Arbitrator overturns RSU 67 suspension of second-grade teacher

Posted Oct. 18, 2012, at 7:32 p.m.

LINCOLN, Maine — A teachers union attorney declared victory Thursday with an arbitrator’s decision that overturned a three-day suspension of a second-grade teacher at Ella P. Burr School that occurred a year ago.

“It is a 100 percent win. We could not have asked for anything more than we received,” Maine Education Association trial counsel Howard Reben said. “The decision fully vindicated [second-grade teacher] Jodi Bisson and awarded her all of what she sought.”

The school system’s attorney, meanwhile, said the 43-page decision showed that Sarah Kerr Garrity of the American Arbitration Association believed that Bisson had made contact with a student’s hand — even if Garrity believed the discipline Superintendent Denise Hamlin pursued was too harsh.

“There is no question that there was a physical interaction between a teacher and a student in the classroom. There were varying accounts” of the incident, RSU 67 attorney Harry Pringle said, but “the superintendent’s most important responsibility is to protect students.”

Hamlin and the RSU 67 board of directors suspended Bisson for three days on Oct. 7, 2011, in response to the incident on Sept 21, 2011, and another incident in which Bisson supposedly threatened another student. Bisson also was transferred to another school and lost a leadership stipend she had received.

Saying that the board and Hamlin had failed to prove that any disciplinary action was warranted against Bisson, Garrity directed that all mention of the suspension be purged from Bisson’s personnel records. Bisson should also be reimbursed the lost pay and stipend, Garrity wrote. The transfer was allowed to stand.

And Garrity suggested that it was “quite possible” that the complainant, Linda Dunn, who witnessed Bisson’s interaction with the student, misinterpreted the incident as something harmful.

Conflicting testimony collected during the union-board hearing and arbitration process stated that Bisson, a 21-year teacher who had no prior disciplinary issues and regularly received very positive performance reviews, had slapped or tapped a male student on the hand during a money-counting math exercise on Sept. 21, 2011, Garrity’s decision states.

Dunn, a math interventionist who had worked for the regional school unit for a few weeks, reported the incident two days later. Dunn said she was “horrified by what she saw” and that the slap was loud enough to be heard several feet away, the decision states.

The mother of the student who was struck and Burr’s principal, Rachel Bousquet, both cried when they saw the student’s re-enactment of the incident, the decision states.

In a written statement she prepared in response to the allegations, Bisson described the touching incident as a joke. She said she touched the student’s hand and told him, “Get your grubby hands off my money!”

“The students laughed and we continued playing,” Bisson wrote.

Dunn said the subsequent isolation and pressure she endured to recant her story at the hands of teachers and others eventually motivated her to leave Lincoln, the decision states.

Dunn also reported another incident in which she said that Bisson told another male student who was fidgeting, “If you do not stop kicking me I will break your leg and use it to hit you on the head.” The student seemed scared, Dunn said.

Bisson didn’t confirm making that statement, but said it “sounded like something she would say” — but only as a joke, the decision states.

Several other teachers, aides and two former principals described Bisson as a teacher beloved by her students and one who liked to joke with them.

“More than one witness described this kind of comment as typical of [Bisson’s] teaching style,” Garrity wrote, “yet she has never been told by any administrator, during her 21-year employment, that she should tread more lightly in teasing or joking with her students.”

“Not everyone sees humor in the same interactions and it [misinterpretation] is certainly possible” given Dunn’s lack of familiarity with Bisson’s teaching style, Garrity wrote.

When the incidents occurred, Dunn had been working for the school system only for a few days. And the mother of the boy whom Bisson touched later discussed the incident while at home with her son and became convinced that he was not slapped. The boy’s father agreed, the decision states.

A prohibitive practice complaint filed by the union against the RSU 67 administration arising partly from Bisson’s case is still pending with the Maine Labor Relations Board, both sides state.

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