Martha O’Duffy admits to having a contentious relationship with her principal at School No. 39. The third-grade teacher became frustrated with a very difficult student. O’Duffy said the student was removed and placed in another classroom, with the understanding the new teacher would get extra support. O’Duffy said she questioned her principal.

“Why wasn’t I given any help when I begged for it? The very next day I was in the Alternative Work Location,” O’Duffy said.

The Alernative Work Location was put in place by former superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard. He brought the concept from New York City, believing teachers under investigation for misconduct should not sit at home and collect a paycheck. The set-up quickly became known as the “rubber room.”

“Day in and day out you’re just, you get bouncy, you get crazy,” said O’Duffy. “It’s the rubber room.”

O’Duffy said there were 15 teachers, administrators and paraprofessionals in the rubber room in the spring of 2014.

They were given no work assignments.

“We sat in there and played cards, watched movies,” O’Duffy said. “I watched every blooper program every known.”

One day, O’Duffy had a friend visit her in the room.

“My best friend came in to cheer everybody up and she gave everybody free facials. The men, everybody,” she said. “We got facials from my very best friend because she knew how depressed I had become and she said I’m going to come and do this, and you’ll have beautiful shiny skin.”

News 8 confirmed this account with another man who was in the rubber room with O’Duffy. This man didn’t want to be identified, saying as part of his retirement agreement, he was prohibited from talking about his employment.

Rubber Room is Expensive

It’s not clear how much the rubber room is costing taxpayers. There’s no line item for the Alternative Work Location in the district’s budget. The average RCSD teacher earns $56,000. If there are a dozen teachers in the room at any given time, that’s $672,000 a year. That figure doesn’t include the cost of benefits, facilities, supervision, and substitutes.

“I want the public to know how much money’s being wasted, mainly,” said O’Duffy.

News 8 sent the district several questions about the rubber room and requested an interview about the issue. The district responded with this statement:

“The Alternate Work Location is isolated from students, and employees who are assigned there receive supervision during the day instead of being paid to stay home. A far bigger waste of taxpayer money is the costly, complex and time-consuming process required to dismiss a tenured teacher who has clearly engaged in misconduct against students and/or colleagues.”

“They act, always have and still do, as if a person is guilty until they prove themselves innocent,” said Rochester Teachers Association president Adam Urbanski. “It’s humiliating. It’s unfair.”

There’s no question it’s a long and costly process to fire tenured teachers, who are protected by law and union contracts. But Urbanski said the district never moves to terminate teachers through the legal process in the majority of cases. He said most teachers in the rubber room are accused of infractions that would not qualify for termination. Urbanski said the district also drags out investigations.

“It’s typical when teachers are put in the rubber room, they’re not even being informed why,” said Urbanski.

Urbanski has long called for an end to the rubber room, which he says stigmatizes teachers. He maintains the rubber room is used as a tool to punish teachers who get into disagreements with school leaders. 

“We had one teacher, a spectacular teacher, who was put in there because she said, ‘Go Obama’ during the 2008 election,” Urbanski said.

Rubber Room Takes a Toll

Even though teachers are paid to do nothing, the rubber room is not all fun and games.

The rubber room is located in a portable classroom outside School No. 16, which is empty. There are no janitorial services. 

“If we wanted to keep the place clean, we had to vacuum as well. It was also expected that we take the garbage out at the end of the day…had to ask for soap and hand sanitizer to be ordered,” said a high school teacher who was in the rubber room this school year and did not want to be identified because she has since returned to teaching.

 “Unplug toilets. Actually I think I was the one who did that because it was so disgusting,” said O’Duffy. 

Stress in the room was very high.

“There were grown men in there that would just sit there and sob,” O’Duffy said. “Honestly I think I was in the middle of a nervous breakdown by the time May came. I lost a ton of weight.”

O’Duffy began to cry.

“It’s like getting sucker punched,” she said. “I loved the kids, that’s why I taught.”

O’Duffy said she didn’t know the charges against her when she arrived in the rubber room. She said she was later given a list of infractions that dated back years. Among the accusations were that she said “hell” in a faculty meeting and threw a snow cone at a student. She denies the latter accusation. 

The high school teacher who was in the rubber room this school year tells News 8 she was accused of misconduct by two students. The teacher said the students lied and she was returned to her classroom in under a month. 

“I was one of the lucky ones,” the high school teacher said. “I would acquaint the rubber room to a combination of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and ‘The Breakfast Club.'”

“Granted, some of the individuals that are in the rubber room should be disciplined for their actions once it has been proven that there was any liability or wrong doing on their part,” the high school teacher said. “Unfortunately, many of the individuals are (presumed) guilty and have to prove their innocence like I had to, although I did nothing wrong.” 

After four months in the rubber room, with no end to her case in sight, O’Duffy put in her retirement papers. She wasn’t ready to retire, as she started teaching later in life and hadn’t reached 20 years in the pension system. The move hit her financially.

“I don’t want anybody to have to go through that. It’s humiliating. It’s degrading. I watched myself become a shell,” she said.