MADISON — The state Republican Party on Tuesday circulated a school district’s report into the behavior of a fired teacher as evidence that the state schools superintendent, Tony Evers, who is a Democratic hopeful for governor, should have revoked the teacher’s license.
The report that the party distributed concludes that the Middleton-Cross Plains school district middle school teacher who viewed pornographic emails on his work computer also harassed another teacher who complained about him.
However, claims of harassing behavior were not substantiated by an arbitrator or the Department of Public Instruction, which Evers runs.
Evers has consistently said for years he did not have the authority under the law as it was then written to revoke the teacher’s license.
That hasn’t stopped allies of Republican Gov. Scott Walker from making Evers’ handling of the case their central argument against his candidacy for governor. Evers, who entered the race in August and has been the elected state school superintendent since 2009, is one of more than a dozen Democrats vying for the chance to take on Walker next year.
The investigation into teacher Andrew Harris began in 2009 when the district received a complaint from a female teacher about emails containing nudity, crude jokes and other inappropriate material that Harris was viewing and sending to other school employees.
Arbitrator reverses teacher’s firing
Harris was fired in 2010, but an arbitrator determined he should have been suspended so that his punishment would be on par with those given to other teachers who looked at explicit materials or emails while at work. Harris returned to work in 2014.
School boards have the authority to fire teachers. The decision to revoke a teacher’s license rests with the DPI. Evers successfully lobbied the Legislature to change the law in 2011 to allow for license revocation in cases where teachers view pornography in the classroom.
The Middleton-Cross Plains district tried to have the DPI revoke Harris’ teaching license under a state law that prohibits conduct by teachers that is “contrary to commonly accepted moral or ethical standards and that endangers the health, safety, welfare or education of any pupil.”
But the district never alleged that any students or children were involved at any time, the arbitrator said.
Because license revocation decisions hinge on behavior affecting the student, and no students were involved in this case, Evers did not have the legal authority to revoke the license, DPI spokesman Tom McCarthy said.
That’s the same rationale Evers gave Walker in 2014 in response to Walker’s request then that he revoke the license.
Republican Party attorneys argued in an analysis Tuesday that the teacher’s behavior endangered students and that Evers would have been “well within the power granted and entrusted to him” to revoke the license.
Teacher ‘felt like a rape victim’
To back up its case, the Republican Party circulated the Middleton-Cross Plains district’s summary report of its investigation, a document first made public in 2010.
In the report, the teacher who complained about Harris said she “felt like a rape victim with the frat buddies that are all ‘in’ on it.” The report said Harris considered photo-editing her face “onto a picture from one of those nude fatty sites. Something really large and grotesque.”
The district concluded that Harris had engaged in harassment and also created a hostile environment that was “highly inappropriate in a school/educational setting of middle school-aged students.”
But the arbitrator said that based on a review of the facts, “the charge of harassment against Harris in this case is just not sustainable.”
“The problem in this case is when all of those activities that were in the district file were put under scrutiny by the arbitrators, they didn’t hold weight,” DPI spokesman McCarthy said.
Evers is just making excuses, Republican Party spokesman Alec Zimmerman said.
“These latest revelations are damning,” Zimmerman said. “Tony Evers’ track record of reckless inaction put children and teachers at risk all for the sake of political expediency as he bowed to union pressure.”
Evers’ campaign tried to turn the tables on Walker. His campaign manager, Nathan Henry, said Walker has “failed to lead on issues related to sexual harassment and abuse.” He said Walker has dodged questions about allegations of sexual assault against President Donald Trump, refused to condemn Republicans for supporting Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore who has been accused of sexual misconduct involving teenagers, and not taken action to prevent reports of sexual abuse at Wisconsin’s juvenile prisons.
“Scott Walker should be ashamed of himself,” Henry said.