Update on Andy Harris Pornography Case

The following email from the Board of Education President, Ellen Lindgren, was received via Campus Messenger on September 18, 2013. It is presented here in original (unedited) form:

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Dear parents and guardians:

Earlier this month we sent you an e-mail about the Board of Education's decision to appeal the appellate court's ruling regarding a Middleton Education Association grievance that would allow Andrew Harris back in the classroom. We promised to send out regular communication updates. Below is an update from Board President Ellen Lindgren that is appearing as a letter to the editor in the Middleton Times-Tribune and News Sickle-Arrow this week. It answers many of the questions we believe community members have regarding this issue.

Thank you to everyone who has communicated to us about this issue. Please e-mail Community Relations Specialist Perry Hibner at phibner@mcpasd.k12.wi.us if you have additional questions or thoughts.

School Board Stands by Their Decision

The school board has received quite a few questions arising from statements made recently about the ongoing pornography case in the school district. The basis for all the decisions the Board has made regarding the dismissal of Andrew Harris have been profoundly simple. We want what is best for our students and our employees. We want a safe and nurturing school environment. We want educators who are good role models.

Why did the school board fire Mr. Harris?

The school board made our decision to terminate Mr. Harris after viewing of the images and videos that were on his computer. It was uncomfortable but legally required of us to see them. Afterward there was no hesitation in deciding on his termination. No one -- parent, staff, and community member -- who has taken the time to do the same has come back to us and said that we overreacted and made a mistake. Business people in our district have confirmed that anyone viewing pornography on company computers, on company time, would be terminated and walked to the door with no appeal allowed. 

Why didn't all of the teachers involved get fired?

What Harris viewed is clearly hard-core pornography and is in a league of its own compared with a much lower level of material that other teachers accessed. The District investigated every staff member in the district. The others who were reprimanded kept or shared off-color jokes and pictures that were inappropriate but not pornographic.

Our investigation covered 18 months, but Harris admits viewing pornography over a nine-year period during the instructional day. The Middleton Education Association leadership and their attorney don't agree that this is sufficient enough offense to be terminated from a job in which he is responsible for the safety and care of our children.

Why didn't the school board settle for $17,000 to $21,000 as Harris' attorney contends?

When the union leadership and their lawyer came to us offering a deal to have Mr. Harris leave quietly, it was contingent on us giving him a good letter of reference and never referring to the reason why he was dismissed. Indeed, they wanted a secret agreement binding the district to keep this quiet. The board saw what had happened in other districts when this occurred in the past, and could not ethically or in good conscience do this. Most importantly, we are subject to open records laws, and by entering this secret agreement, we could be violating those laws.

Why did the school board disagree with the arbitrator's decision?

The arbitrator gave more weight to the disparate treatment argument than to the behaviors that caused Harris' termination, and decreased his punishment to a suspension. The school board believes that Harris' behavior, including viewing pornography in the classroom as well as organizing a shunning to alienate the teacher who reported his behavior, justified his termination. And yet the arbitrator herself gave disparate punishments, giving Harris the longest suspension, defying her own logic. 

The school board remains committed to the belief that pornography does not belong in our schools. The teachers union apparently does now as well, as immediate dismissal for such actions was agreed to in their current contract.

How can the school board continue to spend so much on this case?

We believe spending the funds to keep someone who views pornography in the classroom out of the teaching profession is justifiable and necessary. Consenting to the appeals court ruling is not without cost -- we would be forced to pay Mr. Harris back pay (about $360,000). And Harris would have to be returned as a science teacher in one of our middle schools, a fact that is not lost on parents. Would you want Harris in the classroom teaching your child or grandchild? As our superintendent Don Johnson stated, ''The safety of our students is priceless.''

If Mr. Harris' behavior was so bad, why hasn't DPI revoked his license?

We continue to believe that the statute that allows the Department of Public Instruction to revoke a teaching license for ''immoral behavior'' allows them to revoke Harris' license.  Our district worked to codify in state statute that ''immoral behavior'' include viewing pornography on school time. This legislation had bipartisan support, was passed unanimously in our fractious legislature, and signed immediately by the governor. 

We are very disappointed that the DPI has not acted on this case, and believe they are shirking their responsibility. We are still waiting for DPI to make a decision on Mr. Harris. With or without that clarification of law, we can't understand how they think pornography in schools is acceptable, and that Harris should have a license to teach.

Our district has outstanding teachers, and due largely to their efforts we are recognized as one of the best in the state. Our community has high expectations of our educators, and will not tolerate pornography in our schools.  The school board simply doesn't believe there should be any justification or loophole forcing us to keep a teacher who views pornography in the classroom. All this seems like common sense, and what is best for our students. The school board has the support of our parents, who also want what is best for their children. Public opinion and policy are on our side, and we hope that the Supreme Court recognizes this.

Ellen Lindgren
Board of Education President

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-The DaneWatch.com Team

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