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Franklin Regional wants firing of music instructor Wonderling to be upheld

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By Daveen Rae Kurutz
Wednesday, July 9, 2014, 10:57 p.m.

A Franklin Regional elementary music teacher fired amid allegations that he threatened to spank students with a “slapstick” percussion instrument could return to the classroom in the fall.

A state-appointed arbitrator ruled last month that the district should not have fired Philip Wonderling, a music teacher at three elementary schools, and awarded Wonderling back pay and reimbursement of medical costs. A dollar amount of the award was not available.

Although Murrysville police did not charge Wonderling with a crime, and a Westmoreland County Children and Youth Services investigation found the allegations were unfounded, district solicitor Jack Cambest has asked a Common Pleas Court judge to uphold the firing.

“Wonderling's conduct amounts to sexual harassment,” Cambest wrote in a July 1 petition to reverse the arbitration ruling.

Wonderling did not respond to messages left at his home. He was fired in November from his position, which paid $69,000 in 2011-12. The district suspended him with pay to begin investigating in March 2013 and continued the suspension without pay two months later.

The district interviewed seven girls, who claimed “inappropriate contact” occurred in Wonderling's classes, Cambest wrote in the appeal.

During arbitration hearings, Cambest wrote, Wonderling “admits to poking (students) in the ribs, poking them in the arm, tapping their heads with a clipboard, performing a snakebite on them, and striking them on the head with a flute. Wonderling admitted that he told students in class that they were going to be spanked with a slapstick, a percussion instrument … that mimics the cracks of a whip.”

Randall Rodkey, a Johnstown attorney representing the Franklin Regional teachers union, said he is confident that arbitrator Bernard Fabian made the right call.

“He did not engage in any inappropriate touching,” Rodkey said. “Witnesses on behalf of Mr. Wonderling in the teaching profession said, while it's not encouraged that teachers touch students, there are appropriate ways to keep them on task, so to speak.”

Cambest said Wonderling violated district policy by touching female students on the knee and thigh.

The arbitrator noted that Wonderling said he touches students as a result of training to help refocus his son, who has autism, on tasks.

“Although I do not encourage the touching Wonderling admits to, I do not feel it is inappropriate,” Fabian wrote in his ruling. “I would advise him to discontinue the ‘snakebite' and slapstick references.”

According to court documents, Wonderling told the arbitrator that he would touch students to make them “feel more at ease and at home.” He said he now knows that poking students in the ribs and arms was in poor judgment.

Elizabeth Gershoff, associate professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, said the allegations of touching appear to be “very inappropriate.” Corporal punishment is illegal in 31 states, including Pennsylvania.

“Teachers are allowed to touch students in some ways — a pat on the back or a touch on an arm,” Gershoff said. “Like with any human interactions, some touches are appropriate, and some are not.”

Kim Anderson's two daughters took band classes from Wonderling at Sloan Elementary School. “Based on our experience, he never conducted himself in any way we thought was inappropriate,” she said, adding she called the district to express her support of Wonderling.

Daveen Rae Kurutz is a Trib Total Media staff writer.

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