A teacher who used a school-issued laptop computer to view pornography did not commit acts sufficient to justify his termination, according to an Ohio appeals court which upheld a trial court’s reversal of the Strasburg-Franklin Board of Education’s termination of a fifth grade teacher.

Michael Winland, a twelve-year teacher at Strasburg Elementary School was issued a laptop computer for use in his classroom during the school year.  He then requested permission to use the laptop over the summer, signing a form that acknowledged that the computer would be used exclusively for school-related purposes. When Winland returned the laptop, one month after the due date for its return, the IT department found 84 graphic sexual images that had been downloaded to the computer.

After a hearing before an independent hearing officer, the hearing officer found that Winland had violated school rules and recommended a 90 day suspension. The board of education adopted the hearing officer’s factual findings, but voted to terminate Winland. After an appeal by the teacher, a trial court reversed the decision of the board of education and reinstated him to his former position with full back pay and benefits.

The trial court held that the teacher’s “conduct in viewing sexually explicit images via a school-issued computer was private conduct in which Winland engaged, not school property, that did not impact his professional duties or his students….” Not surprisingly, the board of education appealed the trial court’s reversal.

In upholding the trial court’s decision, the appeals court ruled that the trial court had considered the appropriate standard of review in finding that the teacher’s actions were a private act that had no impact on his professional duties as a teacher and were not hostile to the school community. The appeals court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it concluded that the weight of the evidence did not support the Board’s decision that the teacher’s actions constituted a “fairly serious matter.” Yet another example of how difficult it can be to terminate a teacher for misconduct.