Room to compromise on teacher's future

Published October 29, 2006

In legal terms, it is known as a directed verdict. Laymen might characterize it as "We've heard enough. Our mind is made up, and everything else to come is a waste of time."

A directed verdict dismisses a case when a judge determines that prosecutors failed to provide sufficient evidence to implicate the defendant in a criminal case or if a plaintiff failed to prove a civil claim. The defense does not have to put on a case, and the jurors are free to go without having to deliberate.

You might remember that a directed verdict saved Rusty Sabich, Harrison Ford's character in the movie version of Scott Turrow's Presumed Innocent.

A dozen days ago, halfway through a nearly five-hour hearing to determine the job status of Pasco High language teacher Patti Withers, a majority of the Pasco School Board probably wished for the ability to hand down a directed verdict.

Withers hadn't even presented her side of the story, but already School Board members had heard:

- Superintendent Heather Fiorentino recommended firing Withers on the grounds that the teacher's afterschool suicide attempt affected student safety.

- School administrators don't know if students witnessed Withers ingest antidepressants.

- They don't know exactly how many students saw Withers and assistant principal Norman Brown struggle for control of a pill container. One witness said three. Another said two.

- Withers let go of the container after Brown told her that students were nearby and that she wouldn't want them to see anything.

- School authorities did not know the identities of the students or make any attempt to learn their names to make them aware of available counseling.

- Withers' psychiatrist said she is making progress and should be able to return to work if she continues with her aftercare. She is not a threat to students. Depression, he said, is not the same as paranoid schizophrenia.

In other words, the stated reason for termination fell apart, and there is no evidence that a repeat episode is likely.

During the hearing, Fiorentino sat on the dais, to the right of the School Board members, facing lawyer Edmund McKenna as he presented her case. It was an unfortunate seating arrangement. Fiorentino likely didn't see the board members visibly recoil when McKenna opened by telling them that Withers "brought a weapon to school and tried to kill a teacher." It was an ill-advised attempt to tie Withers' mental illness to school violence.

You can't blame McKenna. He had to play the hand he was dealt, and this one is a loser. He had to reshape his argument about student safety to include faculty after the School Board heard that a teacher had sought counseling, but no students.

Fiorentino, meanwhile, had the difficult task of being part of the prosecuting team and a witness who had to rationalize her recommendation. She pointed out her constitutional requirement to keep students safe. She offered the platitude of doing this for the children.

While wrapping herself in the Constitution, the superintendent should remember Withers' own constitutional rights to due process.

The entire case is said to be based on the events of May 22, when Withers ingested pills after learning that she had failed a Spanish proficiency examination needed to be considered a highly qualified teacher under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

But the prosecuting side tried to introduce evidence of Withers' mental condition in September, months after the recommended firing. They also made frequent mention of Withers being found unresponsive in her vehicle on a hot day in the school parking lot in August 2005. It was an incident that Withers said she doesn't recall, and it wasn't documented by Brown until 10 months later.

So the School Board members are left to ponder Withers' fate. They had to act as judge during the hearing and now as jury. They are scheduled to make their ruling Nov. 7. They can uphold the superintendent's recommendation or overturn it. They have no ability to negotiate a compromise.

That is the obvious answer. Fiorentino should withdraw her recommendation and find a job for Withers outside the classroom. The superintendent will achieve her stated goal while allowing a competent employee to remain productive and to keep the health care benefits needed for continued treatment.

Consider it the superintendent's own directed verdict. After all, being direct isn't synonymous with being inflexible.