DPI’s ruling: Porn-watching teacher keeps his license to teach

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction believes the actions of a teacher who viewed and shared scores of pornographic and other sexually explicit content in a public school classroom were “highly inappropriate,” but not cause for the educator to lose his license.

After nearly four years of investigating the case of Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District teacher Andrew Harris, DPI last week came to this conclusion:

“While Andrew Harris’s conduct was highly inappropriate for an educator, it does not meet the legal definition of immoral conduct contained in the 2008-09 law,” the agency stated in an explanation of its decision.

LICENSED TO TEACH: After a nearly four-year investigation, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has ruled it cannot revoke the license of teacher Andrew Harris, who was found to have viewed and shared scores of sexually explicit images at school.

“..(T)here is no probable cause that Andrew Harris violated the 2008-09 law, and the Department cannot pursue a revocation of Andrew Harris’s license at this time.”

In other words, DPI believes that it cannot take away Harris’ license because his “highly inappropriate” activity in his seventh-grade classroom occurred before the Legislature amended the definition of “immoral conduct” to include “the intentional use of an educational agency’s equipment to download, view, solicit, seek, display, or distribute pornographic material.”

“However, the Department is legally prohibited from retroactively applying this new definition to Andrew Harris because his conduct occurred before the Legislature passed 2011 Act 84,” DPI said in its defense.

The Legislature, indeed passed the law in part due to the Harris case.

Gov. Scott Walker, who in February asked DPI to revoke Harris’ teaching license, expressed disappointment with DPI’s decision. It seems Walker sees DPI’s legal explanation as a cop out.

“We believe the Department of Public Instruction does indeed have the legal authority to revoke (Harris’) license under prior law and Governor Walker thinks they should do so,” said Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick in an email to Wisconsin Reporter.

Middleton-Cross Plains Superintendent Don Johnson sounded more than disappointed by a ruling that followed a long and expensive court battle by the district to keep Harris out of the classroom. That effort, estimated at nearly $1 million, failed, and Harris, by court-order, was reinstated to teach seventh-grade science in the district earlier this year.

“The board of education took a stand against viewing pornography in school and requested a review of the case four years ago,” Johnson said in a statement. “Our state superintendent clearly doesn’t believe viewing pornography in school over a long period of time justifies license revocation.

Harris’ teachers union welcomed DPI’s ruling, saying the veteran science teacher should never have been fired in the first place.

The district fired Harris in 2010 after another teacher filed a complaint claiming Harris showed her pornographic images at Glacier Creek Middle 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’ labor 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 in early January declined to review the case.

Harris was subsequently reinstated and assigned to the district’s Kromrey Middle School, where he resumed teaching science in February despite protests from some parents and others in the community.

DPI had said that it would wait for the lengthy legal process to be resolved before coming to a decision on Harris’ license.

Wisconsin Reporter on several occasions in recent months asked DPI to update the public on the status of its investigation. As recently as April 9, DPI spokeswoman told Wisconsin Reporter Harris’ licensure status remained under investigation, and that the matter was confidential.

“… (T)he licensure status of the educator you referenced remains under investigation by the DPI,” agency spokeswoman Debra Bougie.

In its letter, DPI said its investigation “confirmed the school district’s public statements” that Harris’ conduct did not involve “children in any manner.”

“Similarly, the arbitrator who oversaw 18 days of hearings on this matter also determined that no students were involved and that no students could have seen the images,” DPI stated.

But in a review of the content Harris received, Wisconsin Reporter found one of the emails in question contained a link that would take the user to an adult video game website titled hornygamer.com. Harris told investigators that he could not access that site, and his email response was, “cant do it – I am internet blocked! damn.”

The site included a game called “Busty Schoolgirl,” and “Tutor Sylvia,” noting that “Sylvia, the hottest girl in school, has trouble with math. So give her some very private tutoring lessons.”

Should DPI receive “new, credible” evidence that Harris’ conduct endangered any pupil, the department will “carefully review that evidence to determine whether license revocation proceedings are warranted.”

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

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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