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Unveiling a digital ad campaign on Aug. 21, 2017, the GOP claimed Evers "allowed a middle-school teacher found guilty of spreading pornographic material at school to keep teaching students."
The Madison-area teacher was fired for viewing images of nudity on his school computer and showing at least one of them to a female co-worker. But he got his job back after an arbitrator ruled he had been improperly fired. And that decision was upheld by two courts.
The Republicans contend, in effect, that even though the legal system returned the teacher to his job, Evers had the power to stop him from teaching at all -- anywhere in the state -- by revoking his teaching license.
They made essentially the same attack in a radio ad released Sept. 6, 2017.
As we’ll see, this fact check turns largely on what state law said at the time about revoking a teacher’s license for "immoral behavior" -- a law that was changed, in part, because of this case.
The governor’s race
Evers, a Democrat, has won three statewide elections for state superintendent, a nonpartisan office, since 2009.
The case of Andy Harris
The Republican attack centers on Andy Harris, who started teaching in the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District, west of Madison, in 1993. He had no disciplinary history before his December 2010 firing. At the time, Harris taught seventh-grade science at one of the district’s two middle schools; now he has the same job at the other middle school.
School district announces Harris had been placed on leave because he received from his sister 23 emails containing pornography and other adult content. Many were jokes that showed images of nude or partially nude women, one of which Harris shared with a co-worker who complained to the principal. None were seen by students.
An investigation by the school district finds that more than 30 teachers and administrators had accessed inappropriate jokes or sexually explicit materials on their school computers. Seven educators in addition to Harris were disciplined: five teachers received unpaid suspensions, one substitute teacher was dismissed and an administrator resigned.
School board fires Harris. The district notifies the state Department of Public Instruction, per a state law requiring school districts to report dismissals that are based on immoral conduct.
Harris’ behavior did not meet the state law’s definition of immoral conduct because "there was no endangerment of the health, safety, welfare or education of any pupil," she wrote. She also said "his worst offense is forwarding one inappropriate e-mail to two friends and not exercising the good judgment to discourage his sister from sending these types of e-mails to him." She added: "The fact that he was discharged while others were suspended or received written reprimands or nothing at all, the discharge cannot stand."
State Court of Appeals upholds a decision made by a circuit court, which had upheld the arbitrator’s decision.
After state Supreme Court announces it will not review the appeals court decision, Harris returns to the classroom. The next day, Walker asks Evers to begin the process of revoking Harris’ teaching license.
The Department of Public Instruction announces it will not revoke Harris’ license, saying his conduct "was highly inappropriate" but did not meet the legal definition of "immoral conduct" in state law because it "did not involve children in any manner."
The GOP says Harris was "found guilty of spreading pornographic material at school," suggesting there was a criminal conviction.
Harris did share images of nudity, and at least one instance forwarded an email containing such images, he received on his school computer.
But he was never accused of, or charged with, committing any crime.
When Harris was fired in December 2010, state law defined immoral conduct, according to the Legislature’s nonpartisan legal advisers, "as conduct or behavior that is contrary to commonly accepted moral or ethical standards and that endangers the health, safety, welfare, or education of any pupil."
And is the pivotal word there.
(Indeed, the Wisconsin Association of School Boards would make that point in successfully advocating that the law be changed.)
Evers’ department did have the discretion on whether to go through license revocation proceedings, which Harris could have challenged. But the department decided against it after concluding, separately from the arbitrator’s decision, that his behavior didn’t endanger kids as defined by the law at that time, spokesman Tom McCarthy told us. In other words, he said, in the department’s view there was no legal basis to take away Harris’ license.
That position appears to be supported by the fact that in November 2011, nearly a year after Harris’ firing, Walker signed a measure that redefined immoral conduct to include "the intentional use of an educational agency’s equipment to download, view, solicit, seek, display, or distribute pornographic material."
That is, the new law, which Evers supported and which was prompted partly by the Harris case, specifies that what Harris did is legal cause for license revocation -- and that there doesn’t have to be any endangerment of kids. The old law didn’t.
Finally, the GOP argues that there was one important fact Evers had that the arbitrator didn’t: After there was outcry from parents about Harris’ return, the school district allowed students to attend a study hall if they didn’t feel comfortable in Harris’ class. The GOP says that endangered students’ education, since they were missing valuable instruction time.
In response, McCarthy told us that the law allows the state to revoke a teacher’s license only based on the teacher’s conduct -- not based on parents’ objections to a teacher or a district’s decision to provide an accommodation like the study hall.
The state Republican Party says Evers "allowed a middle-school teacher found guilty of spreading pornographic material at school to keep teaching students."
The teacher was not found guilty of, or even charged with, any crime. Rather, he was fired for viewing pornographic material on his school computer. He got his job back, however, after an arbitrator ruled that the firing was not justified, in part because the arbitrator concluded that the behavior did not endanger any students.
Evers, as the state schools superintendent, had the discretion to initiate license revocation proceedings. But state law at the time required the endangerment of kids in order to revoke a teacher’s license and, like the arbitrator, Evers concluded that the teacher’s conduct didn’t endanger kids.
For a statement that contains only an element of truth, our rating is Mostly False.
Wisconsin Republican Party, news release, Aug. 21, 2017
Interview, Wisconsin Republican Party spokesman Alec Zimmerman and attorney Chaz Nichols, Aug. 30, 2017
Email, Tony Evers campaign spokeswoman Maggie Gau, Aug. 28, 2017
Wisconsin State Journal, "Scott Walker asks DPI to begin license revocation proceedings for teacher who viewed porn at school," Jan. 29, 2014
Gov. Scott Walker, letter to Tony Evers, Jan. 28, 2014
Wisconsin Association of School Boards, letter supporting change in state law, May 25, 2011
Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, legislative testimony in favor of change in state law, May 25, 2011
WMTV-TV, "DPI: Middleton teacher Andrew Harris allowed to keep teaching license," April 17, 2014
Wisconsin Legislature, Senate Education Committee record on Senate Bill 49, 2011-12 legislative session
Wisconsin Court of Appeals, Andrew Harris case decision, Aug. 29, 2013
Interview, Wisconsin Association of School Boards director of government releations Dan Rossmiller, Aug. 30, 2017
Interview, Wisconsin Association of School Business Officials executive director Woody Wiedenhoeft, Aug. 30, 2017
Associated Press, "Walker signs bill allowing DPI to revoke licenses of educators who view porn at work," Nov. 23, 2011
Arbitrator’s decision in Andrew Harris case, Feb. 28, 2012
Interview, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction spokesman Tom McCarthy, Aug. 28, 2017
Wisconsin Radio Network, "DPI will not revoke license of Andrew Harris," April 17, 2014
Wisconsin Legislative Council, 2011 Wisconsin Act 84 memo, Nov. 29, 2011
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