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War Resister Faces New Battle--To Keep Teaching License in Calif.

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John Dickinson thought his problems were behind him.

He was back teaching 5th grade in Santa Ana, Calif., this semester after a tumultuous year and a half that culminated in his spending six months in a military prison for refusing to serve in the Persian Gulf war when his Air Force reserve unit was activated.

"I loved teaching, and I loved being back in the classroom,'' recalled Mr. Dickinson, who was given a leave of absence from the Santa Ana school district while he served his sentence. "I thought, 'Maybe life will get back to normal now.'''

As it turns out, however, Mr. Dickinson's difficulties may be far from over. Last month, he received a letter from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, informing him that his teaching license is being reviewed because of his military offense. He faces the possible revocation of his license, on the grounds of "moral turpitude.''

"If [my offense] was something that had a connection to school, like a sex crime, that's one thing,'' Mr. Dickinson said in an interview late last month. "What does this have to do with my license?''

Depending on what actions the commission and its committee of credentials recommend regarding Mr. Dickinson when they take up his case next month, it may be months before the teacher receives a final decision about his future.

For now, Santa Ana school officials said, Mr. Dickinson will continue teaching at Jackson Elementary School as long as his teaching credentials remain valid.

Doubts About His Unit

Mr. Dickinson said his doubts about his military service started not long after he moved from Illinois to California four years ago. In Illinois, he had served in an Air National Guard Reserve unit specializing in disaster relief.

He sought a similar assignment in California, he said, but ended up joining an Air Force Reserve refueling unit when there were no available spots in the Air National Guard.

For about a year, said Mr. Dickinson, who was a lieutenant in command of 44 people, he enjoyed the work with his new unit. But the unit's mission seemed to be changing in late 1989 and early 1990, he said. By August 1990, with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the unit was going through combat training, despite what Mr. Dickinson said were assurances from superior officers that he would not be sent to fight.

"It was horrible,'' Mr. Dickinson said of the weekend combat training, describing reservists singing songs about killing women and children. "This was not what I was trained to do.''

A spokesman at March Air Force Base, where Mr. Dickinson served, said the unit may have completed different training as the war approached, but she denied that its mission changed.

In addition to his growing doubts about the unit's mission, Mr. Dickinson collapsed during a live-fire training exercise and was subsequently diagnosed as having adult-onset asthma.

Those two factors led the teacher to seek a discharge based on his conscientious objection to the war as well as his medical condition. He filed the request in February 1991; the war had started, but he still believed he would not be called up, Mr. Dickinson said.

He was activated later that day.

Arguing that the military had not looked into his discharge requests, the teacher took the Air Force to court. Because of what Mr. Dickinson said were delays in finding a satisfactory lawyer, more than two weeks passed before he appeared in court. He was charged with being absent without leave and missing troop movements during that time.

The March Air Force Base spokesman said that the secretary of the Air Force turned down Mr. Dickinson's conscientious-objector claim in June, a month after he had been court-martialed and sentenced to a year in the military brig, forfeiture of pay, and dismissal from the Reserve.

Mr. Dickinson continued to teach right up to his court-martial.

Support From Advocacy Groups

Mr. Dickinson's case attracted widespread notice last summer when the human-rights group Amnesty International named him a "prisoner of conscience,'' contending that he had been jailed because of his political beliefs.

U.S. Senators and Representatives from California and elsewhere wrote letters to Air Force officials asking clemency for Mr. Dickinson, particularly after his wife developed a life-threatening intestinal disorder that her doctors said was brought on by stress.

He was released last November after serving almost six months.

Other advocacy groups have rallied behind Mr. Dickinson in his latest battle. Lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union are representing him in his effort to retain his license, and antiwar groups such as the War Resisters' League have condemned the credentialing commission's action.

"We see this as dangerous,'' said Michael Marsh, a military counselor with the War Resisters, "because the state is saying, 'If you have a problem with the federal government, you'd better watch your credential because we might take it away.'''

During the Vietnam War, according to Mr. Marsh, teachers in California and other states who refused to serve in the military often had their credentials reviewed by state education officials, but few actually lost their licenses.

Although Mr. Dickinson is not a union member, local and state teachers' unions have also offered him legal advice and support.

The unions rarely get involved with nonmembers' cases, said William Shanahan, the executive director of the Santa Ana Educators' Association, but they are concerned about the precedent that could be set if Mr. Dickinson's license is revoked.

Long Review Process Ahead

According to officials of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, standard practice dictates that any licensed teacher convicted of a felony will be subject to an inquiry.

"As a general rule, we see very few cases from the military-justice system,'' said Nanette Rufo, the coordinator of the commission's professional-standards division, which reviews allegations of misconduct. Although being absent without leave has no civilian equivalent, the commission considers it a felony, she said.

Ms. Rufo declined to discuss Mr. Dickinson's case or to say what prompted the commission to review his license. She would only discuss the general review process, which begins with a seven-member committee of credentials examining the pertinent details of the case, including whatever information the teacher supplies, to see if there is cause for recommending action.

Mr. Dickinson said he expects the committee to discuss his case in mid-May. The panel can close the case or recommend sanctions ranging from the suspension or revocation of a license to a "private admonition'' to the teacher. The latter is kept on file by the teacher's employer for three years and then discarded if there has been no further misconduct.

The committee must hand down a decision within six months. In the event that it does recommend action, the teacher can appeal the decision and request a hearing before an administrative judge, which could take many additional months to schedule and arbitrate.

Mr. Dickinson was particularly taken aback by the letter from the credentialing commission, he said, because he had communicated with the commission before he resumed teaching and was assured that the body did not revoke teaching licenses in cases such as his.

Mr. Rufo would not comment about any assurances that may have been given to Mr. Dickinson.

'Very Ironic and Extra Sad'

Although he has been back teaching for a few months, Mr. Dickinson says he has received almost no negative comments from anyone in Santa Ana, where he teaches, or from his conservative neighbors in Irvine, who overwhelmingly supported the Gulf war. If anything, he said, people have been generally supportive.

He has purposely avoided using his wartime experience as subject matter for the classroom. "I don't want to make my class some kind of political stomping ground,'' he said. "We have a busy enough day without bringing up things like that.''

"I do try to teach them to solve problems nonviolently,'' he added. "They're only children and they can do it, so why can't adults?''

Mr. Dickinson also said he finds it "very ironic and extra sad'' that an educator risks losing his license for questioning authority and acting on his beliefs.

"One of the big pushes in education is to teach children to think and not be little robots,'' he said. "That's just what I did.''

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