I Lost Three Years of My Life – The Story of a Teacher Who May Never Teach Her Students Again
by Rodney Grubiak, retired teacher
On this day, Wednesday, December, 21, 2011, Bronx Supreme Court Justice Dominic Massaro found Raqnel James not guilty and totally exonerated her of the criminal charges that were brought against her almost three (3) years ago by the Principal of Fordham HS of the Arts, Iris Blige. Fordham HS of the Arts is located in New York City in the borough of the Bronx and is a part of the Department of Education of the City of New York.
Raqnel James who was born and educated on the beautiful Island of Jamaica arrived in this country carrying the same hopes and dreams that all of us share. What she did not realize, at the time, was the fact that someday she might very well be forced to return to her country leaving behind nothing but shattered memories of what might have been.
In February 2009, after many successful years touching and changing the lives of each and every one of her students, her life would be changed forever when she was falsely accused of placing a letter in the mailbox of the principal of the school threatening to harm her life and the life of her son. She was immediately removed from her duties and arrested shortly thereafter on a criminal charge of aggravated harassment.
As a tenured employee of the Department of Education of the City of New York with due process rights she would remain temporarily reassigned from her duties as a teacher pending the outcome of the criminal charges and final review and determination from the Department of Education.
Her problems were just beginning. In June 2009, The Department of Education sent her a letter that would terminate her employment citing a provision of the immigration status agreements under which she was employed. Because she was not yet a citizen of the United States she would not be entitled to, in the eyes of the Department of Education, the same due process rights that we all take for granted, “innocent until proven guilty”. She, would be treated differently.
Raqnel James lost her job that June based on nothing more than an allegation and from that day forward she had no salary, no benefits and a future that held little or no hope. Her immigration status was now in jeopardy with the real threat of imminent return to Jamaica.
Why would the Department of Education decide to terminate the services of this well-respected, satisfactory teacher from Jamaica on the sole basis of an accusation made by one individual, Principal Iris Blige? This is a question, that, to this day, still does not have an acceptable answer.
Her life was soon to change again, but this time for the better. A true relationship with a wonderful person was flourishing and she would soon marry and begin to build a new life together with a man who would love and support her each and every day.
In the months and years that would follow, Raqnel would need this love and support because she would have to overcome a complex legal system that was filled with never ending motions and delays that included thirty-three (33) court appearances over the next three (3) years.
As the trial proceeded it became clear that there was no motive and opportunity that existed. What was clear, was the fact that the principal of the school, Iris Blige, was vindictive, hated by most and was not only under investigation herself by the Department of Education but was found guilty and fined for violating departmental policy. The question of “reasonable doubt” began to emerge. It was obvious during the cross-examination of the NYPD Detective in charge of the case that he conducted an investigation that was, at best, sloppy and incomplete. Interviews of certain individuals were never conducted, obvious questions were never asked, important facts either ignored or just not even considered. More and more “reasonable doubt” was growing with the testimony of each witness and the presentation of documentary evidence.
The court heard the expert testimony of a board certified handwriting analyst clearly indicating that the handwriting samples presented for comparison analysis were insufficient and inconclusive and that, on that basis, he could not reach the conclusion that Raqnel James was the author of the document in question. The final question of “reasonable doubt” would be sealed.
At 12 noon, after considering all of the testimony and evidence presented in this matter, and after almost three (3) years, Supreme Court Justice Dominic Massaro returned a verdict of not guilty to a silent courtroom. Raqnel James was fully vindicated and as she left the building she would allow her emotions to show as tears filled her eyes and began to roll down her face.
The trial is over. We have all heard the verdict but we are still very far from closing the cover on this book. Now we must ask ourselves just one more question. What will happen now to Raqnel James? The Department of Education has totally severed their relationship with her. She has been terminated without consideration and she has been denied the same due process rights that we as teachers are entitled. Should she not be returned to her position as a teacher and given the opportunity to continue her journey? Should she not be allowed to fulfill her hopes and dreams. Now that she has been found not guilty we owe her at least that. How will this story finally end?