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Should a Teacher's Past Be the Basis for Firing?

The SEC requires investors to be warned in a prospectus that past performance is no guarantee of future results. I think state licensing departments should warn teacher candidates that their past behavior is guaranteed to come back to haunt them.

I was reminded of this by the case of Tiffany Webb, a 37-year-old high school guidance counselor in the New York City system who was fired after 12 years of exemplary service because she seductively posed in her undergarments several years before she became a teacher in 1999 ("Manhattan HS guidance counselor stripped of job over steamy-photo past," New York Post, Oct. 7). These photos are not pornographic any more than Victoria's Secrets are. Nevertheless, she was axed, even though she disclosed her former career when she was first hired.

The basis for Webb's dismissal was that she engaged in "conduct unbecoming" an Education Department employee. She is suing for wrongful termination, sex discrimination and violation of First Amendment rights. Although she has changed her name and found a teaching job in New Jersey, she is seeking reinstatement, back pay and punitive damages.

Webb deserves all three.

I find it hard to understand why what she did constitutes "conduct unbecoming." Are candidates supposed to live a cloistered life both before and after they choose to become teachers? What harm does she pose to students who view her modeling photos? I would take her side even if her firing occurred in a small town, where community standards are far more puritanical than in New York City. But let's get real. Students see models in their undies on the sides of buses. They're not nearly as impressionable during adolescence as the chancellor's committee asserts. Then there's the question of sexual discrimination. If a male teacher posed for similar photos, would he be fired, or is a female teacher held to a different standard?

If public schools ever expect to recruit and retain top talent, they have to come into the 21st century. The Internet has made available to young people images and information on a scale never seen before in this country. It's time to stop pretending that they are as naive as the New York City Education Department believes. That's why I wonder if there isn't more to this story.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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