Fired Lower Merion teacher files civil rights claim against school district

Jon Campisi Dec. 21, 2011, 10:27am

A former suburban Philadelphia physics teacher, who was fired from his position in 2010 after 13 years on the job following what he said were false allegations made by a former student of sexual abuse, has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Lower Merion School District and various school officials.

Penndel, Pa. attorneys Timothy M. Kolman and Wayne A. Ely filed the civil action Dec. 19 at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on behalf of Robert Schanne of Glen Mills, Pa.

In his complaint, Schanne, who began working for the school district in September 1997, alleges that his employment was “involuntarily terminated” late last year.

The ouster became official when he was officially terminated during a board of school directors public meeting in late January.

The firing was related to what Schanne claims were the “false and unsubstantiated allegations of sexual impropriety” made by a woman who was a student of Schanne’s eight years prior.

In early January, the defendants, who include the district’s superintendent, human resources director and elected school board members, sent out a communication to district parents informing them of the allegations against Schanne made by his former student, stating that Schanne’s “relationship” with the former student was “absolutely unacceptable and inappropriate,” according to the complaint.

The lawsuit claims that the school district fired Schanne without ever having heard his side of the story with regard to what he terms the false allegations of sexual abuse against him.

The complaint goes further, accusing the district of rushing to judgment in Schanne’s case in light of the national media attention on the district for the so-called webcam spying case, in which high-schoolers claimed they had images taken of themselves by cameras installed in laptop computers that the district gave to students for take-home use.

That case prompted various lawsuits, and put the national spotlight on the Lower Merion School District, one of the wealthiest suburban educational institutions in both the state and the country.

The webcams have since been turned off as per court order.

Schanne’s lawsuit claims that the school district’s Jan. 4 letter to parents informing them of the allegations against the teacher, in addition to Schanne’s subsequent firing, were “nothing more than a public relations fig effort to reassure parents of Lower Merion students, (at Plaintiff’s expense), that the Defendant District was committed to ‘doing everything it could to ensure the safety and well-being of students,’ and to create a positive public image to help rectify the damage created by the Defendant District’s unlawful video monitoring program.”

“Given their belief that they needed a ‘sacrificial lamb’ to rectify the public relations disaster created by their covert monitoring of children in private areas, Plaintiff’s guilt or innocence were simply irrelevant to Defendants, and they made a conscious decision to deny him his constitutional rights in their zeal to demonstrate how swiftly and harshly they dealt with teachers accused of improper conduct with students, (even those, like Plaintiff, who had not committed such conduct),” the lawsuit states.

The complaint alleges that Schanne has sustained damage to his liberty and property interests and reputation, and has been deprived of his public employment and his ability to earn a living as a result of the district’s actions.

The lawsuit contains three counts of civil rights violations.

Schanne seeks front and back pay, actual damages, damages for pain and suffering, unspecified punitive damages, litigation costs and other legal and equitable relief.

A jury trial has been demanded.

The federal case number is 2:11-cv-07707-AB.

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