Is It OK For An Elementary School Teacher To Have A Sordid Past?

How would you feel if you knew your young child’s art teacher used to be a prostitute? This is the question at the heart of a news story making waves this week in New York City. Melissa Petro, a “well-liked” elementary school art teacher in the Bronx for the past three years, was recently reassigned to administrative duty after the school system caught wind of her history as a prostitute. Petro was never arrested and has no criminal record. So, how did the school find out about her past? Oh, because she blogged about it for the Huffington Post a couple of weeks ago.

Petro’s Huffington Post essay, which had her real name in the byline, was written to criticize Craigslist for removing its “adult services” ads on September 4th — you know, the controversial section of sex ads that have contributed to sex trafficking of children and opened the door for anonymous perpetrators to commit heinous crimes. Petro praised the ads for allowing her to be “entrepreneurial” and “independent,” presumably from pimps or agencies, while she was her own boss when she was a prostitute in 2006 and 2007. She had an interesting point to make, but maybe not so publicly as a working elementary school teacher?

Petro has been talking about her past as a prostitute and a stripper all over Manhattan, actually: She’s been making the rounds at open-mic nights in the city, reading her writings and excerpts from a memoir-in-progress about her experiences as a stripper while a college student living abroad in Mexico. At these readings she has not been shy about mentioning her day job as a teacher, and even, bizarrely, likened teaching to having sex at one such appearance: “It’s fun and it’s especially fun in the beginning. And then it’s over and then you gotta do it again and again and again.” Weird.

I suppose that, perhaps, this is all part of Petro’s media-savvy plan to get publicity for her upcoming memoir. She has refused to speak to the press since this story broke, but did admit on Facebook that she knew writing the Huffington Post piece would bring her public attention: “Of course I saw it coming,” she replied in response to a colleague asking, “Didn’t you see this coming?”

On one hand, I’m disgusted to think that Petro would use her position as a former prostitute-teacher as a hook to get media coverage; on the other hand, in the failing New York public school system, where Petro has been called a “star” teacher, I wonder if any of this should matter if she’s terrific in the classroom? Parents and teachers affiliated with the school have given mixed reactions to the news — some think she should be fired; others think her past should be her past. What do you think? [CBS New York, Daily News]