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School employee with criminal record to keep his job

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From Staff and Wire Reports
Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012, 6:18 p.m.
 

An Allegheny Intermediate Unit employee convicted of voluntary manslaughter nearly 30 years ago will remain on the job after a state appeals court sided with him over the group's attempt to fire him.

Commonwealth Court ruled on due process grounds in favor of Arthur Johnson of the North Side, who works as a “fatherhood facilitator” for the AIU.

The AIU moved to terminate Johnson this year under a revised state law that imposes a lifetime ban on employment in school districts for people with certain criminal convictions to have direct contact with children.

The judges said the AIU failed to show that firing Johnson served a legitimate governmental purpose.

The ban, Judge Dan Pellegrini wrote for the seven-judge panel, “has no temporal proximity to Johnson's present ability to perform the duties of his position, and it does not bear a real and substantial relationship to the commonwealth's interest in protecting children, it is unreasonable, unduly oppressive and patently beyond the necessities of the offense.”

An Allegheny County judge ruled in favor of Johnson, and the state Department of Education appealed. A state agency spokesman declined comment, saying the decision was under review.

Mary Jo Miller, staff attorney for the Pennsylvania State Education Association who represented Johnson, welcomed the ruling and said the AIU knew of Johnson's conviction when it hired him as a van driver in 2001 and that he has been a model employee.

“There's just something not right about telling someone he's done everything he's supposed to do after a terrible and tragic mistake ... but now we've changed our minds, and now we're going to take your job away,” Miller said. “And you are forever banned from earning a living in this area.”

A five-year ban on school employment for those with homicide convictions became a lifetime ban under a 2011 state law, Pellegrini wrote. The Department of Education told school administrators they could face penalties if they did not act against employees with criminal records that disqualify them from employment.

The Education Department had argued that the ban was justified on the grounds of student safety.

Miller said other similar cases are winding their way through the court system.

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