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Judge dismisses CPS teacher's suit over suspension for bringing box cutter, pocket knife to class for lesson

By Kenneth Lowe | Apr 23, 2014

Chicago's federal court has sided with a school district that suspended a teacher for four days without pay for bringing a box cutter and pocket knife into his classroom.

Douglas Bartlett, a teacher at Washington Irving Elementary School, sued Chicago Public Schools District No. 299 and his school's principal, Valeria Newell, claiming an infringement of his due process rights and that the school's "weapons" rule didn't apply to him as an instructor.

The school district slapped Bartlett with the unpaid suspension after he brought the tools into his second grade classroom to show to his students as part of a lesson.

“On August 8, 2011, in connection with a required ‘tool discussion’ included in his teaching curriculum, [Bartlett] displayed to his second-grade students several garden-variety tools, including a box cutter, a 2.25-inch pocketknife, wrenches, screwdrivers, and pliers,” Barlett's original suit states.

It added, “As he displayed the box cutter and pocketknife, [Bartlett] specifically described the proper uses of these tools. Neither of these items was made accessible to the students.”

After a Sept. 27, 2011 hearing, Newell, the school's principal, recommended Bartlett be suspended for four days. He filed suit in 2013, seeking damages and that the discipline be expunged from his record.

Bartlett alleged the school district violated his Fourteenth Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution and his right to due process under the Illinois Constitution.

“[Bartlett’s] tools, and specifically the pocketknife, were not items ‘commonly used to inflict bodily harm,’ nor were they ‘used or intended to be used in a manner that may inflict bodily harm,’” he claimed, quoting the school’s code of conduct.

He asserted in his suit that he "was never advised that the disciplinary provisions of the student handbook applied to instructors in the same fashion as they applied to students.”

U.S. District Judge Robert M. Dow Jr. noted in his recent ruling dismissing the suit that at a pre-suspension hearing, Bartlett was represented by counsel and supplemented his testimony with a written statement. He also said Bartlett was represented by the Chicago Teacher’s Union at his Jan. 18, 2012 appeal.

Regarding the appeal, Dow wrote “The administrative hearing officer upheld the four-day suspension, finding that Bartlett admitted he showed the box cutter, knife, screwdriver, and other tools to students ... and Bartlett’s tool demonstration was beyond the scope of the lesson that he was to be teaching."

“The [School Board] was only required to provide [Bartlett] with oral or written notice of the charges, an explanation of the Board’s evidence, and an opportunity to explain his actions,” the judge wrote.

Dow further explained that Bartlett’s suspension was within the school’s discretion.

“Even if the use of the box cutter and knife were acceptable practices—or at least not barred by a clearly articulated rule—the imposition of a four-day suspension for leaving such tools in a place accessible to second grade students was within the discretion of the school administrators and did not rule afoul of [Bartlett’s] constitutional rights,” he wrote.

Bartlett was represented by Dmitry N. Feofanov with the Rutherford Institute and Lyndon-based P.C.

The Board of Education of the City of Chicago and Newell were represented by Kathleen Marie Gibbons, Sunil Kumar and Susan Margaret O'Keefe.

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