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Teacher Ordered To Submit to Psychiatric Tests

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A Minnesota special-education teacher who has been praised for her work with troubled youths is now facing an ultimatum from her local school board: Submit to psychiatric tests or risk being fired.

Judy Johnson, a 14-year teacher of emotional-behaviorally disturbed children in the Anoka-Hennepin school district, has been accused by school officials of insubordination, inefficiency, and neglect of duty.

The district is asking the teacher to undergo a psychiatric evaluation and has given her until March 18 to choose from a list of doctors agreed to by the board.

Ms. Johnson--who works with 26 students at two elementary schools--was named 1991 special-education teacher of the year by the Minnesota Council for Exceptional Children.

Requiring a teacher to submit to a psychiatric evaluation appears to be a relatively rare step. Moreover, the situation in the suburban-Minneapolis district has an added twist.

The state law that the district is invoking in the case is usually reserved for employees believed to have serious mental or physical illnesses that could affect their job performance.

James Krasowski, Ms. Johnson's lawyer, said the board has not revealed, publicly or otherwise, that it believes she has any illness that would preclude her from teaching.

"The district hasn't told anyone why this is going on, including Judy,'' added Dan Cook, whose son is taught by Ms. Johnson.

Mr. Cook and a small group of other parents have come out in support of the teacher.

Administrative Failings

Several observers have speculated that the controversy in the district was the result of personality conflicts between Ms. Johnson and district administrators or of philosophical disagreements over teaching practices.

The trouble apparently began last fall, said Cathryn Olson, a lawyer for the district, when school officials expressed dissatisfaction with some of the administrative paperwork being submitted by Ms. Johnson.

The district has also cited the teacher for failing to attend meetings with her supervisors and to respond to several written and verbal requests for work.

Mr. Krasowski argued that his client has been held to an "undocumented and unequally applied standard.''

"She's been given no model to follow; no policy has been disseminated for her to follow,'' he added. "I assume this whole paperwork thing is really a charade.''

Ms. Olson said last week that the district had no plans to remove Ms. Johnson from the classroom before March 18.

But school officials will not discuss any other aspects of the case until a settlement has been reached, Ms. Olson added.

Ms. Johnson and her lawyer are already anticipating her termination, Mr. Krasowski said, and will probably file a wrongful-termination lawsuit in response.

'Children Are Going To Suffer'

Officials of the National Education Association in Washington said last week that they were aware of only one case similar to that involving Ms. Johnson.

In 1991, a Pittsburgh teacher filed suit in federal court to block the school board from forcing her to undergo a psychiatric examination.

Pittsburgh school officials said they were alarmed by the teacher's pattern of absences and concerned about her ability to interact with others.

The court threw out the teacher's case, ruling that administrators are not required to hold a probable-cause hearing to support the need for an evaluation. In addition, the court found that the district's decision was "neither arbitrary nor unsupported.''

Ms. Johnson's supporters, meanwhile, insist that, although she may not always do things by the book, she is an effective teacher with a difficult caseload.

"She does an excellent job,'' Mr. Cook asserted. "The fact of the matter is that our children are going to suffer because of this.''

Mr. Cook said he and the other parents who have defended Ms. Johnson to the school board are looking into taking legal action if she is fired.

Vern Trandem, the principal of Sorteberg Elementary School--one of the two schools where Ms. Johnson works part time--declined to discuss the matter last week.

The principal of University Avenue Elementary School did not return telephone calls.

Mr. Krasowski said some staff members at the latter school have signed a letter of support for Ms. Johnson.

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