Lincoln-area superintendent criticizes arbitrator’s decision to overturn teacher’s suspension

Posted Oct. 22, 2012, at 6:58 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 23, 2012, at 6:30 a.m.

LINCOLN, Maine — RSU 67 Superintendent Denise Hamlin reacted defiantly to an arbitrator’s decision overturning the suspension of a second-grade teacher accused of hitting a student’s hand during a class exercise.

“I am confident we did the right thing and I will take the same action for any staff member that strikes a child,” Hamlin said in a statement released Friday. “A question to parents: If this were your child, what action would you expect from the school district?”

The Ella P. Burr School teacher accused of striking the student — Jodi Bisson — was defiant of Hamlin. “I have never and would never maliciously or intentionally harm a child and that was proven last week when I won my arbitration,” Bisson wrote.

“The arbitrator’s award stated that I was ‘to be made whole,’” Bisson said in a statement released Sunday. “While I did get everything that I was seeking, I would say that I am far from being ‘whole.’ This past year has been extremely rough.”

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

Saying school officials failed to prove their case, arbitrator Sarah Kerr Garrity directed that the suspension be struck from Bisson’s records. Bisson should be reimbursed the lost pay and stipend, Garrity wrote.

Garrity suggested that the complainant, fellow educator Linda Dunn, misinterpreted a humorous incident. Bisson, who received positive performance reviews and never had any disciplinary issues, 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,” Garrity wrote.

Hamlin said she believed that Garrity’s ruling confirmed that Hamlin had abided by the teachers union contract’s “just cause” clause, namely that Hamlin had justifiable reasons for her actions. Garrity confirmed contact occurred between the child and Bisson and that Bisson had made remarks that were “derogatory-sarcastic remarks to other young children,” Hamlin wrote.

“However, because no bruising was visible on the child, the arbitrator deemed that the teacher should not be reprimanded,” Hamlin wrote. “The arbitrator’s rationale: The reporting [mandated by regulations] teacher” — Dunn — “was new to the district and the [child’s] father said it was ‘OK for the teacher to hit his child.’”

Maine Education Association General Counsel Shawn Keenan scoffed at Hamlin’s self-defense.

“That is her management style. She [Hamlin] never does anything wrong. She never gets anything wrong,” Keenan said. “This discipline was an overreaction to physical contact that was harmless.”

Union leaders have complained that Hamlin has a top-down management style that alienates and seeks to intimidate her workforce. Hamlin and the school system’s attorney denied the accusation. Keenan doubted Hamlin’s rebuttal would damage Bisson.

“Jodi has a decision by a neutral hearing officer on her side, and all but one person who was in the classroom that day” of the incident sided with her, Keenan said.

Bisson said she opted not to contest the transfer from Burr to Mattanawcook Junior High School because of the treatment she had received.

“I suffered many humiliations and attacks on my reputation as a well-respected teacher. I was not allowed to attend my only child’s sporting events,” Bisson said. “I was moved to a job located in a small room barely large enough to hold the small groups of children that I was teaching, which had no job description, and was at a grade level unfamiliar to me.”

Hamlin said Bisson now teaches at Mattanawcook Junior High School and the details of Bisson’s transfer and assignment were the purview of the school’s administrators.

Bisson did not return messages seeking comment Monday.

Hamlin said she has no plans to appeal the arbitrator’s decision. However, a prohibited practice complaint the union filed that arises partly from Bisson’s disciplinary action is pending. The union also seeks an arbitrator’s intervention on another disciplinary action against another teacher, Keenan said.

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