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Breaking news: WI gov. asks superintendent to remove porn-watching teacher

By   /   January 28, 2014  /   No Comments

2:17 updated with comments from Department of Public Instruction

By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. — Gov. Scott Walker on Tuesday urged state schools Superintendent Tony Evers to revoke Andrew Harris’ teachers’ license.

Harris is the Middleton-Cross Plains middle school teacher found to have viewed multiple pornographic images, videos and other inappropriate sexual content at the school.

“After hearing from concerned parents, I am asking you to act efficiently in your investigation into the actions of Mr. Harris and to initiate revocation proceedings,” Walker wrote in a letter to Evers.

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SCHOOL’S TEST: Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District middle school science teacher Andrew Harris is expected to return to the classroom, nearly four years after being fired for looking at pornography at school.

The Middleton-Cross Plains School District fired Harris in 2010 after another teacher filed a complaint saying Harris showed her pornographic images at the school. The district launched an investigation that found Harris received hundreds of pornographic images, videos and inappropriate jokes on his school email account and viewed them at work.

Harris’ union filed a grievance asking that he be reinstated. The arbitrator, Karen Mawhinney, who donated $1,500 to two of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s failed campaigns for governor in 2010 and the recall in 2012, agreed with the union. She ordered the district to reinstate Harris to a similar position and pay him nearly $200,000 in back pay. The district spent another $627,000 in legal fees trying unsuccessfully to have the decision overturned in the courts.

The state Supreme Court declined to review the case.

“The arbitration process afforded to Mr. Harris failed the school district and the students,” Walker wrote. “It has taken both a financial and emotional toll on the district. Cases, such as this one, are a good example of why our reforms are necessary.”

The district reassigned Harris to Kromrey Middle School, where he was slated to start teaching again on Monday; school was canceled because of the cold weather, however. The district plans to place a teacher’s aide in the classroom with Harris and allow his students to attend study hall, rather than his class. District spokesman Perry Hibner tells Wisconsin Reporter that at least five students have asked for study hall. Harris will teach five blocks of classes per day, with an enrollment of about 125 students.

The accommodations, however, did not ease parents’ concerns, and more than 20 braved the cold Friday to protest Harris’ return to work on a teacher in-service day. Hibner told Wisconsin Reporter the district received scores of emails and phone calls from angry and concerned parents.

As Wisconsin Reporter first reported, the school district asked Evers to revoke Harris’ license in 2010 for “immoral conduct,” although the Department of Public Instruction has yet to rule.

Hibner said, as of Tuesday, DPI had yet to contact the district about the status of its investigation. The agency did, however, contact district Superintendent Don Johnson expressing concerns about the plan to move students from Harris’ class to study hall, according to Hibner. He said DPI was concerned the students would not be receiving their science education.

Johnson has told Wisconsin Reporter that the district has to serve all constituencies involved, from students and parents to teachers, the community and Andrew Harris. And the district must honor Harris’ reinstatement, or face the threat of a lawsuit from the teacher and his union, the Middleton Education Association.

State Act 84 allows the superintendent to revoke a license for “Immoral conduct,” which,  includes “the intentional use of an educational agency’s equipment to download, view, solicit, seek, display, or distribute pornographic material,” Walker noted in his letter to Evers. The law in part grew out of the Middleton-Cross Plains case, which included several educators and administrators found to have viewed inappropriate sexual content at school.

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

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

Gasper wrote in an email Tuesday that no one at DPI had received Walker’s letter when members of the media started asking about it.

“Regarding the licensure status of the educator you referenced, it remains under investigation by the DPI,” he wrote.

 

Gov. Scott Walker’s letter to state Superintendent Tony Evers:

Dear State Superintendent Evers:

Since taking office, I have worked to put in place reforms giving local school districts the tools they need to hire and fire teachers based on merit, performance, and professional conduct. With the passage of 2011 Wisconsin Act 10, schools now have the ability to move away from the old contracts, which prevented them from doing so.

The reforms support excellence in education because they ensure our students are educated by the best and brightest teachers. The reforms also protect students from teachers who may engage in immoral conduct or fall short of the expectations put forth by parents, the community, and school leaders. This is important not only to me, but also to parents and caretakers all throughout our state.

In 2010, the elected officials serving on the local school board overseeing the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District made the decision to terminate the employment of middle school teacher Andrew Harris, after an investigation revealed he repeatedly viewed pornographic material at school and on a school computer. Unfortunately, the union arbitration process ordered that he be allowed to return to the classroom, with back pay. The district has spent about $1 million on costs and legal fees in the case.

Reforms we put in place in 2011 Act 10 put the power back in the hands of local officials, including school boards, so they can make the decisions they feel best serve their students and their community. While the defense of Mr. Harris’s actions by the teacher’s union ultimately negated the desire of the Middleton-Cross Plains School Board to remove him from the classroom, it appears that his behavior meets the definition of “Immoral conduct” under Wisconsin Statutes Chapter 115.31(1)(c).

After hearing from concerned parents, I am asking you to act efficiently in your investigation into the actions of Mr. Harris and to initiate revocation proceedings. The arbitration process afforded to Mr. Harris failed the school district and the students. It has taken both a financial and emotional toll on the district. Cases, such as this one, are a good example of why our reforms are necessary.

Situations, such as these, prompted me to sign 2011 Act 84 giving the State Superintendent clear authority to take action. Act 84 allows the State Superintendent to revoke a license for “Immoral conduct,” which includes “the intentional use of an educational agency’s equipment to download, view, solicit, seek, display, or distribute pornographic material.”

I am confident that the overwhelming majority of teachers and educators across the state and in the Middleton-Cross Plains District are committed and dedicated to working hard every day for the benefit of our students, their families, and our state as a whole. Teachers who make decisions that contradict what is best for students shed a negative light on their colleagues and the district, and in some cases, put students at risk.

Parents and caretakers deserve to know they are sending children to schools where everyone on staff is committed to excellence. Thank you for your swift action on this matter and I look forward to your review and remedy.

Sincerely,

Scott Walker
Governor

Contact Ryan Ekvall at rekvall@watchdog.org

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Ryan Ekvall uncovers government waste, fraud and abuse for Wisconsin Reporter. His work has appeared at Reason, Fox News and Human Events.

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