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Official: Wisconsin DPI dragging feet on porn-watching teacher case

By   /   January 23, 2014  /   No Comments

By M.D. Kittle and Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. — Angry parents of seventh-grade students at Kromrey Middle School reportedly plan to picket the school Friday, protesting the court-imposed return to the classroom of Andrew Harris, the Middleton-Cross Plains School District teacher fired nearly four years ago for viewing and sharing pornography at school.

Harris, who taught at the district’s other middle school, Glacier Creek Middle School, before his position was terminated in 2010, has been reinstated and moved to Kromrey. He is expected to show up Friday for the district’s teacher in-service day and be back at the head of his science class on Monday when the second semester begins.

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BACK TO CLASS Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District middle school science teacher Andrew Harris is expected to return to the classroom Monday, nearly four years after being fired for looking at pornography at school. A district official says the Department of Public of Instruction has dragged its feet on a ruling on Harris’ license.

His reinstatement has been ordered by an arbitrator, who ruled in 2012 that the district treated Harris unfairly. The district challenged the ruling, which demands Harris receive nearly $200,000 in back pay, but district and appeals courts upheld the arbitrator’s ruling.

Now Kromrey Middle School parents who don’t want their kids in Harris’ class are out of luck. The district has received dozens of emails and phone calls from upset parents, who have all been told the district’s hands are tied, according to a Middlet0n-Cross Plains spokesman.

“They’re mad at the legal system, they’re mad at Andrew Harris, they’re mad at the union. They’re probably mad at us,” said district communications director Perry Hibner, who tells Wisconsin Reporter that as of Wednesday night he had received 60 emails, the vast majority outraged that Harris will be returning to the classroom.

He said many parents want to move their children to Glacier Creek, but that isn’t logistically possible. Those classes are filled, the two middle schools are separated by more than 10 miles and legally, as Hibner puts it, the district “had to put (Harris) somewhere.”

The settlement between the district and the Middleton Education Association, which represents Harris, demands that the disgraced teacher return to his old position — be it at Glacier Creek or Kromrey.

Some Kromrey parents, Hibner said, have asked whether they can enroll their children in a study hall or online science class. Hibner said the teachers union has been clear it will pursue a lawsuit if the district doesn’t fully honor the terms of the reinstatement agreement.

“The challenge for us is the whole threat of a suit. We fear anything we do will be held against us,” the spokesman said. “Our teachers union and their attorney have shown they are willing to sue us any chance they can get.”

Chris Bauman, president of the Middleton Education Association, said in an email to Wisconsin Reporter he is “choosing not to comment further on this story.”

While the district may have exhausted its legal options, there is one final administrative recourse: the state Department of Public Instruction could revoke Harris’ license.

But nearly four years after the Middleton-Cross Plains School District finished its investigation that found Harris had viewed or shared more than 20 pornographic images, jokes and other sexually inappropriate conduct at school, DPI has yet to come to a decision on the district’s request.

Hibner said the district has repeatedly asked for the agency to make its ruling on the license review, but it has either been ignored or told DPI was waiting for the legal process to run its course. Yet, DPI has the authority to act on a license matter at any time, and it has revoked licenses on lesser misconduct charges, officials say.

As of Thursday, a week after the Wisconsin Supreme Court declined to hear the district’s appeal in the case, DPI has yet to issue a decision, Hibner said.

DPI spokesman Patrick Gasper tells Wisconsin Reporter Harris’ licensure status remains under investigation. He pointed to DPI investigation procedure, noting that there are “certain reasons” why the agency may not bring an investigation to a close after three and a half years. In essence, other players in the case – the arbitrator and the courts, in particular – could come to decisions that have an impact on DPI’s investigation and decision.

“(T)he DPI investigation process is thorough and labor intensive, independent of other actions/determinations made by other parties,” Gasper said in an email.

That said, Gasper acknowledged that there is no timeline for a decision on Harris’ license status.

Why has the matter taken so long?

“Every case in investigation is different and unique,” Gasper said.

Hibner isn’t certain why DPI is dragging its feet, but he knows the case is a hot-button issue, one that places DPI Superintendent Tony Evers, enthusiastically backed by the state’s teachers unions, in a difficult position.

“The perception is they are pro-teacher, when they really ought to be pro-education,” Hibner said. “They ought to rule and stand on their own principles. If they feel (Harris) should keep his license they ought to come out and say that. Let the public decide if those are good enough reasons.”

Harris served in a leadership position in the MEA.

Pushing the DPI may not be in the best legal interest of Middleton-Cross Plains.

Officials have said giving the impression that the district is advising parents to contact DPI could spur a hostile work environment lawsuit.

Contact M.D. Kittle at mkittle@watchdog.org  

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