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Court upholds Westmoreland educator's firing in 2002 drug incident

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Friday, June 21, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

A former teacher's assistant should not be reinstated to her job with the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit, Commonwealth Court ruled on Thursday.

The court upheld the 2002 firing of Sherie L. Vrable, 55, of Washington Township, Fayette County, as a result of an in-school narcotics overdose and ordered that a state arbitrator's decision permitting her to return to a classroom be vacated.

“The award essentially would allow (Vrable) to be placed back into the classroom pending her attempts at recovery,” Judge Bernard L. McGinley wrote in a majority opinion. “Simply put, an elementary classroom is no place for a recovering addict.”

The case has wended through the court system for 11 years, with numerous appeals and reversals. Commonwealth Court heard arguments in the case this year for the third time.

A man who answered the phone at Vrable's residence on Thursday said she was in an accident on Wednesday and asked a reporter to call back another day. A message left for the intermediate unit's attorney was not returned.

Vrable was dismissed after she was found unconscious in a West Newton Elementary School restroom on March 18, 2002. She was working in an emotional-support class as a 23-year education veteran with no previous blemishes on her employment record.

Court records indicate that Vrable had on her back a Fentanyl patch that had not been prescribed for her. West Newton police charged Vrable with possession of a controlled substance and she was sentenced to one year of probation.

The state arbitrator reinstated Vrable to her job and ordered her to complete drug and alcohol treatment classes and undergo periodic drug screening.

In its most recent remand of the case, the state Supreme Court directed Commonwealth Court judges to reconsider, based on a 2012 ruling in a decades-old case involving a Philadelphia Housing Authority worker.

The state high court overturned an arbitrator's award reinstating the Philadelphia employee, who was fired for sexually harassing a co-worker. The Supreme Court ruled that the reinstatement violated “dominant public policy,” according to court records, and in November denied the union's petition for allowance of appeal.

Commonwealth Court said in the Vrable opinion that reinstating “an employee who attended work while under the influence, while charged with the duty of overseeing young children, with the hope that she will overcome her addiction, defies logic and violates public policy.”

“(Vrable's) immediate reinstatement to the classroom while she attempted rehabilitation ‘eviscerated' (the intermediate unit's) ability to enforce this dominant public policy,” the court said.

In a minority opinion, Senior Judge Rochelle S. Friedman wrote that Vrable's single error does not compare to repeated incidents in the Philadelphia case, and conditions imposed by the arbitrator would uphold public policy.

Renatta Signorini is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-837-5374

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