On The Front Lines


Rutherford Institute Sues Chicago School After Teacher Is Suspended, Accused of Weapons Possession for Lesson on Wrenches, Pliers


April 22, 2013

CHICAGO, Ill. — Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have filed a civil rights lawsuit against a Chicago public school district on behalf of a second-grade teacher who was suspended and charged with possessing, carrying, storing or using a weapon 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.” Despite the fact that all potentially hazardous items were kept out of the students’ reach, school officials at Washington Irving Elementary School informed Doug Bartlett, a 17-year veteran in the classroom, that his use of the tools as visual aids endangered his students. Bartlett was subsequently penalized with a four-day suspension without pay.

“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 there is no threat whatsoever posed to any member of the school community,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “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 latest 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 point 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.