Would you want a heroin addict teaching your kids?
This is the way the New York media is framing the case of Damien Esteban. Esteban is the Brooklyn teacher who was caught with 20 bags of heroin last year during a search in a courthouse to which he reported for jury duty. He was arrested and the DOE terminated him earlier this year.
The DOE’s grounds for seeking his termination were the following: a) possessing heroin, b) being removed as a juror, c) failing to report his arrest to the DOE, d) entering into a one-day drug treatment program, e) being unable to regain the respect of his students and community after all of the negative publicity caused by this case.
Esteban sued the DOE for wrongful termination. The case went to the state Supreme Court to be heard by Justice Manuel Mendez. Mendez believed the DOE’s termination of Esteban was “shocking to the conscience”. It probably does not matter much anyway to Esteban, since his lawyer has stated that he does not want to work for the DOE again.
Justice Mendez made a decision that he most likely knew would be unpopular. Why did he make it? Look at the DOE’s grounds for termination.
a) 20 bags of heroin seems like quite a bit, something that could get a person slapped with “football numbers” at trial, meaning a lopsided sentence. Yet, the amount he had only got him a misdemeanor and the case did not even go to trial. This means that they were either very small bags or regular bags that just had residue.
b) Certainly, his being removed as a juror was understandable. What is not so understandable is why this was grounds for termination. This is the DOE’s classic tactic of throwing as many charges at teachers as possible in order to make something stick.
c) The DOE’s own arbitrator found that Esteban did, in fact, report his arrest to the DOE and threw out that charge.
d) The one-day treatment program was the sentence handed down to Esteban after his arrest. If the judge had reason to believe that Esteban was a hardcore drug addict he would have mandated a much longer stay in rehab. Heroin detox is a long and painful process. The fact that the judge did not order him into detox is proof that Esteban is not a hardcore drug addict, since he obviously did not have anything in his system that needed to be detoxed in the first place.
e) The DOE loves slapping teachers with this charge. The newspapers can run any false, embellished or reputation-ruining story and the DOE would seek to fire them for it. Despite the damage the media hit pieces may have done to Esteban’s reputation, there is no proof that it made his students or community lose respect for him. The DOE did not provide a shred of evidence for this at the 3020-a hearing.
Looking at all of the charges, as Justice Mendez did, it is easier to see why the court found Esteban’s termination to be “shocking to the conscience”.
Sure, I understand that many people, including teachers, still might not be convinced that Justice Mendez made the right decision. I believe part of the knee-jerk reaction to this case has to do with the way we treat drug addiction in this country: as both a crime and a moral flaw. Certainly someone of such weak character should not be allowed around our children.
My response to this is that heroin addiction is not so cut-and-dry. Addiction to all types of substances runs in my family, and the families of many of my close friends, so I have a certain level of experience with it.
Esteban and his family claimed he got hooked on heroin after he suffered an injury for which he was prescribed pain killers. As is often the case, he got hooked on the pain pills. Anyone who knows anything about prescription painkillers like Vicodin, Percocet and Oxycontin knows they are called opiates because they are made from opium. Opium is also what heroin is made out of. It is common for people to get hooked on pain pills and then, when their prescriptions run out, turn to heroin. This is probably what happened to Damien Esteban.
This is where people might judge Esteban for being a moral weakling if not a flat-out criminal. The fact of the matter is people develop a physical addiction to opiates. Going cold turkey when your prescription runs out is not an option. Cold turkey means becoming violently ill for several days. After the physical illness, which is basically anywhere from 3-10 days of hell, there is still the psychological hurdle. This is why rich celebrities stay in rehab for months on end and, even then, many of them relapse and have to start the whole process over again.
What makes it worse is the fact that people who are addicted have to keep it a secret from their families, friends and employers. They will certainly be labeled as weaklings, as nothing more than “addicts” and they will most likely lose their jobs and maybe even their wives/husbands. The United States is about 100 years behind the times when it comes to treating drug addiction, preferring to lock people up rather than treat it for what it is: an illness.
Considering these facts, it is a wonder how Esteban was able to get off heroin at all, let alone to do it in secret without the DOE or the general public knowing about it. It was not until after he got off the stuff that he was found out. At the end of the day, there is no evidence that his addiction interfered with his career or how he interacted with children. He had an illness, got treatment for it and moved on.
Still, after all of this, people will still label him an addict and a criminal. They will label him as such until they fall into addiction due to an injury or surgery or some other unforeseen circumstance. There is really no way to understand addiction until one has seen it up close. Until you have held a loved one in your arms who is shaking from opiate withdrawals, sweating and heaving for days on end, then you cannot understand.
Damien Esteban had an illness and nobody should be fired from any job for having an illness, especially when that illness does not affect your performance. It matters not to me what the popular opinion is on this issue. Oftentimes, the popular opinion and the humane opinion are totally at odds.