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MA Court Upholds School’s Right to Fire a Teacher for “Joking” About Sex with a Student

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MA Court Upholds School’s Right to Fire a Teacher for “Joking” About Sex with a Student

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Teacher Fired for Sexual Harassment

In a decision which strengthens the ability of public school administrators to discipline teachers, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has upheld the right of a school superintendent to terminate a teacher for conduct which was described as “joking” with a student about sexual favors. The case also provides significant recognition for the rights of students to learn in an environment which is free from sexual harassment.

This case involved a veteran and apparently well respected teacher who was approached by a female student who inquired, in front of her classmates, whether there was a way that she could “pay for a better grade.” A male student interjected, “You mean short of sexual favors?” The teacher did not admonish the student for the inappropriate comment but, instead, retorted, “Yes, that is the only thing that would be accepted.” After the students laughed, the teacher stated, “Don’t be ridiculous” and told the student that the only way that she could improve her grade was by doing better work.

Two days later, the female student approached the teacher in his classroom seeking extra help. In response to another inquiry from the student whether she could “just pay for a better grade,” the teacher responded, “Well no . . . you know that the only thing that I would accept is a sexual favor.” The student and another student who was in the classroom both laughed and the discussion apparently ended. However, the student subsequently complained to her guidance counselor about the teacher’s comments.

After an investigation, the school superintendent terminated the teacher’s employment on the basis that it constituted conduct unbecoming a teacher. The teacher exercised his right under the Massachusetts Education Reform Act to appeal his dismissal to an arbitrator. After an evidentiary hearing, the arbitrator found that although the teacher’s comments were intended as a joke, it created a hostile or offensive school environment for the student and, as such, rose to the level of sexual harassment. Nonetheless, the arbitrator ruled that the teacher’s conduct was a “relatively minor and isolated” violation of school policy and only “nominally” constituted conduct unbecoming a teacher. Considering the teacher’s positive record and “the best interests of the pupils in the District, the arbitrator reversed the Superintendent’s decision and reinstated him to his teaching position.

After an unsuccessful appeal to the Superior Court, the District appealed the decision to the full Supreme Judicial Court. In a 6 – 1 decision, the SJC held that once an arbitrator finds that a teacher’s conduct rises to the level of “conduct unbecoming a teacher,” the arbitrator may not lessen or vacate the punishment imposed by the school superintendent. In so ruling, the SJC dismissed the notion that the teacher’s conduct was “minor” in nature, emphasizing the special trust placed in teachers and their obligation to provide an educational environment which is free from any form of sexual harassment. Most pointedly, the court stated that “[a] teacher who models sexually harassing behavior in front of public school students as if it is all in good fun undercuts our constitutional value of freedom from gender discrimination.”

This case reinforces the power of school administrators to discipline teachers for conduct which is perceived to interfere with a student’s education. Of equal importance, the decision emphasizes the importance of a student’s right to be educated in an environment which is free of sexual harassment.

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