On The Front Lines
Federal Court Dismisses Case of Chicago School Teacher Who Was Suspended, Accused of Weapons Possession for Lesson on Wrenches, Pliers
CHICAGO, Ill. — An Illinois federal court has ruled that Chicago school officials did not violate the rights of a second-grade teacher who was charged with possessing weapons on school grounds after he displayed garden-variety tools such as wrenches, pliers and screwdrivers in his classroom as part of his second grade teaching curriculum that required a “tool discussion.” In granting a motion to dismiss the complaint in Douglas Bartlett v. City of Chicago School District #299, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Dow, Jr., held that school officials at Washington Irving Elementary School acted properly when they applied a definition of “weapons” contained in a student handbook to the actions of teacher Douglas Bartlett.
Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute filed the civil rights lawsuit in April 2013 on behalf of Bartlett, a 17-year veteran in the classroom, who was suspended without pay for four days on the grounds that his use of the tools as visual aids endangered his students, despite the fact that all potentially hazardous items were kept out of the students’ reach.
“In an age where public schools face an unprecedented number of real challenges in maintaining student discipline, and addressing threats of real violence, surely no one benefits from trumped up charges where no actual ‘weapons’ violation has occurred and no threat is posed to any member of the school community,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State. “This school district’s gross overreaction to a simple teaching demonstration on basic tools such as wrenches and pliers underscores exactly what is wrong with our nation’s schools. Education truly suffers when school administrators exhibit such poor judgment and common sense, especially when it comes to their zealous misapplication of misguided zero tolerance policies. However, what makes this case stand out from the rest is that this victim of zero tolerance policies run amok happens to be a veteran school teacher.”
Doug Bartlett teaches second graders at Washington Irving Elementary School in Chicago, Illinois. On August 8, 2011, Bartlett displayed several garden-variety tools he used around the classroom, including wrenches, screwdrivers, a box cutter, a 2.25” pocketknife, and pliers, as visual aids for a “tool discussion” which is required by the teaching curriculum. It is common for teachers to use such visual aids to help students retain their lessons. As he displayed the box cutter and pocketknife in particular, Bartlett specifically described the proper uses of these tools. None of the tools were made accessible to the students. When not in use, the tools were secured in a toolbox on a high shelf out of reach of the students.
On August 19, 2011, Bartlett received notice that he was under investigation for, among other things, “possessing, carrying, storing, or using a weapon,” and for negligently supervising children. Bartlett subsequently received a four-day suspension without pay. In coming to Bartlett’s defense, Rutherford Institute attorneys filed a civil rights lawsuit, challenging the constitutionality of such disciplinary action against Bartlett as a direct violation of Bartlett’s Fourteenth Amendment right to due process. Institute attorneys also pointed out that Bartlett had no intent to use the tools as weapons, nor did he ever receive notice that using such tools in an educational manner could even be construed as using a weapon.
Affiliate attorney Dmitry N. Feofanov is assisting The Rutherford Institute with Bartlett’s case.