Hearing examiner recommends reinstatement of Arlington teacher

ARLINGTON -- A 63-year-old Arlington math teacher who faced termination after she made an ethnically insensitive comment to a student should be allowed to return to teaching, though not at the same school, an independent hearing examiner has recommended.

In a 23-page opinion issued late Wednesday, examiner Jess Rickman III said the district failed to provide sufficient grounds to terminate Shirley Bunn, who had taught at Barnett Junior High School since 1999. Bunn has been on paid leave since Sept. 30, the day of the incident.

Bunn told a student to "go back to Mexico" after he repeatedly interrupted class by saying "I'm Mexican," indicating that he wanted a Spanish-language version of a form being distributed to students in the classroom, according to the opinion.

The school board could reject the recommendation. The United Educators Association, which is providing most of Bunn's legal defense, said a rejection is unlikely because of the difficulty of challenging an independent examiner's findings.

If the board does vote to reject, the union attorneys said, they would appeal to the state education commissioner.

District spokeswoman Amy Casas declined to comment on the case but said it will be presented to the school board.

Differing accounts

Rickman, who conducted a two-day hearing in Arlington last month, noted Bunn's "superlative" performance appraisals and said her conduct and remarks "do not rise to [a] level of good cause" to terminate her.

He said that accounts of the Sept. 30 incident vary but that the student requesting the Spanish form "apparently was trying to attract attention by standing up in class and saying several times, 'I'm Mexican,' to which Bunn is alleged to have responded something to the effect that 'I thought you were American?' He then repeated 'I'm Mexican,' to which she responded, '[then] go back to Mexico.'"

In an interview Thursday, Bunn said she was "thrilled and relieved" by the examiner's opinion. She also said she regretted her remark the moment she made it.

"It was almost instantaneous. I thought, 'God, I don't believe that came out of my mouth,'" she said. "It was a very, very hard week, the end of six weeks. It was late in the day. It was a Friday. We were on the third day of the first curriculum assessment and I knew it wasn't going well. It was just an extremely bad day."

She also said she has mixed feelings about the recommendation "because I really, really want to go back to Barnett and help the kids."

Rickman wrote that Bunn's return to Barnett "would not be productive in light of her principal's feelings and suspicions toward her."

Principal Dion Varnado could not be reached for comment Thursday.

'An utterance'

Although Bunn's comments resulted in administrative leave, Rickman also noted that a counselor alleged that Bunn made other insensitive remarks to her about disruptive students, including a reference to several Hispanic students as "the Mexican Mafia."

Rickman recommended remediation, or sensitivity training, rather than termination.

Teachers union Executive Director Larry Shaw, who said staff attorneys had asked the district for remediation several times during the inquiry, said he will likely ask the district to reinstate her at Barnett. But he said that overall he is pleased with the examiner's opinion.

"I think it's wonderful for the teachers of Texas," said Shaw, whose organization represents about 3,000 Arlington district teachers. "What it says is that it takes more than an utterance to ruin a teacher's career."

In his recommendation, Rickman said Bunn is "actively engaged in and committed to the success of Barnett Junior High and its students." She has tutored after school and on weekends for years for free, and she created and supervised a program that sends some math students to Bowie High School for advanced classes, Rickman said.

She also volunteers for the Aztlan Academy of Ethnic Heritage, an organization dedicated to Mexican folk art.

Robert Cadwallader, 817-390-7641