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A Voice From the 'Rubber Room'

Sixteen years ago, Radio Diaries, an audio series broadcast on NPR in which people document their stories, had a show on Josh Cutler, a high school student living with Tourette Syndrome, a neurological disorder characterized by vocal and motor tics. Last week, the program aired a follow-up episode, in which Cutler caught listeners up on where he is today.

As it turns out, the now 33-year-old became a New York City public school teacher. But two years ago, in his seventh year of teaching, he was accused of misconduct and terminated from the classroom. He explains: "One of the most violent kids in my class accused me of intentionally bending his wrist to try to hurt him. ... They said that I was doing this repeatedly. Well, yes, I did break up fights repeatedly, but I never intentionally caused harm to a child. Of course not."

During a termination hearing, one of his colleagues testified that she had been concerned for her safety because "Mr. Cutler has some bizarre tendencies." She continued: "Mr. Cutler has openly told me that in social situations he doesn't always behave appropriately because of medical issues. ... And his behavior is unpredictable and it's strange."

Cutler now sits in a temporary reassignment center, or what is colloquially known as a "rubber room," from 8:30 a.m. to 3:20 p.m. each day doing office tasks as needed. He continues to receive his teaching salary. "My parents think I should leave and go do something else, but I'm not going to do that," he says. "I'm fighting this till the very end, no matter what."

We've written about rubber rooms and the absent-teacher reserve pool (the teachers who are paid to sit in the rooms) quite a bit over the years. In 2010, the United Federation of Teachers and the N.Y.C. school district reached an agreement to close the rooms and instead have teachers report to the central office for clerical work. But as Ed Week reporter Stephen Sawchuk has written—and as Cutler's story corroborates—not much has changed. The rooms may now be in an office setting, but the teachers in them are still getting paid for, as Cutler says, "just sitting around in limbo."

Cutler's account of the dismissal and arbitration offers a glimpse into how complex these cases can be—and perhaps into why these policies have yet to be truly undone. Be sure to check out Cutler's diaries from both then and now, as well as the rest of the series, entitled Teenage Diaries Revisited.

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