Arbritrator supports teacher suspension, others question it

by Jim Boyle
Editor
An arbitrator for the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services has upheld the Elk River Area School District’s decision to suspend a Zimmerman Middle School teacher during the 2009–10 school year.

Todd Jesperson, a seventh-grade science teacher at Zimmerman Middle School, was put on a five-day suspension in November of 2009 after the district investigated accusations that he stared at students’ breasts, inappropriately touched a female student’s buttocks and embarrassed a male student about his weight.

Jesperson grieved the action, but the arbitrator for BMS, Rolland C. Toenges, denied the grievance for just cause in a Jan. 3 decision.

The arbitrator ruled that Jesperson’s behavior, at best, was unbecoming of a professional teacher and, at worst, was sexually motivated. The arbitrator also said Jesperson’s testimony was changing and contradictory.

“The safety and security of all of our students is and always will be foremost priority,” said Rod Barnes, the director of labor relations and personnel services. “We take all complaints seriously and we will thoroughly investigate complaints and take appropriate action.”

More than a year has passed since the suspension, but it was only just a few weeks ago that the news of Jesperson’s punishment was made public.

Jim and Desiree Stepan, who have been following the case since the fall of 2009, have lobbied for Jesperson to be dismissed. They reacted with shock when they found out the five-day suspension was going to be the hallmark of his discipline.

“Five days, are you kidding me?,” Jim Stepan said. “If I would have done what he did to a kid (as a soccer coach) I would have been done. That’s the problem I have with this.”

Jesperson has been disciplined twice by the school district. In Jesperson’s most recent case, the district learned of complaints in September and October of 2009.

Jesperson was accused of placing a candy bar in a student’s sweatshirt front pocket instead of her extended hand. He later acknowledged that “I may have put my hand in her pocket, but I tried not to.”

The candy bar was supposed to be a reward for the student’s actions, Jesperson had said.

“The thing we can’t prove is, what was the intent?” Barnes said.

Jesperson also acknowledged that he may have inadvertently touched the girl’s buttocks, the report said. “It’s possible that I bumped her bottom when I removed my hand,” he said.

In October 2009, students alleged that Jesperson, on three occasions, stared at their breasts or looked down their shirts. That month, he also was accused of implying that a male student was overweight in front of the class.

“We investigated these complaints and took swift and appropriate action.” Barnes said.

The district issued an unpaid suspension and directives, which Barnes called specific in nature and reasonably calculated to correct the problem and prevent its reoccurrence.

Included in the directives was a warning that if Jesperson engaged in the same or similar conduct in the future, the district would initiate action to discharge him immediately. The teacher was also directed to refrain from any retaliation.

The arbitrator supported the district’s actions.

Jim Stepan says his kids are older now, so they won’t have Jesperson for a teacher anymore. He urges parents of children who do have him as a teacher not to brush off any concerns their kids might bring home.

The incidents in 2009 were not first time the district had to deal with alleged indiscretions on the part of Jesperson.

He allegedly stared at students’ breasts in class and at a parent-teacher conference, leading to complaints between 1999 and 2004. After denying the allegations, Jesperson received a directive from the Elk River School District in 2004.

Jesperson has been a middle-school science teacher for 11 years and a longtime girls’ tennis coach.

The Star News attempted to reach Jesperson at school, but he did not return the call.

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