The Strasburg-Franklin Local School District provided its teachers with school district laptops. A teacher asked if he could take his laptop home for the summer and was told that he could but that he needed to return it by June 30th. The teacher failed to return the laptop until late July.
The IT department inspected the laptop upon return because the teacher had previously downloaded a virus. The IT department discovered 84 thumbnails of graphic, sexual images in the laptop’s temporary internet files. The images were all cached within 23 minutes on one day.
The teacher claimed he had searched for the actor “Shane Diesel” on his computer because the actor was mentioned in a conversation earlier that day. He also claimed that “porn thumbnail pop-ups” appeared when he clicked on a link in a Wikipedia page.
The school district initiated termination proceedings and a hearing was held with a state referee. The referee found that the teacher’s actions could give rise to the suspension or termination of his teaching contract; but mitigating factors suggested a suspension rather than a termination (the teacher had good performance reviews). Therefore, the referee recommended a suspension of 45 days for the failure to return the laptop by June 30th and 45 more days for inappropriate use of a school computer.
The school district accepted the referee’s findings of fact but rejected the proposed discipline and terminated the teacher. The teacher appealed to the court of common pleas. The court of common pleas reversed the school district’s termination because it found that the images were not hostile to the community and this was private conduct that had no impact on his professional duties. The teacher was then reinstated with full back pay.
The school district appealed to the Fifth District Court of Appeals. The appellate court concluded that it could only overturn the lower court if the lower court’s decision constituted an “abuse of discretion” – a difficult standard of review for the school district to overcome.
The appellate court denied the school district’s appeal finding no abuse of discretion in the lower court’s ruling. The appellate court reviewed other termination decisions in Ohio and found that appellate courts will affirm a board of education’s termination decision when the teacher’s behavior had or could have had a serious effect on the school system. In this case, the appellate court found that the teacher’s actions did not occur on school property and did not involve any students. This also was not a criminal act. Therefore, the appellate court determined that the lower court did not abuse its discretion because the conduct had no impact on the teacher’s professional duties and his actions were not hostile to the school community.
The discovery of pornography on a school district computer is employment misconduct that is generally considered a “slam dunk” termination case (alcohol, drugs, violence, and sexual conduct are some others). The teacher was unquestionably wrong in using the school district’s laptop in this manner. In fact, readers are cautioned not to utilize their school computers or devices to Google “Shane Diesel” out of curiosity. Trust me, the Google results alone should have told this teacher that this was off-limits. Yet, the teacher clicked-away and the state referee and courts overturned the school district’s termination decision because the teacher’s behavior supposedly had no impact on his professional duties. This decision demonstrates that there really are no “slam dunk” termination cases. Every decision to terminate a teacher must be made with the understanding that the time and money invested in a termination case may not always result in the desired outcome – no matter how strong you think the case is.
Winland v. Strasburg-Franklin Local School District Board of Education, Fifth District Court of Appeals, Case No. 12 AP 10 0058