Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Teacher Fired: Blaming the Victim to Avoid Risk

In one of those local news stories that catches the popular imagination, second grade Catholic school teacher Carie Charlesworth made first local and then national news when Holy Trinity School of El Cajon, CA told her that they could not renew her contract for the next school year (and also that her four children could no longer attend the school), in order to assure the safety of the school's students. Ms. Charlesworth had been the victim of domestic violence by her ex-husband. She had a restraining order against him which he had repeatedly violated, resulting in 911 calls by her. The ex-husband then showed up during school hours in the school parking lot, resulting in the school going into "lockdown" procedures and the ex-husband being arrested.

Charlesworth and her four kids, who also attended Holy Trinity School, have not been back since the January incident. A letter was sent home to parents the following day, explaining the situation and noting Charlesworth and her children were being put "on an indefinite leave.”

While Charlesworth’s husband went to jail on two felony charges, she says she felt like a criminal too.

“And that’s what it felt like, the kids and I were being punished for something we didn’t even do,” she told NBC 7 San Diego.

Three months later, another letter arrived in the mail delivering a crushing blow. Charlesworth was fired for good, and after 14 years in the district not allowed to teach at any other Diocesan school.
The letter stated:

"We know from the most recent incident involving you and Mrs. Wright (the principal) while you were still physically at Holy Trinity School, that the temporary restraining order in effect were not a deterrent to him. Although we understand he is current incarcerated, we have no way of knowing how long or short a time he will actually serve and we understand from court files that he may be released as early as next fall. In the interest of the safety of the students, faculty and parents at Holy Trinity School, we simply cannot allow you to return to work there, or, unfortunately, at any other school in the Diocese."

When asked for a response, Tom Beecher, Director of the San Diego Diocese Office for Schools wrote in an email to NBC 7 San Diego: “The diocese does not make public comment about personnel issues.”

Obviously, only one side of the story is being covered, since the school and diocese probably can't legally air all their thoughts since they involve personnel decisions and an ongoing lawsuit, but this certainly looks like the workings of a risk-averse bureaucratic mindset failing to take into account the human problems at play. The "anything to keep the kids safe" mentality seem to be at play here. And indeed, a number of parents of other children at the school have apparently spoken up in favor of Charlesworth's dismissal on those grounds.

Some critics have tried to tie this story in with news stories about Catholic school teachers being fired for violating Church teaching. Many Catholic schools have in their contracts a clause requiring teachers to live in accordance with Catholic teaching, and thus teachers have ended up being fired for offenses such as having a "same sex marriage" or deciding to become a single mother via artificial insemination. However, that seems to do an obvious miss-use to Charlesworth's case in order to score culture-war points. The problem with what happened in this case is that, at least according to the story as we know it, the school and the diocese decided to cut a teacher (and four students) off on the theory it was safer to do so than to deal with the possibility that her ex-husband might attempt some sort of crime against her while she was on school premises. Given that the last time he even showed up on school grounds, the school successfully called the police and he landed in jail for 6+ months, it seems like the degree of threat is pretty minor, and obviously the repercussions for Charlesworth and her children were potentially very large. (A private school in the Los Angeles area has apparently now offered Charlesworth a new job, so one hopes she will, in the end, get a more secure home and job out of this.)

In cases where teachers violate the morality clause in their contracts, however, they not only break the terms of their employment, they also undermine the reason-for-being of Catholic schools, which is to provide an environment in which Catholic teaching is lived and taught. In Charlesworth's case, it seems rather that it is the school which, in its rush to avoid all appearance of risk, is failing to live and teach Catholic morals.


bearing said...

Given as much as we know about the case, it strikes me that the just thing to offer her would have been paid leave until the end of the school year.

Darwin said...

If I'm following the various news stories right, it sounds like they had her on paid leave since the incident in January (which is odd, since given the ex-husband has apparently been in jail the whole time, it's not like her presence can result in another incident) but what sparked the controversy is that they informed her she and her kids would not be able to come back next year.

As a right-to-work guy, I don't have a problem in principle with her being let go -- the problem, it seems to me, is that in this case they let her go specifically because they claim that they consider employing her to be a threat. That seems like a pretty bad reason, and I can see why people are phrasing it as "fired for being abused", though obviously that's a prejudicial reading.

Darwin said...

Or to clarify:

I think what they did should be legal, as a matter of employment law.

However, I think their decision was -- if it's as described in the news stories -- wrong and based on over-caution. And to the extent that it was motivated by parents saying that they didn't want the teacher there, I think the attitude of the parents is problematic.

Paul Connors said...

" seems like the degree of threat is pretty minor..."

