The Republican Party of Wisconsin says state Superintendent Tony Evers "bowed to union pressure" and did not do all he could to keep a teacher accused of harassing a colleague and watching pornography out of the classroom. But a Department of Public Instruction spokesman says the agency had no legal authority to do so at the time, and only in rare cases would the agency have the authority to revoke a license because of sexual harassment.
Evers is seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2018. A spokesman for his campaign said Republicans are rehashing old news to avoid their own weaknesses on the issue of sexual misconduct.
The Republican Party of Wisconsin has gone after Evers relentlessly for the 2009 case, in which DPI and Evers did not revoke the license of Middleton-Cross Plains middle school science teacher Andrew Harris after he viewed sexually explicit images on his school computer. Harris was rehired by the district in 2014 and teaches science at Kromrey Middle School.
A report compiled by the school district in 2010 recommending Harris be fired found that he had engaged in behavior "that constituted harassment" by viewing and sharing the sexually explicit emails, most of them containing inappropriate jokes forwarded to him by his sister. The report highlights comments Harris allegedly made about the bodies of female co-workers and students, including a quip that a seventh-grade girl needed to "brush up on her blow job skills because that's all she'll be good at later in life."
"With each new development in this story Tony Evers comes up with yet another excuse to justify his failure to remove a teacher accused of not only spreading pornography and making predatory comments about children, but as we now know also sexually harassing and retaliating against a fellow teacher," said RPW spokesman Alec Zimmerman in a statement. "These latest revelations are damning; Tony Evers' track record of reckless inaction put children and teachers at risk all for the sake of political expediency as he bowed to union pressure. Evers simply cannot be trusted to protect Wisconsin families."
DPI spokesman Tom McCarthy noted the district report referenced by RPW has been public since 2010.
Harris responded to his termination by filing a grievance with the district's teachers union and entering into arbitration. The arbitrator ruled Harris should be suspended rather than terminated, because other teachers had received lesser punishments for similar offenses.
The arbitrator also found the charge of harassment against Harris was "just not sustainable," despite Harris showing "poor judgment."
According to a letter sent to Harris by DPI, while his conduct was "highly inappropriate for an educator," it did not meet the definition of "immoral conduct" under the state law that applied at the time of his behavior, which occurred in 2008 and 2009.
Walker at the time said he believed the agency had the authority to revoke the teacher's license and was disappointed in the decision.
Under state law, McCarthy said, a teacher's license can be revoked for immoral conduct that has a nexus to children. In 2011, lawmakers and Evers worked to add viewing pornography on a school computer to the classification of immoral conduct.
Sexual harassment would almost always be handled as a workplace issue, not a DPI licensure issue, McCarthy said.
"There is a world in which sexual harassment or harassment generally could lead back to a licensure action … if someone’s behavior is egregious and they’re harassing employees, and those employees can’t get their jobs done and it's dripping into the classroom," McCarthy said. "This is not that case."
DPI was displeased with Harris' behavior, McCarthy said.
"If there was a way we could have taken his license under the authority of the law, we would have," he said.
Nathan Henry, Evers' gubernatorial campaign manager, pointed to a PolitiFact "mostly false" rating of RPW's initial claims against Evers, and turned the issue back on Walker.
"Scott Walker has failed to lead on issues related to sexual harassment and abuse. He has refused to comment on accusations by a more than a dozen women accusing President Donald Trump of sexual assault, has refused to condemn his party for funding an accused pedophile, and has refused to take action to prevent rampant sexual abuse at Wisconsin's youth prison, Lincoln Hills, forcing a federal investigation into the matter because of his failure to lead. Scott Walker should be ashamed of himself," Henry said in an email.