of Facebook, blogs, and other venues for personal expression.  This is a fact that will not go away.  Thus, it is a fact that employers must confront.  Employers have always known that their employees have likely consumed alcohol, had sex, experimented with drugs, harbored personal opinions about controversial issues and performed an infinite number of other normal human actions separate from those they perform at work.  Now they simply have access to the evidence.

However, the responsibility of careful judgment lies not only with employers (who understandably if often irrationally fear for their own public image) but with the general public.  Individuality (incorporating complex personal histories, nuanced and calculated private beliefs, and the sustained enactment thereof) should not be a revelation and we must consequently understand that one is capable of performing specific occupational duties without the influence of irrelevant political and social opinions and histories.  The public must now more than ever be able to separate individuals from organizations in this regard.

What is to be done of if, for example, a public school teacher is discovered to have a history of sexual solicitation?  Could this person possibly be fit to teach children?  It turns out she is, as was deduced from every performance evaluation that led to her awarded tenure.  (For the record, I would firmly argue that she should not be ejected even if it were discovered that she planned to engage in this victimless pastime this very evening)  We must not relate unrelated matters.  At best this practice is false; at worst it is destructive.  I will leave it to the reader to decide where on that grim spectrum Petro’s case falls.  If Petro’s employment survives this silly prudery, her case might set a much-needed precedent for future evaluations of personal character in the developing technological age: evaluations that allow for the acknowledgment not only of abstract but demonstrative, evidential individual identity.

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Since this piece was written, Petro has been interviewed by Marie Claire and penned a new article for The Huffington Post detailing in each the circumstances of her current ‘reassignment’.  That story is another disaster altogether and has been well-documented (to seemingly no consequence) in many places for many years.  Here is one piece that describes at length the Gilliamesque absurdity of the ‘rubber rooms’ where teachers are sent (sometimes for years) to await verdicts regarding their respective investigations, and here is a piece in which Bloomberg lies about dismantling them.  It’s all quite frightening and, I assure you, quite real.

4 Responses
  1. Colin permalink
    December 9, 2010

    Bummer 🙁

  2. Alissa permalink
    December 10, 2010

    Why does the responsibility of careful judgment lie with the employer and the general public, but not with the individual? As a feminist I believe in the right to complete control of our bodies, including the absolute right to exchange sex for money. Still, how can you deny the fact that the publicity surrounding her past undermines her position of authority in the classroom and has disrupted the learning process? She rightly points out that she never hid her history as a sex worker and an activist, but the article she wrote for the Huffington Post was clearly a post-tenure fuck you to the administration. My understanding of this case (and I acknowledge that I may be wrong on this point) is that she had never before written about her experience in such a high-profile publication, and her quote makes it clear that she wanted the publicity, knowing full well what the possible result of her actions would be. Free speech does not mean the right to speech free of consequences.

    “Perhaps this knowledge will incite disrespect or mistrust in the classroom and consequently compromise her effectiveness as an instructor, but these are issues that can only be judged as they occur.”

    This is naive and dismissive of the right that children have to a stable educational experience.

    “And anyhow, one might hope that parents in this situation would guide their children away from such misplaced and unwarranted disparagement and choose instead to teach permissiveness and a nuanced understanding of human character.”

    PS 70 is an elementary school. Please tell us how you would sit your elementary school-age child down and explain sex work, “permissiveness and a nuanced understanding of human character.”

    Also, the rubber rooms are, and should be, controversial. Still, Petro continues to collect her full salary (which based on my brief research is upwards of $60K) without having to work, which has clearly provided her with plenty of time to pursue her writing and activism.

    • Brian Fabry Dorsam permalink
      December 10, 2010

      In order:

      [1] I can deny that the publicity has inherently undermined her effectiveness as an educator because I have not spent time in that classroom and, most importantly, neither has she. How can we accurately judge the effects of any event at all if we do not permit ourselves to observe it?

      [2] I would not argue (and certainly did not) that freedom of speech guarantees freedom from related consequences. However, in this particular case, I can find nothing in her actions worthy of condemnation and thusly view her suspension and possible dismissal to be injustices. Surely these points are distinct, no?

      [3] I cannot understand how removing a teacher in the middle of a term because of a personal objection to her unrelated personal history constitutes stability.

      [4] Certainly the communication of the importance of careful judgment in regard to the character of others is not absent from elementary education – in fact, it may be one of elementary education’s most important tasks. Lessons of this kind are taught routinely in cooperative work in the classroom and in social exchange on the playground, among other venues. If acceptance of this kind is missing from the elementary curriculum then this is not merely a profound disservice but is utterly destructive to social development. It seems to me that Bloomberg and company, for instance, could have used quite a bit more of this in their schooling.

      [5] You’re not arguing in favor of rubber rooms, are you? Come, now.

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