Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Teacher fired over mystery comment

As published in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

By Eric Heyl 

Published: Friday, March 8, 2013

Forgive Alan Francis for feeling as though his life resembles a Franz Kafka novel.

Until recently, Francis was a Steel Valley School District substitute teacher. He worked at the high school for seven years, filling in almost daily for teachers in almost every subject. He was popular among students and said he never did anything to warrant disciplinary action.

Then for reasons that remain oddly opaque, he lost his job.

Francis said the district fired him two weeks ago without a substantive explanation. He said Superintendent Edward Wehrer told him that a parent complained about an online comment he made to a female student.

Who was the student or parent? Wehrer wouldn't say.

What was the remark? Wehrer wouldn't divulge it, “although he told me it wasn't anything sexual or explicit or vulgar,” Francis said.

On what social media site did he comment? Wehrer again offered no details, but presumably it was Facebook or Twitter. Most high school students don't have career-oriented LinkedIn pages.

About the only specific Wehrer provided was one that appears to have driven a stake through Francis' career. The superintendent said his decision was final.

“I've wanted to be a teacher forever,” said Francis, 31, of West Mifflin. “So yes, what's happened is pretty devastating.”

Reached Thursday, Wehrer said he can't discuss personnel matters.

The situation is reminiscent of Kafka's 1925 novel, “The Trial,” in which protagonist Josef K. is arrested and prosecuted without learning the crime he is accused of committing. Francis can't confront his accuser; he doesn't even know the person's identity.

Francis acknowledged he communicates with students on social media sites, but he said he never made any inappropriate remarks. If Wehrer had evidence otherwise, the superintendent likely would have alerted police.

If Francis were a full-time teacher, the Steel Valley teachers union probably would rally around him. He isn't a union member because he worked part-time. So he is relying on supporters who started an online petition demanding his reinstatement.

“The decision of the superintendent to (fire) Alan Francis was a huge mistake,” states the petition, started by Steel Valley junior Brendan Grueser. “Steel Valley (has lost) a truly exceptional staff member.”

As of Thursday, the petition drew more than 400 electronic signatures and supportive comments.

Of this situation's many unanswered questions, the central one is this: Precisely how heinous was the transgression that prompted Francis' termination?

Absent the answer, parents and students should continue to pursue the reason a popular teacher lost his job. So should the teacher.

Said Francis: “I want to know why.”

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com.

Link: http://triblive.com/news/ericheyl/3615512-74/francis-teacher-wehrer#axzz2N0NJndn3