ATHENS TOWNSHIP — A decision handed down in Commonwealth Court last week denied an Athens teacher unemployment compensation after she had been let go following concerns about her contacting two boys from her class via text messages after hours, even after one of the boy’s mothers told her not to and an investigation into claims had started.
The decision upholds previous decisions from the Altoona UC Service Center, and then an unemployment compensation referee on appeal denying former Lynch-Bustin Elementary fifth grade teacher Krista I. Satterly the benefit.
However, according to Superintendent Craig Stage, Satterly has been able to return back to the classroom, where she has been working as a second grade teacher since the beginning of the current school year.
“We were unsuccessful in our arbitration, which required us to bring that person back,” Stage explained about her dismissal. “That person has been in since the start of the year. We’ve set up a lot of procedural supports to maintain the safety of everybody.”
According to court documents, Satterly had applied for unemployment compensation on Aug. 26, 2018. Her dismissal stemmed from an investigation following concerns from a parent and a fellow teacher regarding contact between Satterly and two of her students. As part of the investigation, Lynch-Bustin Principal John Toscano testified that he had obtained text messages that showed Satterly asking the students if she could come over to their homes, if they wanted to see another movie, and also discovered she had sent them music with explicit lyrics.
“(Satterly) failed to provide any reason as to why she repeatedly contacted these two students after hours on a personal level that was outside of a normal student and teacher relationship,” the Hon. P. Kevin Brobson said in the decision, outlining Toscano’s testimony. The court documents additionally noted that she gave those students candy and $10 iTunes gift cards.
Toscano testified that he believe the behavior was inappropriate, and that she “went above and beyond the scope of her job responsibilities, (and) acted inappropriately.”
Satterly, who had worked at the school since 2004, was placed on administrative leave on April 4, 2018. Following a meeting the month after, in which she acknowledged the texting was inappropriate, the district issued her a Notice of Dismissal Charges and Right to Hearing, which charged her with violating the district’s policies.
The unemployment compensation referee said although language in the school district’s policies was broad and didn’t specifically prohibit teachers from texting students, hosting them for lunch in their classroom, or buying them gifts, “the Pennsylvania Courts have consistently held that an employer need not have an established rule where the behavioral standard is obvious and the employee’s conduct is so inimical to the employer’s best interests that discharge is a natural result. If the conduct clearly evinces a breach of duty and obligation which is inimical to the employer’s best interest, such acts on the part of the employee may constitute willful misconduct.”
In her testimony, Satterly disagreed with the claim she sent music with explicit lyrics to the students, saying she had only sent them music that her son liked and thought they would like it too. The two boys were long-time friends with her son and had been to her house before.
She admitted that she did text one of the students asking “if he would be up later tonight,” and gave that student her opinion on another female student, saying she was trying to look out for him like she would her son. With the text asking if she could come over to the student’s house to watch a movie, she testified that she was only joking and that the student had been over to her house to watch movies with her son in the past.
With the other student, Satterly testified that she had initiated the text messages with him and after the boy’s mother confronted her to stop texting her son, she used her own son’s electronic device to communicate with the student.
She also noted that she would host students in her classroom during lunch, with some getting cookies while others have received gifts such as a coat, sweatshirts, or Legos. Although Toscano testified that he had warned staff about contacting students outside of school hours, she said she was unaware of any policy prohibiting giving students gifts, texting students or hosting them in her classroom during lunch. She also testified that she wasn’t trying to form a sexual relationship with either student or groom them.