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‘Inappropriate Touching’

It never happened, but they tried to fire him anyway.

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Two days after he got the horrifying news, Ron Green (not his real name) took a phone call from the mother of two students. She had heard he was accused of “inappropriate touching” and wanted him to know she believed in him.

The next day, she called again, and the next—every day for a year. The parent stayed in touch throughout the entire ordeal, which lasted nearly two years. She and a group of other parents galvanized community support, bombarding school officials and the district attorney’s office with calls and petitions for the man who had taught their children—and in some cases, had taught them, too—in the course of an unblemished career of 31 years. But that didn’t stop school administrators from trying to fire him.

The state association lawyer who represented Green says when there are allegations of sexual misconduct, many districts take the politically safe way out. Rather than investigate and judge the evidence themselves and risk being accused of exposing students to a predator, they’d rather fire the teacher and let the union file a grievance. That way, they can blame the arbitrator if the teacher goes back to work.

Of course, some accused teachers are guilty. But in this case, the evidence against Green was spectacularly weak.

His accusers were two sixth-grade girls. Green had given one of them an F on a term paper. The other was her inseparable best friend. The events they described would have been highly visible. One girl said he cupped her breast frequently with his hand and sometimes touched her crotch. The other girl said she “screamed… ‘Get off of me,’” when he touched her. They named students and even a teacher they claimed had witnessed these incidents. All of the supposed witnesses denied having seen or heard anything, and a student heard one of the accusers say the whole thing was a lie and a joke. Eventually, this all came out, but not for a long time.

“I was in shock,” says Green, remembering that evening in March 2004, when his union president called to tell him of the charges. He says he ran out of his house, “leaving the door wide open. I drove around aimlessly for a while, thinking, ‘This only happens in movies.’”

The principal was waiting for him the next morning.  “He looked at me, and I said, ‘I know.’” They went to the office of the superintendent, who told Green he was suspended with pay. Then he added, “Don’t say a word.”

“I think he said that to protect me.”

Green found a criminal defense lawyer and steeled himself for an arrest that seemed about to happen any day—but never did.

Every day of waiting was agony.

In May, with Green still suspended and still not charged with any wrongdoing, his parent allies held a community picnic in his honor. Hundreds showed up. There were burgers and desserts and a petition to the superintendent praising Green and asking that he be restored to his classroom.

Instead, a few days later, the school district switched Green from paid leave to unpaid leave, and then moved to fire him.

By fall, the district attorney still had taken no action. Green’s lawyer told him every day with no arrest was a plus, but that didn’t make the waiting easier. Green and his wife started seeing a psychiatrist to help them bear the strain.

Although Green had filed a grievance to win his job back, he hadn’t pushed it to arbitration because his lawyer worried that something said in an arbitration hearing could later hurt him in criminal court, where juries are hard to predict.

Suddenly in October, the union lawyer representing Green called to say the superintendent was willing to make a deal: If Green retired, the district would give him a year’s pay, and he would keep his retirement benefits.

By this point, Green was worn down. “I was upset and angry—I didn’t want a deal. I was innocent. I accepted it, but there wasn’t a day that I didn’t have buyer’s remorse,” says Green.

But the drama wasn’t over. Days later, the school board turned down the deal. The rationale? If he were a sexual predator, they didn’t want to reward him.

Green had had enough. With the help of his union lawyer, he decided to fight for his job and his name, regardless of the risk.

Their first move was to hire a private investigator, who warned from the start that he would follow the evidence wherever it led. The investigator interviewed all of the alleged witnesses, which neither the district attorney nor the school district had bothered to do. The investigator also discovered the student who’d heard Green’s main accuser say that the whole thing was a lie.

The evidence was presented in three sessions spread over several months. To Green, the low point came early, hearing the two girls describe events he knew had never happened. The high point was the testimony of the girl who’d overheard the confession that the story was a lie. Every time the school board’s lawyer tried to undermine her account, the girl repeated, “I’m 100 percent clear about what I heard.”

More months passed before final legal briefs were filed and the arbitrator delivered her decision: The evidence showed Green was telling the truth. After 691 bitter days, he was ordered reinstated.

Today, Ron Green gets up every morning and goes to work at the job he loves: teaching sixth graders.

But it’s not the same—far from it. Before, Green had an informal, dynamic, highly personal teaching style. He would sometimes muss his students’ hair, give them nicknames, and build games into his lesson plans. “They knew I loved them and thought they were special,” he explains.

Now he feels constricted, dry, vigilant.

“I’m not the same person and I can’t be the same teacher,” he says. “I don’t believe I can be the kind of influence I was before. That’s sad.”

Read next story: Truth and Consequences

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