An Eagan principal who made a kindergarten boy clear out a clogged toilet by hand will be suspended, not fired, an arbitrator decided.
The Burnsville-Eagan-Savage school board voted unanimously in February to dismiss principal Doug Steele for bad judgment in the incident, which happened at Rahn Elementary School in December.
But Steele appealed the proposed discipline, as his union contract allowed, and an arbitrator ruled last week that firing him would be too harsh a penalty. Instead, Steele will be suspended for 15 days without pay.
The decision upset the boy's parents, Elijah and Shannon Hannah. "I'm just mad," Elijah Hannah said Wednesday. "I've been mad since it all happened." The school district was also disappointed, though it will abide by the ruling, said Sue Grissom, the district's human resources director.
The district told Rahn parents about the decision in a letter dated Monday.
Steele will not return as a building principal, and the district has no plans to move him back to that role "at all," Grissom said. Instead, he will be assigned as a principal at large, with duties such as coordinating grants, assessments and state accountability reporting.
But Hannah said, "Honestly, once the smoke clears, in one year or two years, I believe he'll be back in a building."
According to arbitrator Christine Ver Ploeg's Aug. 6 decision, most of the facts of the case were not in dispute.
On Dec. 12, a kindergarten teacher at Rahn found that paper towels had clogged the toilet in the class bathroom. When she asked her students about it, Hannah's son, age 6, said he was responsible. The teacher, who was not named in public documents, said she believed the boy had clogged the toilet intentionally, though the Hannahs have said it was an accident.
She was busy with the class, so she called Steele down to the classroom to help.
When he arrived, she explained the situation, and Steele took the student into the bathroom, closed the door and asked the boy if he had put the paper in the toilet. The boy said he had, and Steele said, "I think it would be important that we pick it up and take care of it," according to the arbitrator's ruling.
Steele had the student reach in, pluck out the papers and drop them in a trash can that the principal held. Steele then had the boy wash his hands thoroughly twice.
Both Steele and the teacher said that the toilet bowl did not contain feces or urine.
The teacher said the principal was "very calm" and "matter of fact" in her classroom.
Steele said later that he was confused about who would call the boy's parents to let them know what happened, the arbitrator wrote. The Hannahs heard it first from their son, who brought home a daily report from his teacher that said, "Let's make better choices."
The Hannahs called Steele and met with him shortly afterward. Steele reported the incident to the school district, which put him on paid leave.
When the school board voted to dismiss Steele, it sent him a letter that said, "The form of discipline you chose was degrading, humiliating and demonstrated a lack of interpersonal sensitivity."
Steele apologized to the Hannahs soon after the incident and said later that he wishes he had acted differently.
After the incident, the Hannahs' son stayed in the same class and continued to have a good relationship with his teacher, she said. But Elijah Hannah began to threaten the teacher, the arbitrator wrote. The school added extra security and required Hannah to give notice before visiting. The district ultimately moved the boy to another class so the teacher could avoid contact with his father.
On Wednesday, Hannah disputed the arbitrator's description of those events.
"An extremely poor choice"
Ver Ploeg wrote that Steele made an "extremely poor choice," but it "was not of such an extreme and outrageous nature that it mandates his immediate discharge."
Cases where that penalty has been upheld typically involve behavior such as physical abuse of students, criminal theft, viewing pornography at work or discharging a weapon on school property, she wrote.
She also noted that Steele's employment record was "largely positive," though the district sent him a "memorandum of concern" in 2005 that said, among other things, that he was perceived as angry and didn't "seem to be in control of [his] emotions."
Elaine Mehdizadeh, who was named interim principal at Rahn, will stay there this fall.
The Hannahs, who had three children at Rahn, will send them to school elsewhere this fall, Elijah Hannah said.
He would not say whether he planned to take legal action in the matter, saying only, "It ain't the last they're going to hear of us."
Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016