Education

Citing texting policy, school district fires teacher; he says it’s because he’s gay

The Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District moved this week toward firing a teacher who it alleges violated its policy when he sent text messages to a student.

However, Josh Hamilton, who taught at Grapevine High School and coached its competitive speech team, said he was certain that his firing was connected to a reference to his sexual orientation that he made in early September to a group of seven students.

Hamilton’s remark that he is gay came as students were preparing for an oral interpretation tournament his school was to host. The juniors seemed distracted and he was trying to motivate them.

“Guys, I get it. We all have something going on,” Hamilton recalled saying as he urged the students to temporarily set aside personal matters and focus on the approaching tournament.

Hamilton reminded the students that they had seen him move beyond mental health struggles and emerge happily as a gay man.

The next day, district human resources employees questioned him on what elements of his personal life he had shared with students, he said. Hamilton’s supervisor asked to review his cellphone and, believing he had “nothing to hide,” he allowed it.

The district placed Hamilton on paid administrative leave and later told him that it planned to fire him.

School officials said many of Hamilton’s claims are incorrect and they plan to address them at his termination hearing.

“To be clear, Mr. Hamilton’s sexual orientation has absolutely nothing to do with the reason Mr. Hamilton has been proposed for termination,” Kristin Snively, a spokeswoman for the school district, said in a statement. “Mr. Hamilton has been proposed for termination for good cause due to violations of the District’s electronic communications policy, violations of student privacy, failure to follow written directives, and violations of the Texas Educator’s Code of Ethics.

“In GCISD, we hold all employees to high standards for their interactions with our most important people, our students. His conduct is not acceptable for an educator in GCISD.”

Board meeting and vote

The district’s Board of Trustees voted 7-0 Monday to authorize Superintendent Robin Ryan to give Hamilton notice of a proposal to terminate for good cause his contract with the district.

Hamilton, who is 32 and had been in his third year as an Grapevine-Colleyville district employee, said he would appeal to the Texas Education Agency and request a due process hearing. The education commissioner could appoint a hearing officer who would consider the case.

On Monday, Hamilton asked the board to consider the district’s allegations in his case in public, rather than in a closed executive session.

Before the board voted on the authorization, Gema Padgett, the district’s executive director of human resources, described why the district had sought the board’s approval to begin the process of firing Hamilton, according to video of the meeting.

The content of Hamilton’s text messages with a student violated the district’s electronic communication policy, Padgett alleged.

Hamilton had breached boundaries of educator-student relations and referred in messages to a student to his marriage, dating relationships and other personal matters, Padgett said.

Hamilton violated educator ethics standards by “developing inappropriate relationships with students, providing inappropriate information to the students concerning his personal life through text messages, treating students as family members or close friends and providing inappropriate personal information to the students and developing inappropriate relationships or boundaries with the students,” Padgett told the trustees.

Hamilton also offered during the period he was on administrative leave to coach a student after school, the district alleged.

Teacher says he texted student to babysit

Hamilton said the student to whom he sent text messages is a senior he hired to babysit his child, sometimes while he was on a date. The dating references were relevant to making child care arrangements, he said.

His students’ familiarity with elements of his personal life was rooted in travel to speech tournaments, during which they met the teacher’s son, Hamilton said.

“If we’re going to fire a teacher for texting a kid, we’re going to fire a lot of teachers in Texas,” Hamilton said.

The district’s firing decision amounts to an assessment that Hamilton is a danger to children, the teacher said, a conclusion that is absurd, Hamilton suggested. The district’s handling of his case must be dispiriting for its gay students, he said.

The Grapevine-Colleyville matter recalls the case of a gay Mansfield teacher who has said she was subject to “a barrage of adverse employment actions and professional harms” simply for being in a gay marriage that she refuses to hide.

In a federal lawsuit filing, Stacy Bailey suggested she was subjected to scrutiny daily for her gay marriage. It describes an work atmosphere characterized by “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” when it comes to gay employees in Mansfield schools.

The Mansfield art teacher was placed on paid administrative leave for about eight months after a parent complained that she was pushing a gay lifestyle to elementary-level children.

Bailey’s lawsuit states she was singled out after using a common technique among teachers when they are getting to know their students. On the first day of school, Bailey showed students pictures of her parents, her fiancee and best friends. Instead of building school community, her personal story created controversy because her fiancee was a woman.

Staff writer Anna M. Tinsley contributed to this report.
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Emerson Clarridge covers crime and other breaking news for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He works evenings and reports on law enforcement affairs in Tarrant County. He previously was a reporter at the Omaha World-Herald and the Observer-Dispatch in Utica, New York.
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