By all accounts Luther Stephney was an exemplary 2nd grade teacher. He taught since 1999 and obtained tenure in 2001. He also coached several sports teams in the Peru Central School District, a small district in rural upstate Clinton County.
Stephney’s classroom was wired for the internet and monitored by security software. Well, during one period in the winter of 2004, while there were no students in the classroom, Stephney decided to explore the underbelly of the internet and used search terms “too offensive to repeat here.”
After the computer locked him out he immediately went to his supervisor and told him what he had done. The district brought seven charges against the respondent, including insubordination, neglect of his duties, searching for and viewing inappropriate, immoral and obscene images on the internet and violating the District's internet policy. The hearing officer suspended him for the rest of the 2004-2005 school year and retained jurisdiction for two years to make certain Stephney did not violate the policy again.
While this “transgression” might seem less dangerous in our district the Court’s reversal of the hearing officer’s penalty is worth noting. The Court reversed the penalty finding that “A court may intervene in arbitration on public policy grounds only in exceptional cases; they must be cases in which "public policy considerations, embodied in statute or decisional law, prohibit, in an absolute sense, particular matters being decided or certain relief being granted by an arbitrator" (Mtr of New York City Transit Authority v Transport Workers Union of America, 99 NY2d 1, 7 (2002), quoting Mtr of Sprinzen, 46 NY2d 623, 631 (1979).”
The Court found that the hearing officer exceeded his authority and violated public policy by imposing the penalty that he did. In finding the violation of public policy the Court cited the Court of Appeals case in which the UFT won enforcement of an arbitration despite the City’s insistence that it violated public policy. (This was the case in which the principal of a District 26 school selected a less senior teacher for a per session activity).
The Court also defined the source of the public policy implicated by a school district’s internet policy. It stated, “while the internet provides a wonderful addition to the teaching tools available in schools, its presence also presents the possibility for damaging and far-reaching abuse. For precisely that reason, the federal legislature passed the Child Internet Protection Act which aims to protect children from pornography available on the internet. The hammer to ensure this event is avoided is the federal government's control of the purse strings. This case involves a guardian, custodian and role model for seven and eight-year old children placing pornography on computers the children access on a regular basis.” Board of Education, Peru Central School District, v. Luther Stophney, 2005 NY Slip Op 25371, Supreme Court, Clinton County, July 6, 2005.