Friday, December 22, 2006

Is A Teacher's "Classroom Coming-Out" Protected Speech?

A lesbian high school teacher "comes out" in her Ohio classroom and is subsequently dismissed from her job. But it didn't end there:
Columbus--A lesbian teacher fired over a class presentation on the National Day of Silence settled a lawsuit against her former school district after it agreed to make its policies more gay friendly.

Jimmie K. Beall of Galloway and the London City School District, west of Columbus, settled their federal lawsuit days before the December 11 trial was to begin.

Under the settlement, “sexual orientation” was added to the school system’s equal employment policy and the ones for any other “program and activity for which the board is responsible.”

Beall also received $37,500 in financial compensation.

The settlement also preserved U.S. District Judge John D. Holschuh’s landmark ruling, written when he denied the school district’s motion to dismiss the case in June.

Holschuh, a Carter appointee, advanced a legal framework suggesting that sexual orientation is a “protected class” even though no federal or Ohio law prohibits such discrimination and the district had no policy against it.

There are only three such rulings in the entire United States--another one in Ohio and one in Utah--where teachers have been protected. More often, teachers do not fare well in these suits.

Beall had excellent performance evaluations from her hiring in 2000 to the 2003 Day of Silence.

In the annual April observance, individuals, often students, remain silent to call attention to LGBT harassment and discrimination.

That day, Beall--without speaking--gave her high school government class a PowerPoint presentation on the occasion, and in the process, came out to her students.

Upon hearing about it, Beall’s principal said the lesson was the same as teaching religion and that she was on “shaky ground.”

Two days later, he withdrew his three-week-old recommendation to offer her a three-year contract, and instead told the board of education to let her go.

Beall’s suit named the board of education and the system’s former superintendent, Thomas Coyne, as defendants.

Coyne publicly maintained that Beall was let go because she had only limited certification to teach the classes she was assigned. But he sent an e-mail to board members calling the Day of Silence presentation a “controversy,” adding, “the situation is tainted by the fact that she presented a class on gay rights on Wednesday and would not talk in class because all gay persons were supposedly keeping quiet on Wednesday.”

That e-mail turned out to be an important piece of evidence in Holschuh’s decision.

Beall was represented by Erika Pearsol-Christie of Cloppert, Latanick, Sauter and Washburn through an agreement with Beall’s union, the Ohio Education Association.

Beall credits the district’s new superintendent, D. Steven Allen, for making the settlement possible.

“I would have hated for this to go to trial,” said Allen. “There was no way we would have won, and it would have been a silly waste of time and money.”

“In my opinion,” said Allen, “[the litigation and settlement] helped change the culture of the organization. We’re different than we were a couple of years ago. It’s not where I’d like to see it yet, but we’re well on the way.”

Allen said the settlement brought the school system into compliance with federal law.

Allen added that the previous board and superintendent would not think Beall was discriminated against because she is a lesbian.

“I disagree, or we would not have settled,” he added.

Allen said Beall did not have the proper certification, but neither did about a dozen other teachers in the system at the time.

“They hired her knowing what her certification was,” Allen said. “And that wasn’t her fault.”

“And my daughter, who is now a senior in college, was in Jimmie’s class that day,” Allen said, “and it is her opinion that Jimmie is an inspirational teacher.”

“Because I had a child in that grade level, I knew [my daughter’s] classmates and other teachers,” said Allen. “All the feedback [on Beall] was positive.”

Beall said correcting the policy and the injustice was more important to her than the money, and she feels like she won a significant victory that many people told her she would lose.

“Statistically, we probably have other gay and lesbian teachers,” said Allen, “and I don’t know why it had to be an issue.”

Beall now works as a counselor in the Columbus Public Schools.

“I’m glad she landed on her feet and is doing well,” said Allen.

The London Board of Education officially adopted the new policy at its December 18 meeting.
Heh. We can't help but wonder which of Ohio's high school content-area standards was being addressed when Beall gave her "silent" powerpoint presentation?
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