Teacher defends art assignment in hearing over his dismissal

Robert Duncan, the Boyet Junior High School social studies teacher who was fired in August over a controversial display of student political cartoons, was finally able to present his side of the controversy at a tenure hearing Wednesday.

The display of about 30 cartoons, which was on the school’s walls in January and February, sparked outrage when a student complained to her mother about an image of President Barack Obama with a mark on his temple that could be interpreted as a bullet hole.

Duncan’s hearing, which convened in August, was interrupted by Hurricane Isaac before he was able to take the stand before a three-person review panel. That hearing resumed Wednesday as Duncan’s attorney, Larry Abbott, questioned him about the display, the assignment itself and how the St. Tammany Parish School Board responded when the display drew objections and notoriety.

Duncan, who taught at the school for 12 years, testified that the green circular mark was not on the poster titled “What’s Wrong With This Picture’’ when it was turned in by the student who created it. He also said the mark wasn’t there when he and helpers, including his wife and daughter, put the posters on the walls.

He disputed claims made by school administrators that the student had asked him not to post her work because of what she described as a mistake that she was not able to correct before turning it in. Duncan said Tuesday that he never told his students that he planned to post their work and had no such conversation with the student who created the poster.

He defended the assignment as part of a lesson on interpreting and analyzing political cartoons, saying that actually producing a cartoon was a way for students to demonstrate what they had learned.

But the assignment was assailed by St. Tammany Parish School Board attorney Harry Pastuszek, who hammered at the teacher during a cross-examination that included an often sarcastic review of each of the posters that had been deemed worthy of display.

Pastuszek repeatedly asked if certain images could have been deemed violent or disrespectful — picking up on Duncan’s earlier testimony that he would not have posted work that exhibited such extremes.

Pastuszek asked about a poster titled “Let the Games Begin’’ that contained images of Obama and Mitt Romney jousting. In the cartoon, as quoted by Pastuszek, Romney is saying “I’m going to knock your big ears off’’ and Obama is saying “I’m going to knock your big head off.’’

Pastuszek questioned the violence of that cartoon, as well as one showing Sarah Palin holding an AK-47 on top of an elephant and another about gay marriage that Pastuszek said showed Romney being dragged or run over by a car.

Duncan disagreed that the cartoons were objectionable. The Palin cartoon was about Second Amendment rights, he said, and the Romney image could be interpreted as the candidate trying to hold on to a car, representing gay marriage, that is speeding away.

Pastuszek’s most pointed comments came when he discussed a cartoon showing a smiling Romney in Elmer Fudd gear, accompanied by Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, that features a poster pinned to a tree that says “Obama Season.’’

How would a seventh-grade African-American student feel about seeing an image of “the first black president being put on a tree like hunting season,’’ Pastuszek asked. “Don’t you think as a teacher you should prevent that?”

Much of the hearing dealt with the 20 charges leveled against Duncan by the school system, including that he was incompetent in grading the assignment, as shown by the high number of perfect marks. Duncan testified that of the 141 posters that were turned in, 66 earned a perfect score. He said he based his grades on whether students included everything required and performed up to their abilities.

“Would you agree or disagree that your assignment lacked rigor,’’ Pastuszek asked.

Duncan strongly disagreed, saying that Pastuszek would know how rigorous the lesson plan was “if you had sat though my class.’’

“I’ll pass the opportunity,’’ Pastuszek said.

Abbott’s questioning dwelled heavily on how Duncan’s case was handled by his superiors and the lack of any written charges against him in two earlier hearings. Abbott also insisted the record reflect offers made to his client that included punishment short of firing, saying that they were important to his client’s legal case, which he said would likely end up in state court.

Attorney Bob Hammonds, who moderated the hearing, said such information about settlement offers could have a chilling effect on future cases when a superintendent tries to work out disciplinary measures. Ultimately, the three panel members left the room while Abbott described several offers made to his client, including resigning and taking sick leave or resigning and having the school district work out a deal to count his five years of teaching in Mississippi toward his retirement.

The panel, which was made up of Slidell High School Principal Billy Percy, Supervisor of Secondary Instruction Regina Sanford and former Boyet teacher Karen Payne, will make a recommendation to Superintendent Trey Folse on whether the firing should be overturned or upheld. Folse said that a decision would not be made Wednesday.