Monday, October 15, 2012

Teachers vs. idiots: The teachers finally win one!

This blog obviously has a soft spot for good teachers who have been unjustly treated by their employers. Most stories of this genre do not have happy endings. Here's one that does. Sort of. At least, the good guy wins.

In April 2006, Jeffrey Leardini was teaching sixth grade at Community House Middle School in the Charlotte-Mecklenberg (North Carolina) School District. One of his students, a girl, wasn't doing very well in his class. After she received one poor grade too many from him, she decided to do something about it. So she reported that he had been "inappropriately touching" her - that is, touching her in "sexually suggestive ways." And she got four of her friends to report that he had touched them, too.

This was Leardini's eighth year of teaching. According to everything I've read about the case, he was an "excellent" teacher, who got "glowing reviews". He acknowledged, in response to questions from a reporter in the Charlotte Observer, "that he squeezed shoulders, patted arms and touched students' heads as part of his teaching style."

Teachers used to be able to do that. Female teachers can still do that. But in this enlightened century, male teachers would be wise not to touch anyone, no matter how innocent or accidental the touch may be. It's a lesson that a few male teachers are still learning the hard way. It's not fair, and it's definitely not justice, but it's reality.

But this isn't a story about who Leardini did touch. It's a story about who he didn't touch.

Leardini was immediately pulled from the classroom. In a meeting with Kay Cunningham, of the district HR office, he was told that the district had a "no-touch" policy, and he was advised that "he had no choice but to resign immediately or be terminated." She assured him, however, that if he resigned, there would not be an investigation and she would note on his record that he had "resigned voluntarily."

For a teacher who has been trying hard to do all the right things, who has been trying to make the classroom a safe and comfortable place where students can concentrate on learning, and whose mind has never even considered this kind of behavior, accusations like this can be devastating. I can imagine that he was so shocked as to be at a complete loss for words. He wouldn't be able to come up with anything in his defense because he had never considered having to defend himself from anything like this. And when Ms. Cunningham was so belligerent and threatening, of course he felt like he had no choice but to resign.

So he did. He resigned. His personnel record, in addition to a copy of the complaints against him, noted that he had "resigned in lieu of dismissal" and that he was "not eligible for rehire" — which was the kiss of death to his teaching career. Nobody would hire him with that kind of black mark on his record.

Then Cunningham faxed an "urgent" case summary to the police, and eventually criminal charges were filed against Leardini. I don't know for sure, but I would guess that that's about the time he decided to hire a real lawyer. Either Leardini got a really good lawyer, or Leardini has a really good brain between his ears. You see, he knew he was innocent. And that counts for a lot. And eventually, he and his lawyers found out a few important things:
  • The girls' lies were exposed, and their conspiracy was uncovered.
  • The district did not have a "no-touch" policy, at least not before April 2006.
  • The district didn't even follow the policies it did have in place.
  • He was entitled to a full investigation of the allegations before the district could take any action, but nobody had told him that. Remember, Cunningham had told him he had "no choice" but to resign or be terminated. She lied to him.
  • He had been bullied and misled into resigning.
  • He had been denied his right to due process.
So in June 2009, he filed a lawsuit against the school district. All he wanted, he said, was to have his name cleared, to have his teaching job back, and to have that "resigned in lieu of dismissal" notation changed to "resigned voluntarily." The school district, like all of the other school districts that have been featured on Zyzmog Galactic HQ, had some idiots on the payroll that thought they could win the lawsuit. So they refused his terms.

So the suit went to trial. In February 2012, nearly six years after he had been falsely accused and wrongfully terminated, a jury awarded him $1.1 million from the school district, and  $52,000 from Cunningham.

The idiots at the district, when they realized their own misbehavior been exposed and that they had lost the trial, went pale and immediately filed an appeal. By the laws of the state of North Carolina, the appeal went automatically to mediation. Eventually the two sides worked out a deal whereby the district would pay Leardini, not $1.1 million, but $680,000. That's still cheap, compared to the cost of an unjustly tarnished reputation and a ruined career.

As part of the settlement, the district had to remove the complaints from Leardini's file and replace them with a copy of the mediated settlement. They had to remove the "resigned in lieu of dismissal" and any other mention of "disciplinary action" or "termination." But these were only symbolic moves. They couldn't replace the six lost years, or his shattered future.

Leardini's lawyer, Luke Largess, says he hopes that the school district has learned a lesson. The words of a  district spokesman, however, reveal that the district hasn't learned a thing. You can read their exact words in the sources listed below.

In the years between 2006 and 2012, Leardini moved as far away from North Carolina as he could get. He's now a manager at a Petco in San Diego, California.

According to news reports, Cunningham no longer works for the district, so good luck collecting on the $52,000 she owes. It doesn't say whether she quit or was fired, or where she is, but she has had six good years to move elsewhere and cover her tracks. For all we know, she's bullying naïve teachers at another school district somewhere in the U.S.

His accusers got away with no punishment at all. Being minors, their names were never revealed, so they haven't had their reputations dragged through the mud like Leardini has. Today, they're probably freshmen at UNC Charlotte, or at Duke University. They should feel right at home at Duke.

