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Half-Million Dollars Awarded to Teacher In Damage Suit Against Illinois District

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Peoria, Ill--A federal jury here this month awarded a public-school teacher $514,000 in damages from his employer, Peoria School District 150, after agreeing that he had been penalized for speaking to school-board members.

During the eight-day trial, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mihm ruled that the teacher, Terry Knapp, was "protected" by the First Amendment when he contacted Peoria school-board members about problems related to his job. The six-member jury reached its verdict the next day.

On each of the four issues in question in the case, the jury sided with the former science teacher at Peoria's Woodruff High School.

'Substantial Factor'

After four hours of deliberation, jury members agreed with Mr. Knapp that his speaking to board members was a "substantial or motivational factor" in the district administration's decisions to:

Fire him as an assistant baseball coach.

Transfer him from Woodruff to an elementary school in a poor, mostly minority neighborhood. One of Mr. Knapp's lawyers said the district used the school as a "dumping ground for troublemakers."

Give him two consecutive negative job-performance evaluations. Several colleagues testified that Mr. Knapp was an excellent teacher and coach. His lawyers also pointed out he was twice named by students as Woodruff's "teacher of the year," an unprecedented accomplishment.

Deny him a paid personal-leave day to see a lawyer. Mr. Knapp requested the day of leave after Superintendent of Schools Harry Whitaker, who was a defendant in the case, personally reprimanded the teacher in April 1981 for contacting board members.

District officials defended each of the actions by citing reasons unrelated to Mr. Knapp's conversations with board members. But the jury agreed with the teacher's lawyers, who argued that "a pattern of harassment existed."

"I think the jury could see through the pretexts that the district offered those six men and women and said, 'we will not allow this to go on in this community,"' said Patricia Benassi, one of the two lawyers hired by Mr. Knapp's union to represent him. Mr. Knapp is a member of the American Federation of Teachers.

Michael Radzilowsky, Mr. Knapp's other lawyer, said the amount of damages awarded is important because "it shows exactly how important [First Amendment] rights are to people in this community. ... This is from the heartland. This shows [the nation] how people view rights in the 1980's."

According to Mr. Radzilowsky, similar cases involving aft members are pending in Illinois and Texas.

Other lawyers and teachers' representatives agreed that Judge Mihms's First Amendment decision could have far-reaching effects on other public employers and their employees.

Delivered at the conclusion of testimony for both sides, the judge's opinion found that the school district's current policy governing teacher contacts with the school board is "fatally defective." The board policy is part of the superintendent's job description, and states that all employee communication with the board shall be channeled through him.

Judge Mihm ruled that "there is no question the school board could formulate proper, constitutional regulations that limit the contact and the nature of the contact that a teacher has with the school board. I don't believe that [the school board] did that in this case. ... The rule that exists only exists in the superintendent's job description. I believe it was incumbent on the school district to formulate a clear, concise rule."

The judge added that the district's defense left him "unsure" of what district officials believe are proper and improper subjects for employees to discuss with board members.

"The bottom line, I feel, is [that the policy] does not fit the bill in terms of establishing a reasonable guideline," the judge said.

Julian Cannell, the lawyer representing the school district, said he would ask Judge Mihm to review the verdict and damage award on the grounds that the judge erred in informing the jury of his First Amendment ruling. By doing that, "the judge, in essence, instructed the jury to return verdicts in favor of the plaintiff," Mr. Cannell said.

The jury's duty should have been to decide only whether Mr. Knapp, a 15-year teaching veteran, was penalized for speaking to the board, Mr. Cannell explained.

"You have to remember that this is the first civil-rights case of this nature in this [federal-court] circuit. There are only a handful of cases on this, and many of the courts have reached different conclusions," Mr. Cannell added.

'Astounded' by Verdict

Meanwhile, Mr. Whitaker said he was "astounded" by the verdict. If allowed to stand, the decision will make it "very difficult" for him to do his job, he said.

Mr. Whitaker testified that he merely wanted Mr. Knapp to inform the superintendent's office whenever the teacher planned to contact board members. "There has to be a chain of command. I can't be responsible for adminstering the district if [teachers] are cutting a lot of side deals [with the board]. I just want to know about it," Mr. Whitaker said.

After filing grievances that were rejected by the district adminstration in 1981, Mr. Knapp started to contact board members about his concern over the amount of mileage reimbursement paid to coaches and the district's liability-insurance coverage for employees who use their personal vehicles to transport students.

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