During Thanksgiving week 2016, students at Stoughton, MA High School were engaged in a school project decorating a Spirit Wall. While this activity was underway, one if the students, “F,” made a swastika out of masking tape and placed it on a recycling bin. Several students, including one who said she was Jewish, objected. F was reported to have said “Well just burn it like they did to the Jews.”
The incident was reported to the Principal and the Dean of Discipline, and F was ultimately suspended.
On December 1, during F’s suspension, grievant was teaching a Senior Honors English class. At the beginning of the class, the students were discussing the incident involving F. Grievant was not aware of what had taken place or the nature or extent of any discipline imposed on F. F was not in her class, nor were any of the students who had been present during the incident. According to grievant, her knowledge of the dispute came from her students. Given the student’s discussion grievant decided to try to turn the discussion to a “teachable moment.” She testified she told students that the swastika was a symbol of evil and hate. One of the students informed grievant that F had been suspended for six days. Grievant admittedly participated in the discussion about the length of the discipline, and acknowledged saying that it seemed light. The discussion continued for 10-15 minutes. Realizing that the discussion was not going in the direction she had intended, and that it had become too personal, grievant redirected the class to the day’s lesson.
Upon his return from suspension, F informed the principal that he had been told by other students that grievant had made comments about him. On December 13, grievant’s mothers filed an Incident Form concerning treatment of her son and complaining about comments she alleged grievant had made to her class. The School Superintendent engaged an outside investigator and, after the conclusion of the investigation, issued a Letter of Reprimand to grievant. The letter stated that grievant had violated a provision of the School’s Employee Handbook which provided “As leaders and educators in the Stoughton Public School, we are committed to providing an educational climate that is conducive to student engagement and learning.” The Letter was grieved and the dispute was submitted to Arbitrator Beth Anne Wolfson.
Arbitrator Wolfson upheld the grievance. She noted:
Grievant’s own testimony at the arbitration hearing demonstrated that she engaged in the behavior for which she was disciplined. First, she admitted that when she arrived in her classroom her students were talking about the swastika incident, F’s behavior, and his discipline. Second, although she attempted to redirect the discussion into one concerning universal concepts about the swastika she admittedly failed to accomplish this as the student’s discussion continued in the context of what F did and what discipline he purportedly received. Third, Grievant admitted she participated in the discussion concerning the length of F’s suspension. Accepting as true Grievants statements that she said the discipline seemed light in terms of what had happened to students in other schools does not change then fact that her comment was made during discussion of a specific student and not in a broader or more general context. Finally, Grievant allowed the discussion F to continue for 10 or 15 minutes when she admittedly should have stopped it sooner.
Arbitrator Wolfson also rejected the arguments of the Teacher’s Association that grievant’s in-class speech was protected by the First Amendment and that grievant had not violated F’s privacy rights, observing:
…the Employer did not discipline Grievant for violating F’s privacy rights. It disciplined her for failing to provide the appropriate educational climate, for failing to perform her roles and responsibilities as a teacher, and form failing to exercise sound judgment, all based on her not failing to stop the conversation her class specific to F, but also for joining in.
Arbitrator Wolfson’s award in Stoughton Teachers Association and Stoughton School Committee can be found here.