The letter that the diocese sent to Carie Charlesworth is linked to in one of the stories that you referenced (the letter can be seen here.) Part of it says: "Martin Charlesworth has a twenty-plus year history of violence, abuse and harassment of people -- mostly women -- and he has continued the pattern to the present. We learn the behavior you endured had been exhibited as far back as 1991 in Alaska with other women, including his then wife. He has an equally long history of threatening people, including those whom he believes are interfering with his intent at any time."

That doesn't amount a minor threat. And solutions are not so easy. Ignore the problem? I don't think so. Call the police when he turns up? Surely; but he could do a lot in the 5 minutes before they arrive. Hire a security guard for the school? In the current economy that would likely mean dropping a teacher -- which is the very thing we would like to avoid.

I think this is primarily a law and order problem. Martin Charlesworth got a 6-month sentence for domestic abuse and stalking. Upping the sentence for stalking on school premises, or within a certain distance of a school, to 6 years would be more of a proportional response to a threat that spills over to young children.

Darwin said...

Arguably, there's a major threat to Ms. Charlesworth, but honestly the threat to the school is probably pretty minor. There are, sadly, a whole lot of people messed up enough to beat up an ex-spouse. However, there are, fortunately, only a really, really tiny number of people who are messed up enough to stage some sort of mass violence at a school full of kids.

The school wouldn't be taking no risk by continuing to employ Ms. Charlesworth, but the risk is arguably pretty small. What happened at the January incident seems like a pretty good pattern to follow: Call the cops and have the guy carted away if he shows up.

I do agree that taking abuse and stalking onto school grounds is something that the state should be responsible for dealing with severely. Locking the guy up for longer sounds like a good start. Though given that he's apparently been in jail since January, I'm unclear why Ms. Charlesworth was kept on administrative leave.

Joseph Moore said...

One must wonder about what isn't said here. The biggest question is: was Mrs. Charlesworth cooperating with the school's efforts to mitigate the risk? Not defending the abuser or the school here, but the relationships in an abuse situation are often very tangled. It's possible the school may not be quite the villain it seems to be. It's also possible that the school's behavior is as bad as it seems to be. We don't know.

Sometimes, the behaviors of the victim that allowed her to get into and stay involved in such a bad situation - sympathy, forgiveness, perhaps her own sense of unworthiness - are not totally under control, and don't turn off like a light switch once a restraining order is issued. In other words, the school might see that she is subtly (or not) undermining their efforts to keep her and everyone else safe, even if she doesn't see it. So the school sets rules or guidelines, such as (completely hypothetical example) insisting that she refrain from initiating contact with him (sort of the flip side of the restraining order) because their experts say that while she may think she's merely offering some tidbit of sympathy to a sad man who is after all the father of her children, such contact simply infuriates and provokes him.

If this were the case, there would be no way the school could say anything about it - there'd be no way to say it that would not come off as blaming the victim. They would not, in this completely hypothetical example, be blaming the victim for the abuse, but rather for failure to behave prudently to prevent further incidents.

Once again, I have no idea what's really going on here - it may really be that the school acted as badly as portrayed - but there could be more to it. In any event, let us pray for the Charlesworth family and the school and community involved.

Darwin said...

Yeah, this is definitely one of those stories where I could imagine there being all sorts of additional details which we're not getting because only one side is able to talk.

Actually, I hesitated to write about the story for about a week. I'd been hearing a fair amount about it on left-leaning Catholic sites, where it's of course treated as a "Church is mean to women and other victim groups" story. But last week I started to see it getting coverage on mainstream cable news, and I got to thinking, "Well, it shouldn't only be the loopy left who says something about this."

One hopes that having been offered a new job in another city, Ms. Charlesworth and her kids are able to get out of a bad situation.

Paul Connors said...

Darwin: "However, there are, fortunately, only a really, really tiny number of people who are messed up enough to stage some sort of mass violence at a school full of kids."

Sure, but I don't think you're taking into account some of the much larger risks. Roughly several thousand times more likely would be a murder-suicide. From some of the details in the story I would guess that the ex-husband doesn't always know where she lives, but does know where she works. So a murder-suicide would be taking place in a K-8 classroom. Not good for the kids at all. Less bad, but more likely still, would be a violent assault there.

And note that the ex-husband has a long record of related offenses, is atypical of breakers of restraining orders in that he is now a convicted stalker -- with his attorney stating in court: "He still loves her very much". Ouch. Is it so unjust that a school decides that dealing with such a person exceeds what it can reasonably do?

Which is why I still consider this to be a failure of law and order -- i.e. the political class. Laws against stalking only date back to 1990 in the US. They need much more attention. So it's unfortunate that the story has usually been presented as: "Oh what a horrible Catholic school". The people who can alter the situation by far the most effectively get no mention at all!