Courts Again Uphold Ruling Against Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District

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MTT News Desk's picture
By: 
Kevin Murphy

A state appeals court concluded that firing a Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District teacher for viewing pornography on the job was excessive and inequitable in light of sanctions imposed on other teachers in 2009.

The District 4 Court of Appeals opinion last week upheld a Dane County circuit judge who had ordered reinstatement of Andrew Harris, a Glacier Creek Middle School teacher.

The appeals court also upheld reducing suspensions to reprimands for teachers Mike Duren and Gregg “Doc” Cramer.

On appeal the district contended that anything less than termination for Harris violates public policy against exposing children to pornography in schools.

The District 4 Court stated “we are not persuaded,” noting the district cited no case law to support its position and the district undermined its own position by not terminating any other teacher who viewed sexually explicit pictures on school computers.

The district has unsuccessfully sought to fire Harris since it learned he had received sexually explicit images in 22 emails out of the hundreds of emails his sister had sent him over two years.

The district made a system-wide search of its computers after another teacher reported Harris had shown her a nude photograph of a woman on his classroom computer. The investigation revealed more than 30 teachers and administrators had accessed sexually explicit materials or “inappropriate” jokes.

The district imposed the following sanctions, according to a brief filed in the case:

Harris, discharged; Duren, 12-day suspension; Cramer, 10-day suspension, Paul Gustafson, 15-day suspension, Brad Rogeberg, seven-day suspension; Parker Vivoda, three-day suspension.

An unnamed administrator was pressured into retirement and other teachers received letters of reprimand, according to the appeals opinion.

The school district before arbitration told the Middleton Education Association’s attorney, William Haus, that it had no choice but to fire Harris and would contest any unfavorable decision as far as it could.

After an 18-day hearing, arbitrator Karen Mawhinney changed Harris’ termination to a 15-day suspension, and Duren’s and Cramer’s suspensions to reprimands, finding they were excessive in comparison to sanctions others teachers received.

The district appealed Mawhinney’s decision but last summer Dane County Circuit Judge William Foust upheld Mawhinney and now the District 4 Court has upheld Foust.

Haus said he was “very pleased with the decision, and expected it.”

“I didn’t think the district had much of a basis for appeal and appealing because you don’t like a decision is not a good place to start,” he said.

The district indicated before it went to arbitration they would contest any unfavorable decision as far as they could, said Haus.

Haus didn’t dispute Harris should be disciplined for having pornography on a school computer. The attorney said Harris deserved better than a “knee-jerk reaction” from the district, however.

“This is a 17-year teacher with no prior disciplinary action. What he did wasn’t right but what should be the penalty? They were out to destroy him, they act like he’s some kind of deviant and that’s not true,” said Haus.

Harris didn’t search out the pornography, it was sent to him, Haus continued, and no student ever saw it. The district retained the emailed porn on their computer servers and kept printed copies of it in district offices, even offering the public the opportunity to view the material.

Haus argued the district targeted Harris, who was then a Middleton Education Association (MEA) union vice president, for his role in the prolonged and contentious contract negotiations that were ongoing at the time.

“Andy was a thorn in their side,” said Haus.

An email Harris sent to MEA members about the lack of progress in negotiations that was leaked to the Middleton Times-Tribune further eroded Harris’ relationship with the district, said Haus.

District administration felt the email unfairly blamed the school board for the lengthy negotiations, he said.

“There’s no question the district was upset with Andy over the letter,” said Haus.

Don Johnson, district superintendent, denied Harris’ role in negotiations influenced the decision to terminate him.

“No, it was the severity and duration of his viewing pornography which was significant. There is evidence of his viewing, receiving and showing pornography for one and one half years and he didn’t contest a statement that he had a nine-year track record of viewing pornography,” Johnson said.

The board will meet Sept. 9 to decide whether to appeal the case to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

School Board President Ellen Lindgren said the public has been supportive of appealing the decisions to date.

“Our community has clearly said that because the way this person has been conducting himself, he doesn’t deserve to be in a classroom again,” said Lindgren.

To date, the legal expenses have cost the district $598,274 and another $75,000 if the state’s high court takes the case, he said.

The district didn’t learn until early last summer that their insurer wasn’t funding the case, said Perry Hibner, the district’s community relations specialist. Regardless, the principle of not allowing pornography in the classroom is one worth pursuing, he said.

Haus said the district never proposed an alternative to termination acceptable to Harris.

“At no point have they figured out to short circuit this…When Foust ruled from the bench, their attorney jumped up without consulting anyone and said, ‘we’re appealing,’” Haus recalled.

Settlement offers have been made, but the parties remain very far apart, Hibner said.

The Harris case and another somewhat similar incident prompted the state to pass a law that allows the Department of Public Instruction to revoke an instructor’s teaching license for watching pornography at work. However, DPI has had the district’s complaint about Harris for three years without acting on it, Johnson said. The Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District’s current contract with teachers also explicitly bans pornography.

Meanwhile, Harris is suspended at half pay while the case remains in court. He has agreed to return the pay if he loses and he will be entitled to full back pay if he wins, said Hibner.

While Harris may be employed by the district in the future, Johnson said he didn’t think it was in the best interests of the children or community for Harris to return to the classroom.

 

 

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