Fifth District Appellate Court Upholds Dismissal of Tenured Teacher Accused of Sexually Harassing a Co-Worker

On March 13, 2018, the Fifth District Appellate Court in Watkins v. Board of Education of Harmony-Emge School District No. 175, 2018 IL App (5th) 170151-U, sustained the dismissal of a tenured teacher accused of sexually harassing a colleague. The court rejected the teacher’s argument that his accuser was not credible and upheld the school board’s determination that his conduct was irremediable, which justified his dismissal without a prior warning from the school board. James Watkins, the dismissed teacher, had been employed with Harmony-Emge School District for 29 years prior to his dismissal. His colleague, Melissa White, was an RTI aide and had only been employed with the school district for three years when she reported that Watkins sexually harassed her to the building principal.

According to the facts summarized by the court, White reported that Watkins approached her on October 30, 2015, and said, “You look really sexy in your low cut shirt.” White stated that Watkins then “[s]tuck his finger in between my skin and my shirt and pulled it down.” She stated that she covered herself, saying, “Um, no,” and that Watkins then turned to leave, telling her to “[h]ave a nice day” as he walked out of her office. White immediately told the RTI supervisor about White’s conduct, but did report the incident to the building administration until later that morning when Watkins gave her a side hug as she exited her classroom. Watkins told the building principal she would attempt to avoid Watkins to see if avoiding him would resolve the situation. However, White continued to have encounters with Watkins over the next several days that made her uncomfortable despite her efforts to avoid him.

Because White’s efforts to avoid Watkins did not work to defuse the situation, the building principal escalated the issue to the Superintendent, Dr. Pam Leonard. Dr. Leonard interviewed both White and Watkins. During the investigatory interview with Watkins, he initially refused to answer any questions, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination even after being offered limited Atwell immunity. However, he responded to questioning after being informed that his refusal to do so would be considered insubordination. Although Watkins admitted that he would occasionally hug White, he claimed that she often requested the hugs. He denied many of White’s other allegations, including the allegation that he commented on her looks and pulled on her shirt in an attempt to look down it.  Dr. Leonard completed her investigation and informed Watkins that he was suspended without pay pending a dismissal hearing before the school board. Watkins attended the hearing before the school board with a union representative but did not answer any questions or present any evidence.

The school board voted to dismiss Watkins, and Watkins challenged his dismissal before an ISBE-appointed hearing officer. The hearing officer found White’s allegations against Watkins credible, noting that she had nothing to gain by making the allegations and that many of incidents were captured on the school’s security cameras. The hearing officer recommended that the school board sustain Watkins’ dismissal. Watkins appealed his dismissal to circuit court and the Fifth District Appellate Court. The appellate court found ample evidence in the record to sustain the school board’s decision and denied Watkins’ appeal, stating “it was not arbitrary or unreasonable for the Board to conclude that Watkins’ conduct has no legitimate basis in school policy or society, and no purpose would have been served by giving him a written warning.”

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