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Middleton-Cross Plains School Board To Appeal Teacher's Reinstatement

Published On: Mar 12 2012 11:33:35 AM CDT   Updated On: Mar 13 2012 06:48:53 AM CDT

The Middleton-Cross Plains School Board voted 8-1 on Monday night to appeal the ruling of an arbitrator who decided a fired seventh-grade teacher should get his job back.

Andrew Harris was dismissed in May 2010 for viewing pornographic emails at work. The 23 messages were sent by his sister and district email records showed he never replied asking her to stop sending them, but did seem to encourage the messages with positive responses.

The more than two-year process, dating back to Harris' suspension, has cost the district almost $400,000 in legal fees.

After the vote on Monday night, School Board President Ellen Lindgren said she didn't have an estimate on what an appeal would cost, but said she and her fellow members felt committed to take the measure all the way to the state Supreme Court if necessary.

"I think that the board and the community feel that this is public policy that needs to be affirmed, that this behavior is unacceptable in schools," Lindgren said. "This is not a case just about the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District, it's bigger than that. So, the board is committed at this point to going forward to make sure that this is changed."

A few dozen parents attended the regularly scheduled board meeting and a handful waited out an hour-long closed session to hear the decision on Harris's employment. An arbitrator had ruled Harris should be reinstated and receive back pay. The decision by the board to vacate the arbitrator's ruling and appeal means it will also challenge the reduction in discipline for two other employees who were suspended for viewing inappropriate content at work.

A district-wide email dragnet after Harris' emails were reported discovered six other employees with inappropriate content deemed to be in violation of the district's acceptable use policy. Harris was found to have the highest number of pictures and pornographic content.

Several parents spoke to the board while the meeting was still in open session to vehemently oppose his reinstatement.

"Take a stand and let the communities know that our children cannot and will not be taught by individuals that are lascivious, sexist and perverted," said Erik Cushman, a district parent.

Holly Van Gilder said she initially went to the district headquarters to review the case, hoping to side with Harris and saying she supported underdogs. When she saw the images she said she no longer could.

"This case is of a man with a blatant record of pornographic emails that were welcomed, along with positive responses to them over an 18-month period," said Van Gilder. "I see a man whose out of control and who doesn?t understand what he did that was wrong."

Two people spoke on Harris' behalf, including Sara Brenkman, who did so in spite of some jeers from the audience.

"I must say that nowhere have I read that this man is a pedophile. And there?s no evidence of him being a pedophile," said Brenkman. "I must say I was a teacher at Glacier Creek and of the teachers there, he was a very inspiring science teacher to many kids."

Bob Hesselbeim was the lone board member who voted in support of upholding the arbitor's ruling.

"No children were exposed to pornographic images, and this long ordeal has cost hundreds of thousands of dollars," he said in a statement. "As a taxpayer and parent, I am opposed to any more hard-earned taxpayer money diverted from education to pay for costly and uncertain legal appeals."

The next phase of the case will play out in circuit court. No date has been set.

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    Todd Merryfield, owner of The Learning Shop at 714 S. Gammon Road, said the store is collecting the bears for officers who use them to help comfort children with whom police come in contact.

    "This is a great way to support what (police) do," Merryfield said. "Those are the kids that need something like this to reassure them, calm them down, and let them know that things are all right."

    Nearly 500 plush animals were donated Tuesday, a Learning Shop spokeswoman said. The Madison store's effort is part of a larger initiative through the Bears for Humanity organization. 

    Photos by Doug Wahl

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