Science teacher prevails in battle with L.A. school district over 'guns'

Three days of lost pay may not seem like much, not worth arguing over for more than three years. But when an arbitration panel ruled last month that biology teacher Greg Schiller should get that money back, he and his many supporters saw a much greater victory.

They view the resolution in Schiller’s favor as overdue vindication for an instructor who just wanted to teach science, but whose efforts fell victim to ignorance, overreaction and bureaucratic one-size-fits-all, by-the-rules stubbornness.

Schiller’s problems at the Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts began in early 2014, when L.A. Unified determined two student projects he’d been supervising were guns.

One was a tube that could propel an object using air pressure. The other was an electromagnetic coil that could speed an object out of a tube.

Schiller had volunteered to help the students with their entries for science contests.

He hadn’t been shown the final version of the air pressure tube when Assistant Principal Kenneth Martinez saw it on display in the cafeteria with the caption: “Can You Make a Gun Out of PVC?” He reported that project to higher-ups. A dean reported the other one. Both were confiscated.

The district — which has a zero tolerance weapons policy — promptly removed Schiller from the classroom, suspended him with pay and launched what would turn out to be a lengthy investigation. He was out for two months, during which time the fencing team he coached had to forfeit the rest of its season. Students also complained about the quality of the substitute teachers and their need for Schiller’s help in preparing for the Advanced Placement biology test.

Meanwhile, students and parents rallied around Schiller, generating media attention. They pointed out that the air pressure project wasn’t even attached to any source of air pressure — and that at a White House science fair, President Obama had demonstrated the use of a more powerful version that could propel a marshmallow 175 feet. A Times editorial that April, with the headline “Let the science teacher teach,” accused the district of “harmful overreaction.”

After two months, the district buckled, letting Schiller return to the school on the edge of downtown. At the time, it was almost unheard of for a teacher accused of anything to be allowed to teach while an investigation proceeded, sometimes for years. The school system was jumpy in the aftermath of a 2012 teacher abuse scandal at Miramonte Elementary.

Schiller’s case influenced the district to change its procedures and let a teacher remain in class during an inquiry if there was no possibility of student harm or discomfort.

Ultimately, Schiller was docked the three days and received a permanent reprimand in his personnel file.

Schiller challenged the penalty, and the arbitration went on for years.

The district accused Schiller of allowing students to make guns and said he supervised them so poorly that one student could have caused serious injury when he took his finished weapon to another teacher’s classroom and fired it in a display. Officials said Schiller also lied about his role in the projects.

The arbitration panel that was convened, per the labor contract, consisted of a person chosen by the teachers union, another by the district and a third non-aligned individual who headed the panel. They unanimously took issue with the district’s characterization.

For starters, they questioned the description of the two objects, which are common science projects, as guns.

The air pressure device lacked the compressed air needed to work.The other project’s propulsion system was made up of a capacitor from a disposable camera, an AA battery and a tube about the size of a pen. When the student demonstrated it, in the incident the district said could have caused serious injury, a steel marble traveled about six inches in the air and rolled for perhaps another five feet.

“While the device created by these two students would meet the strict definition of a weapon as defined by the zero tolerance policy, and while [the] employer’s policy pertaining to weapons on any of its premises is reasonable,” the arbitrators wrote, ”strict application without thought can potentially stifle or impede learning.”

The panel also did not accept the district’s contention that Schiller lied, though arbitrators did say that he could have supervised the students more closely.

One of those students, Asa Ferguson, now is away at Deep Springs College, near Bishop, Calif., though his parents, Rogan and Susan Ferguson, who are both L.A. Unified teachers, attended a party for Schiller over the weekend.

“This has been a weight that we’ve been carrying as well,” Rogan Ferguson said. “We’ve always known that Greg was innocent. This is an incredible day for our family, a relief.”

The arbitration panel ordered that its ruling be attached as an amendment to the original “Notice of Unsatisfactory Act” that the district had placed in Schiller’s file.

The district declined to comment on the ruling. Martinez has since become the principal at Cortines, where Schiller continues to teach and coach fencing.

For his part, Schiller said, “This whole issue could’ve been resolved … years ago with minimal stress, minimal loss of classroom instruction, and minimal cost.”

howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume

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