Andrew Harris, the teacher whose return to the classroom after being fired for pornographic emails ignited a firestorm of controversy, speaks

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John Donaldson
“[The case] wasn’t in the courts’ view about pornography,” said Harris this week. “I understand that that’s what the parents think it’s about, but the case wasn’t about that. It was about equal treatment.”

Last week, as he prepared to re-enter a seventh grade classroom after a tumultuous four-year absence from teaching, science teacher Andrew Harris said he understands the concerns many parents have about his return.

“If I were a parent in this situation, I would want to know what’s going on,” said Harris, who will take part in a teacher work day at Kromrey Middle School on Friday and then begin teaching students there on Monday. “I made a mistake, and I’m sorry for the mistake I made. I’d like to rebuild the trust, show people that I’m a good teacher.”

The Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District reluctantly rehired Harris as a teacher this week after the Wisconsin State Supreme Court last week declined to review a series of legal decisions that said the district had treated Harris differently than a number of his colleagues when it fired him four years ago. Harris lost his job for viewing adult images sent to him in a series of e-mails. (See other story.) Other staffers received suspensions, but did not lose their jobs.

“[The case] wasn’t in the courts’ view about pornography,” said Harris this week. “I understand that that’s what the parents think it’s about, but the case wasn’t about that. It was about equal treatment.”

The district position was that Harris’ actions were more egregious than those of his colleagues, but an arbitrator and the lower courts consistently sided with the Middleton Education Association (MEA) position that Harris was singled out because he was an outspoken union official, and that his actions with respect to the images were not any worse than those of his co-workers.

When the state’s high court declined to review the case, district officials decided they had come to the end of their legal rope. Last week the district released a statement saying it would honor the original order by an arbitrator to reinstate Harris, with back pay.

With the court proceedings all said and done, however, Harris wants to emphasize that regardless of the legal wrangling that has been going on with respect to his case, he has never attempted to justify the actions that brought it all to the fore in the first place.

“I’m not defending what I did – what I did was wrong,” said Harris on Tuesday, repeating what he has said in the rare public statements he’s made in the past. “I’m not trying to downplay it.”

At the same, time, however, he thinks he has to at least some extent been vilified. He emphasized again on Tuesday  of last week that at no time were any children exposed to any of the images in question.  Efforts to paint him as “dangerous to be around kids” were, in Harris’ view, over the top.

Now that the case has effectively been closed, Harris is focusing on his return to the classroom. He’ll be teaching physical science, and says he’s still comfortable with the curriculum.

“I honestly think the teaching part is going to be the easiest part of it,” said Harris.

At the same time, however, the veteran teacher, who was working at Glacier Creek Middle School when the story broke in 2009, doesn’t have any illusions about taking over a classroom at mid-year, or about parent concerns. Harris is replacing a teacher who is being promoted to a dean of students for the district. Monday is the first day of the new semester.

“It’s a tough transition, one way or the other,” he admitted. “It will be a change for the kids. But I want to convince parents that I’m still a good teacher.”

Harris also said he’s fully cognizant of the concerns many parents will have now that he is resuming teaching, in view of the publicity his case has received over the past four years. He emphasized this week that he will have an open door policy with respect to those concerns.

“I am more than willing to sit down with parents and reassure them that this will be a good experience for their kids,” he explained.

Then he added, “I’m hoping the administration will send a positive message to parents that it is time to move forward and focus on the positive now.”

“It’s my hope that when the kids have a good experience that the parents will see that bringing me back to the classroom was the right thing to do,” Harris said. “That’s what I’m hoping happens. Put it behind me and move forward and show the community that I’m a good teacher.”


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