High Court Awards Round to Teacher
Salt Lake Tribune, April 5, 2003
P. O. Box 867, Salt Lake City, UT 84110
By Elizabeth Neff, The Salt Lake Tribune
A group of parents and former students trying to oust a
gay Spanish Fork High School teacher cannot look to Utah courts for help.
The Utah Supreme Court on Friday ruled they must instead
take their complaints about psychology teacher Wendy Chandler to local and
state education officials.
Dubbing themselves “Citizens of Nebo School District
for Moral and Legal Values,” the group filed a lawsuit in 1997 alleging
Chandler, then known as Wendy Weaver, was unfit to teach because she is a
lesbian violating state sodomy laws. The suit also had claimed Chandler
improperly administered psychological tests to students in her class and made
inappropriate comments about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
during class discussions.
The high court refused the group’s request for a
declaration that Chandler had violated state laws and regulations, saying
teacher discipline matters are the province of local and state officials. Any
declaration would amount to issuing an advisory opinion, wrote Justice Michael
J. Wilkins for the court.
Chandler called the high court’s decision an important
one for all teachers. “If we’re in our professional field, if we’re
maintaining the standards . . . our personal life should be nobody else’s
business,” she said.
“Anybody who may not fit the mold or be the majority,
and has different views or a different life . . . we can’t be picked on by
parents if they don’t like us.”
Friday’s decision marks the latest win for Chandler in
a string of litigation since she first admitted to one of her students that
she was gay. But her fight may not be over.
Attorney Matthew Hilton says he has asked the State
Office of Education to review a complaint filed years ago by the group but put
on hold pending the outcome of the court case. The office will ask him to
submit a new complaint detailing the allegations and potential witnesses, said
Carol Lear, an attorney with the office.
The Utah Professional Practices Advisory Commission would
review the complaint and determine whether to investigate, Lear said. The
commission examines allegations of unprofessional conduct and recommends
whether the state Board of Education should maintain or revoke licenses.
While the Nebo Education Association has not taken a
stand on Chandler’s case, it would represent her interests if the parent
group pursues action at the district, said union President Perry Ewell.
“The association’s role is ensuring due process, not
necessarily whether a teacher was in the scope of his or her job,” he said.
Chandler, however, said she is not worried about
continuing the battle, saying the State Office of Education previously chose
to take no action against her and she does not believe it would reconsider.
“If you have a problem, you take it through the proper
channels,” she said, “and they didn’t get the answer they wanted.”
American Civil Liberties Union of Utah cooperating
attorney Stephen Clark said he hopes Friday’s decision will put an end to
“I hope to convince Matthew Hilton that this crusade
should end here, and that he and his clients should understand once and for
all that to continue their attack on Wendy would only deprive the
schoolchildren of this state of a valued teacher,” Clark said. “We are not
intimidated by the prospect they will take their claims elsewhere, we are
disappointed they will continue to waste taxpayer money on what is really a
political and ideological crusade.”
Chandler’s legal struggles began when the Nebo District
School Board told her she could not coach the girls volleyball team or discuss
her sexual orientation with students. Chandler sued in federal court and won.
U.S. District Judge Bruce Jenkins forced the district to offer Chandler her
coaching job again, which she declined, lifted the district’s gag order, and
ordered the district to pay nearly $62,000 in legal fees Chandler accrued.
Soon after Chandler filed her lawsuit, parents made
complaints to the Nebo School District that included a petition signed by
Friday’s decision affirms former 4th District Judge Ray
Harding Jr.’s dismissal of the group’s lawsuit in 1999. It also awarded
Chandler costs spent on defending the appeal.
In steering the group’s complaints elsewhere, the high
court noted it looked to 1997 law in reaching its ruling and was not asked to
consider a 1999 amendment aimed at giving parents standing to file civil
actions against teachers.
Utah Education Association attorney Michael McCoy said
small groups of citizens should not have the right to try to overturn the
decisions of elected officials.
“Government would come to a halt if every single
decision were subject to challenge by any person or citizens’ group,” he
Michele Morley, 32, a plaintiff in the lawsuit who played
volleyball at the school while Chandler was coaching, said she agreed to
become a plaintiff in the lawsuit out of a sense of obligation—not because
she was ever personally wronged by Chandler.
“If she did do something, I wanted her to be held
accountable for it,” she said.
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