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Still no action from DPI on porn-watching teacher case

By   /   February 20, 2014  /   No Comments

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. – Nothing.

More than three weeks after Gov. Scott Walker sent a letter to state schools Superintendent Tony Evers urging Evers to revoke the teaching license of a teacher who was fired for viewing pornography at school then reinstated by court order, the state Department of Public Instruction has yet to answer the governor.

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STILL WAITING: Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District teacher Andrew Harris, who was found to have viewed and shared pornography in school, is back in class while the district continues to wait for the state Department of Public Instruction to come to a decision on Harris’ license.

And the agency has not yet concluded its nearly four-year investigation into Andrew Harris, a seventh-grade science teacher in the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District who was found to have watched and shared dozens of pornographic and other sexual images on his school computer.

“The state superintendent has not responded to the letter sent by Governor Walker concerning the licensed educator from Middleton Cross Plains,” DPI spokesman Patrick Gasper wrote in an email to Wisconsin Reporter.

“That particular matter remains under investigation by the DPI, and as you are aware, state law prohibits the DPI from discussing further except to indicate that the matter is/remains under investigation,” Gasper wrote.

Gasper said the same when asked why the superintendent had not responded to the governor’s letter.

Walker sent his request to Evers on Jan. 28.

“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.

The district fired Harris in 2010 after another teacher filed a complaint saying Harris showed her pornographic images at the school. Administrators launched an investigation that found Harris received scores 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. An arbitrator, Karen Mawhinney, agreed with the union. She ordered the district to reinstate Harris to a similar position and pay him nearly $200,000 in back pay. A district court and a state court of appeals agreed and ordered the district follow the arbitrator’s decision.

The state Supreme Court declined to review the case.

Mawhinney asserted that other educators in the district viewed sexually inappropriate content at school, too, but were given lighter punishments. She ruled that Harris had been disparately treated, although a Wisconsin Reporter review of the materials Harris viewed and shared and the volume of the content puts in question the arbitrator’s decision.

The district reassigned Harris to Kromrey Middle School, where he resumed teaching science earlier this month despite protests from some parents and other community members.

District spokesman Perry Hibner said district Superintendent Don Johnson has had two conversations with a DPI spokesperson. He got the same answers.

“(Johnson) said he is getting lots of questions from parents and other citizens who want to know where the process is at, and we’re basically getting ‘no comment,’” Hibner said.

The fallout of the entire episode could be costly for the Middleton Education Association, the union that represents the teachers.

Hibner said about 50 parents attended the school board’s meeting Feb. 10. Many expressed their displeasure with the union and their desire that the board not re-enter into contract negotiations with the MEA, according to the spokesman.

Middleton-Cross Plains was one of three school districts statewide to bargain with its teachers union, in defiance of Act 10, the state law that effectively ended contract negotiations for most public employees in the state. The district’s school board last year extended the contract, which includes the same grievance procedures that effectively rescued Harris’ job. That contract ends July 1.

It would seem the board has had a change of heart concerning the union.

“We are not thrilled with how things have played out,” Hibner said.

Neither are many taxpayers in the district, who got stuck with a nearly $1 million bill in the long legal process.

The board has said the district is taking a wait-and-see approach to the looming contract matter. Act 10’s constitutionality is presently being tested in the state Supreme Court, which is expected to rule sometime in the coming months. If the conservative majority court upholds the law, teachers will live by the Act 10 handbook, Hibner said. If the court strikes down the law, the district will bargain in good faith, he said.

As for the Harris matter, Hibner said there is nothing the district can do but live by the terms of the reinstatement agreement – and wait for DPI to finally come to a decision.

“Our feeling has been all along that we just want DPI to say what is right or wrong here,” the spokesman said.  “If they say any educator should keep their license after something like this, then just come out and stand behind it. If not, let us know.”

“It’s in DPI’s hands and unfortunately it feels like this is going to take a long time to get resolved.”

Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said the decision rests with Evers and the governor is “urging him to review the matter and act quickly.”

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

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Kittle is a 25-year veteran of radio, newspaper and online journalism. In July 2011, Kittle joined Watchdog.org as bureau chief for Wisconsin Reporter. He has spent much of the past three years covering the seismic political changes taking place in the Badger State. Last year, Kittle joined Watchdog’s national reporting team, covering everything from energy policy to governmental assaults on civil rights. Beyond being published in Wisconsin’s daily newspapers and in multimedia news outlets, Kittle’s work has appeared on Fox News, and in Human Events, Reason Magazine, Newsmax and Town Hall. His special investigation into a politically charged John Doe probe, “Wisconsin’s Secret War,” was the basis of a 2014 documentary on Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze. Kittle has made several appearances on Fox News, including “On the Record with Greta Van Susteren. He serves as weekly politics commentator for Lake 96.1 FM in Lake Geneva, and WRJN-AM 1400 in Racine. His resume includes multiple awards for journalism excellence from The Associated Press, Inland Press, Wisconsin Broadcast Association and other journalism associations. Contact Kittle at mkittle@watchdog.org.