South Dakota Supreme Court
1998 SD 17, 574 N.W.2d 889
No. 19959.
Argued Oct. 22, 1997. -- February 25, 1998
Richard Collins was a teacher in the Faith School District for 29 years, 15 of which he lead question and answer sessions with boys after showings of sex education videos and worksheets. He was asked to do so by the nurse that administered the program. She asked him to do this because she felt the boys would be more comfortable talking with a male than her. There had been no problems with these sessions until 1995 when a fourth grade student asked how two men could have sex. Mr. Collins answered the question honestly, just as he had been previously instructed. Parents complained to the principal about him discussing homosexuality with the children. There was a meeting conducted with the principal, parents, and Mr. Collins. Following the meeting Mr. Collins was informed there would be a termination hearing with the Board. It was a month later when the meeting was conducted, during which time Mr. Collins was allowed to remain in his position, and Mr. Collins was terminated based on incompetency. The matter was taken to court and the court upheld the Board's decision to terminate. Mr. Collin then took the matter to the South Dakota Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court decided that there was no valid evidence to support the Board's conclusion of incompetency. The Courts have previously identified incompetency as a series of events or one significant isolated event dramatically impacts a person ability to perform his/her job. The principal had testified that there had been no apparent disruption in the classes, attendance had not changed, and there had been no increase in behavioral issues. The Superintendent had testified that he had no knowledge of the question and answer session disturbing the students in any way, he had not visited the classroom since the event, and that there were no increases in absenteeism or behavioral problems. In fact the Board allowed Mr. Collins to remain in his position for a month until the termination hearing, although it was within their power to suspend Mr. Collins. Also, prior to the complaints the Board had voted to extend his contract. Because of a severe lack of evidence the Supreme Court reversed the Circuit Court's decision and the case was remanded for the reinstatement of Mr. Collins teaching position and a determination of the amount of back pay that Collins was entitled, less any offsets.

Implication for Teacher:
Discussing controversial issues in a classroom can get you into a lot of trouble, even when it is relevant to the subject you are discussing. Politics play a big part of school Board decisions. As elected officials they must make the voters (parents) happy with their decisions. However, they must stay within the confines of the law. As always, what you do and say is under constant scrutiny by parents, children, and your superiors on and off schools grounds. The best that you can hope for is that if you make a mistake, it won't be one that causes you to lose your job. When addressing controversial topics it is best to approach the situation with extreme caution. It would probably be best to tell the student that you will have to get back to them then discuss with your superiors what an appropriate answer would be or even if you should answer the question at all.

Perhaps a better way to avoid the situation at hand would have been to have students write down their questions on pieces of paper and turn them in. The teacher could then take them home and preview what the students would be asking. The question could be taken to superiors, discussed, and possibly answered to only the student in a written response to keep away from such a controversial topic.

Quiz Question:
T/F The Supreme Court upheld the Board's decision to terminate Mr. Collin on the grounds of incompetency.

Stacy Lynch
Chynna Seymour