Riverhead School District

Judge denies Joe Johnson’s teacher reinstatement request

A state Supreme Court judge has denied fired teacher Joe Johnson’s request to be reinstated to his old post, ruling in favor of the Riverhead School District’s decision to terminate his employment after he was arrested on weapons and drunken driving charges, according to an online copy of the decision.

Judge Joseph Pastoressa ruled May 5 that Mr. Johnson’s termination was “rational,” even though felony gun charges against him were dropped in January 2014 after it was determined police discovered the weapon during an improper police search.

The tenured teacher, who previously taught fourth grade at Phillips Avenue Elementary School in Riverside, has claimed he wasn’t aware the weapon was in his vehicle and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor driving while intoxicated charge.

He was put on three years probation.

Mr. Johnson had faced multiple gun charges after his April 21, 2012 by Southampton Village police.

“The court’s review of [the district’s] determination is limited to whether it was arbitrary, capricious, irrational or lacked sufficient evidentiary support or violated due process,” the recent court ruling states. “Barring that, the court, even if it disagreed with the [district hearing officer’s] conclusions, cannot by law vacate them and substitute its own judgement.”

Phillips Avenue Elementary School principal Debra Rodgers testified she had “grave reservations” about allowing Mr. Johnson to return to the classroom, according to the ruling.

“I don’t see him as the role model that he used to be,” she said. “You know, in the past we have typically placed in Joe’s class those [boys that typically] needed a positive role model that was going to be supportive and assist them in making good decisions.”

Superintendent Nancy Carney also testified she believes Mr. Johnson’s conduct “negates” his ability to be a positive role model and said that if the DWI charge was the only allegation made against Mr. Johnson, then disciplinary proceedings would not have taken place, according to the ruling.

“She testified that there have been other instances where district employees were arrested and charged with DWI alone and those employees were not discharged,” the ruling states. “The difference here [is Mr. Johnson’s] gun possession charge.”

Mr. Johnson has a separate lawsuit pending in federal court against the district.

The suit argues that Mr. Johnson, who is black, was singled out for punishment after pleading guilty to a drunken driving charge, while comparing his treatment to that of former assistant superintendent Joe Ogeka, who is white. The lawsuit states Mr. Ogeka dodged punishment for “multiple DWI convictions” and a “horrific error” that resulted in a student committing suicide while on a school trip in 2000.

Mr. Johnson could not be reached for comment.

His attorney, Harriet Gilliam of Riverhead, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment for this story.

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