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Thursday, August 22, 2019

Fifth District affirms LeChien; Welch: Special education teacher’s dismissal was ‘harsh’ but not reversible

By Heather Isringhausen Gvillo | May 10, 2017

The Fifth District appellate court affirmed St. Clair County Circuit Judge Robert LeChien’s decision denying a special education teacher’s petition for administrative review of his dismissal from the Cahokia school district after he forged a signature on a legal document.

Justice Thomas Welch delivered the Rule 23 decision on May 5. Justices Randy Moore and Melissa Chapman concurred.

The appellate court affirmed Shannon Horn’s dismissal by the Board of Education of the Cahokia School District No. 187, but found it "disproportionately harsh." 

“While this court may not agree with the Board’s decision to terminate Horn, particularly as his conduct did not impact the District’s ability to provide services or cause educational harm to the student, our supreme court has made it clear that reversal is only appropriate where the Board’s decision to terminate was arbitrary, unreasonable, or unrelated to the requirements of service,” Welch wrote.

Horn was a tenured special education teacher with the Cahokia Unit School District No. 187. He had been working for the district for 12 years as an educator prior to his termination.

As part of his job, it was his duty to participate and prepare his special education students’ individual education plans (IEP), which are required for special needs students to receive special education services.

IEPs must be annually reviewed and renewed by the district, which begins with the special education teacher submitting a draft plan for review to the local education authority (LEA).

The LEA is generally a teacher and is authorized to commit the district to the plan.

On Dec. 16, 2013, Horn forged the signature of the District’s LEA designee on a student’s IEP, which constitutes an enforcement of a legal document binding the school district to provide the services outlined in the plan. The district’s LEA designee at the time was Michele Quirin.

On April 14, 2014, the president of the Board of Education for the school district approved eight charges against Horn and sought his dismissal for his alleged "irremediable" conduct. 

The charges state that Horn falsified documents by forging the signature, negligently submitted an education plan with a forged signature, failed to timely complete the plan and thus failed to obtain the proper signature, failed to prepare a proper education plan and exposed the school district to sanctions for failure to comply with state law and regulations.

The board determined that Horn is not qualified to teach and that his dismissal “is in the best interests of the school.”

Horn requested a hearing, which was held July 21, 2014, before hearing officer Brian Clauss.

During the hearing, testimony revealed that Horn was evaluated in 2007-08 and placed on an awareness phase for issues relating to deficient completion of his IEPs, which is the first of three phases in disciplinary action.

Horn successfully completed his awareness phase, but was again placed on an awareness phase for the same issue in 2011-12.

Teachers are evaluated every two years.

At the time of the incident leading to his termination, Horn had not yet received his evaluation for the 2013-14 school year.

According to the hearing, an annual review meeting was scheduled in October 2013 for special education student C.M.

All of the required parties agreed to the substance of the student’s IEP for the upcoming year.

Due to excessive paperwork, Quirin allegedly failed to sign the IEP. Horn was expected to complete and turn in C.M.’s final IEP after the meeting.

On Nov. 15, 2013, Victoria Breckel, assistant director of special education, informed Horn that there were still corrections that he needed to make to the IEPs that he had turned in and that she wanted to meet on Dec. 3, 2013, to review the corrections.

Breckel, Quirin and Horn met to finalize the IEPs. No changes were made to C.M.’s IEP after that meeting.

On Dec. 16, Horn went to make copies of his final IEPs and noticed that C.M.’s IEP had not been signed by Quirin.

He testified at the hearing that he attempted to contact Quirin but could not reach her. He decided to sign her name and have her initial it after winter break.

He added that he forged the signature because he was already late in turning in his IEPs and wanted to avoid any issues with his upcoming evaluation.

Quirin testified that she discovered the forged signature on Feb. 4, 2014, at a conference for C.M.’s triennial evaluation of special education services because her name had been misspelled.

She claimed Horn failed to contact her about the unsigned IEP.

She agreed that the IEP was not signed due to an oversight, the student’s services were not affected due to the incident and the district did not suffer harm.

Breckel testified that while the signature went undiscovered, the IEP was legally unenforceable, and while the forged signature was on the document, the district was out of compliance with state and federal regulations.

District superintendent Arthur Ryan recommended Horn be terminated. He testified that Horn’s actions constituted fraud and showed a moral indifference to what a “good and respectable” teacher is expected to do.

“Specifically, Ryan stated that the special education department lost confidence and trust in Horn, and a violation of trust affects the entire operation because it forces the creation of ‘special circumstances’ to track employees that cannot be trusted to operate independently,” the ruling states.

Leslie Harder, president of the teacher’s union, testified that while it was a mistake for Horn to forge the signature, she believed Horn did not act maliciously or for personal gain. She thought he should have been given an opportunity to correct his actions before termination.

Clauss concluded that the board failed to meet the burden of proof to establish that Horn was removed for cause. He recommended that Horn be allowed to return to work.

He found that nothing showed that a warning would not have corrected the conduct and that the district could not prove Horn intended to defraud.

“Clauss opined that, even if the District proved that Horn’s sole motivating factor for forging Quirin’s signature was to avoid discipline for a late IEP, ‘it is insufficient proof of an ‘intent to defraud,’’” Welch wrote.

The board considered Clauss’ statements but still dismissed Horn on Nov. 10, 2014, concluding that Horn’s conduct caused damage to the operation of the school and a warning would not have prevented the alleged harm.

Horn filed a petition for administrative review. The circuit court affirmed the board’s decision on Sept. 9, 2015.

Horn appealed.

The appellate court affirmed the decision.

St. Clair County Circuit Court case number 14-MR-468

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Illinois Fifth District Appellate Court St. Clair County Circuit Court