NBC News
Charlotte Observer
Triangle News14
And here's a Washington Post article from 2000 about a similar incident. The school mishandled it at first, but they quickly set about to make things right.

Here's an article that appeared in Charlotte Magazine, written in December 2006. At that time, things were looking pretty bleak for Leardini. This is an extremely well-written article about the incident, and it's still relevant today.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

About obesity and bullying

Yahoo! News repeated this morning's story about an obese on-air TV personality, the viewer who called her out on her obesity, and her response to him. Oh, and everyone else's response, too.

(This next paragraph should be read in a snarky tone.) Because I have my very own blog, I'm going to comment about the issue here, rather than letting my comments get lost in the noise at Yahoo! or at WKBT-TV. (Okay, no more snarkiness. Let's get serious now.)

Jennifer Livingston is a TV news anchor at WKBT-TV in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She has been obese for several years. She has a husband and three children, none of whom (to my knowledge) are obese.

One of WKBT-TV's viewers, identified as Kenneth W. Krause, wrote a letter to Ms. Livingston, chastisting her for her continued obesity, and on the surface, although the letter is kind of rude in parts, it's not obscene or mean-spirited. It's actually a rather well-written, short, persuasive essay. Here's how it appeared on the FB page of her husband and co-worker, news anchor Mike Thompson:
"It's unusual that I see your morning show, but I did so for a very short time today. I was surprised indeed to witness that your physical condition hasn't improved for many years. Surely you don't consider yourself a suitable example for this community's young people, girls in particular. Obesity is one of the worst choices a person can make and one of the most dangerous habits to maintain. I leave you this note hoping that you'll reconsider your responsibility as a local public personality to present and promote a healthy lifestyle."
What Mr. Krause didn't know was that Ms. Livingston has a thyroid condition that makes it difficult for her to shed the unwanted weight, that aside from her weight she's in pretty good physical shape, that she works out regularly and that she participates in 5K runs and triathlons. Had he been in possession of these facts, he may have worded the letter differently or not written it at all.

(Who first publicized the letter? Did WKBT-TV or Mike Thompson get Mr. Krause's permission to post his letter online? If they didn't, they may have violated the law, or at least simple etiquette. And no, two wrongs do not make a right.)

Ms. Livingston has many friends. I don't know her personally, but I think it would be easy to be friends with her. There's just this one little thing that bothers me: her response to Mr. Krause.

Ms. Livingston's employer, co-workers, family and friends rushed to her defense, publicly and privately. Her husband appeared on Good Morning America with her, talking about the letter. Ms. Livingston did an on-air editorial on WKBT-TV about the letter, and here's where I disagree with her handling of the situation.

She said, "I think, in his mind, he [Krause] views himself as being helpful which is what I think a little bit of the problem is. ... He doesn't see that the way that he approached it was clearly hurtful to me. He's trying to shame me into losing weight. That's not being helpful. That's being a bully." She followed that with a reference to October being National Anti-Bullying Month, and went on to speak, passionately and articulately, about the problem of bullying.

But Mr. Krause wasn't a bully. And his letter didn't constitute bullying.

If the text I quoted really was the full content of his letter, then you can call it criticism or negative feedback, which is always hard to take (and even harder to hand out without sounding rude). Or you can call it off-base, because he didn't have all the facts. But reread his letter. It's not a "bullying" letter.

Krause wasn't picking on Livingston just because she was fat, or vulnerable, or a member of a target group. Nor was he picking on her repeatedly, or from a position of power or invulnerability. Nor was he anonymous. As far as we can tell, this was the first time he'd written her, even though he'd been observing her for many years. Nor was his decision to write her a spontaneous thing: if you read his words carefully, you'll see that the thought about it for a long time before writing. He even offered constructive suggestions in addition to his criticisms.

Instead of going public with her accusations of bullying, Ms. Livingston could have phoned Mr. Krause and engaged him in a private dialogue, and then gone public with the dialogue and a resolution. That would have demonstrated some real class. Instead, she overreacted, tagged him with a label he didn't deserve, turned the tables on Mr. Krause, and and subjected him to "bullying."

You may not think so, but look at what happened: hundreds of WKBT-TV viewers (and then the whole country) dogpiled onto him, throwing insults and verbal abuse his way, on the WKBT-TV website, Mr. Thompson's FB page, and dozens of other websites that carried the story, without giving him a chance to resolve the issue amicably, present his side of the story, or fight back. That is bullying.

(Actually, Mr. Krause did submit a follow-up statement to WKBT-TV, which they published and Yahoo! repeated. Interestingly, he's sticking to his guns.)

More importantly, Ms. Livingston has cheapened the terms bully and bullying. Any time someone throws out an accusation like bully, racist or sexist, falsely or without justification, it diminishes the power of the accusation and makes things more difficult for the next person who needs to use it legitimately. Remember the parable of the boy who cried wolf.

To conclude: While Mr. Krause may owe Ms. Livingston an apology for not getting all the facts before he wrote his letter, Ms. Livingston, Mr. Thompson, WKBT-TV and many other people owe Mr. Krause an apology for labeling him a bully and giving him his undeserved 15 minutes of living hell.