Teacher, Threatened & Fired, Can Sue School


CHICAGO (CN) - School officials may be liable for firing a math teacher who brought criminal charges after a student threatened to stab him, the 7th Circuit ruled.

The student, who is not named in the complaint, and his family apparently had a history of disturbances at Harvard Junior High School, in the small Illinois town of the same name.

Sean Gschwind, a sixth-grade math teacher, said he met with the boy's parents twice in December 2005 over threats that the boy had made to one classmate, and a fight that the boy had with yet another student.

The boy's older brother had once assaulted the assistant principal. During the second meeting, the boy's father threatened to sue Gschwind and said his older son should have beat up Gschwind instead of the assistant principal.

A few weeks later, during a game of "math karaoke" in Gschwind's class, the student gave a rendition of the gangsta rap song "Boyz in Da Hood," then added the line: "I stabbed Gschwind."

Disturbed, Gschwind ended the class and spoke to the school's police liaison and then principal Linda Heiden.

Gschwind later filed a criminal complaint, and the student, who was 12 or 13 years old at the time, was charged with disorderly conduct. The school suspended him for two days.

Heiden and the assistant principal, however, did not want Gchwind to file the complaint because they worried that the student's parents would sue.

Soon after, the assistant principal, Frank Shields, gave Gschwind an "unsatisfactory" performance evaluation, who had otherwise always received positive reports.

The new evaluation criticized Gschwind for a "lack of interpersonal skills in relating to students, parents, and colleagues."

The school then told Gschwind to resign, or else Heiden would recommend that the Board of Education not renew his teaching contract.

Gschwind resigned, and the school does not deny that he was constructively discharged.

When Gschwind sued the district, Heiden and Shields for retaliation, but a federal judge in Rockford granted the defendants summary judgment after finding that Gschwind's criminal complaint was not protected First Amendment speech.

The federal appeals court reversed last week.

"Violence in schools is a subject in which the public these days is highly interested, with the added twist in this case, which would amplify the public's interest, that the father of the student who made the threat appears to have endorsed it," Judge Richard Posner wrote for the three-member panel. "Nevertheless the plaintiff in filing the criminal complaint might have had no interest in making a public statement about school violence, but have only wanted to deter further threats against himself."

Gschwind's actions clearly invoked the public interest in preventing violence in schools, according to the decision.

"We are mindful - have indeed emphasized - that academic administrators are entitled, in the name of academic freedom and efficient educational administration, to a considerable degree of judicial forbearance in matters of discipline," Posner wrote.

"But Illinois law has curtailed that discretion in respects directly relevant to this case by requiring that any incident of battery or intimidation ... in a school be reported immediately to law enforcement authorities," he added.

Though the public cannot access juvenile court records under state law, the court would not let that weigh against qualifying Gschwind's complaint as speech.

"It is true that the records are sealed ... but that doesn't preclude the victim of a juvenile crime, or anyone else for that matter (us judges for example), from talking about the crime, whether privately or in public," Posner wrote.

The 7th Circuit reversed summary judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Source: Courthouse News Service