TPS gym teacher faces termination under tougher district standards

Union calls more aggressive policies under Superintendent Durant unfair

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    A Toledo Public Schools gym teacher who has faced a string of allegations — including that he used inappropriate physical discipline on students — is suspended and may be fired.


    Steven R. Dickinson, 47, of Perrysburg, a physical education teacher at Harvard Elementary, was suspended with pay effective Nov. 27, and district administration has recommended to the Toledo Board of Education that he be fired. Mr. Dickinson has faced repeated allegations of improper conduct during his TPS career. He has been investigated by Lucas County Children Services twice, was previously suspended for forcing students to pay to use a school gym, and has been in trouble both in and out of school.

    “Mr. Dickinson has engaged in a pattern of abusive behaviors and violations of a multitude of policies and procedures,” the district alleged, according to TPS records.

    He could not be reached for comment after attempts were made to contact him at his residence.

    The district’s action to discipline Mr. Dickinson is the latest example of what district and union officials say is a new aggressive take on employee accountability under Superintendent Romules Durant. Whether that approach is the district prioritizing the well-being of students or following a haphazard and inequitable discipline policy is a point of contention between administrators and the teachers’ union.

    The most recent charge against Mr. Dickinson is probably less serious than past complaints, many of which were ruled unsubstantiated. On Oct. 21, he was accused of hitting a student with a ball and calling him a “dummy” after the sixth grader had thrown the ball at the teacher.

    But the list of complaints filed against him is long.

    ■ In 1998, Mr. Dickinson was accused of using excessive force while disciplining a student while at Leverette Middle School. The principal dropped the charge and handled the matter internally.

    ■ In 2000, he was again accused of using excessive force to discipline a student. This time, Mr. Dickinson signed an agreement in which he promised not to use force in a disciplinary action.

    ■ In 2002, Mr. Dickinson was suspended for charging students to use the Waite High School gym during their lunch period. Mr. Dickinson charged students $2 a day to use the gym; he took $170 from one student. TPS records say he told students the money was for his children’s college fund, though he later claimed he intended to give the money back. Teachers testified that he intimidated them to not testify against him.

    ■ In 2007, Mr. Dickinson was charged with trespassing and resisting arrest in Peoria County, Illinois. Court records show the case was dismissed about a year later. He also was convicted in 1989 and 1996 of disorderly conduct. Mr. Dickinson signed a deal with the Ohio Department of Education that required, among other things, he take anger-management classes.

    ■ In 2008, Children Services investigated a child-abuse complaint against Mr. Dickinson while he was at Leverette that accused him of throwing a student in a garbage can. The agency ruled the charge unsubstantiated because the student had no injuries, and there were no witnesses. But the agency chastised him for complaints that said he called the student names in front of other students.

    ■ Last year, Children Services investigated a sexual-abuse allegation against Mr. Dickinson while he was at Harvard. His testimony, according to TPS records, indicates the charge involved him taking photos of girls. He said “nothing was correct” about the charge. The agency again ruled the accusation unsubstantiated.

    Mr. Dickinson also was, according to TPS records, suspended from a coaching position with a nondistrict hockey league. He claimed he had been attacked on the bench and had defended himself.

    Mr. Dickinson has worked for TPS in multiple roles since 1993. His employee file contains other references to concerns about his behavior, including a report while he was a substitute teacher in 1996 that claimed he threw “large rubber balls at students,” causing bruises. Mr. Dickinson said the claim was untrue, saying that students were playing a game where they threw balls at each other, and he participated briefly to show how the game worked.

    Mr. Durant said he could not say why the district had not moved to terminate Mr. Dickinson before but that his administration is “student-centered.”

    “It should come as no surprise that we are holding people accountable,” Mr. Durant said.

    He said his administration has been more aggressive in disciplining staff, especially when allegations involve improper actions toward students. And there has been a string of employees who have been suspended for lengthy periods or who have been recommended for termination by administrators.

    Toledo Federation of Teachers President Kevin Dalton said the district has been more aggressive in recent months. While the union defends teachers during disciplinary proceedings to ensure due process is followed, union leaders acknowledge that sometimes employees need to be removed from the classroom.

    But Mr. Dalton said that often charges against teachers end up as unfounded and that supervisors are not held to the same standard as teachers.

    “It seems to be a more aggressive approach by the district’s current administration toward reprimanding teachers,” Mr. Dalton said. “It is unfortunate that that approach does not have equity among all employees.”

    Among the more high-profile cases has been Ronald Spitulski, supervisor for South Toledo pupil personnel, who was placed on paid suspension Oct. 17, with a recommendation he be fired. District records show Mr. Spitulski is accused of using inappropriate language during a student-suspension appeal, acting unprofessionally toward parents, failing to maintain accurate hearing records, and misplacing or not keeping audio recordings of hearings, as required by state law.

    He had requested a hearing before a referee to consider his case, though the board will make the ultimate decision.

    Not all recent termination attempts have begun under Mr. Durant.

    Former Superintendent Jerome Pecko was in charge when the board fired Principal Sandra Meeks-Speller in June. Administrators accused her of using inappropriate physical discipline with students, making threats, and using racially tinged language.

    When TPS administrators recommended that she be fired, Ms. Meeks-Speller sought a hearing before the board. The board apparently interpreted it as as a request for a hearing before a referee.

    The referee recommended Ms. Meeks-Speller not be terminated, but the board voted on June 25 to fire her anyway. The board was critical of the referee’s report, saying that the report missed important information and drew false conclusions.

    Ms. Meeks-Speller appealed her termination in Lucas County Common Pleas Court and sued the district, claiming among other things malicious breach of contract, defamation, and emotional stress and mental pain. She asked a judge to award her $3 million.

    A judge dismissed much of her complaint, and on Thursday upheld her termination. Parts of her lawsuit are still pending in the court, including the defamation claim, attorney Dennis Grant said, and she plans to appeal the rulings when the case is concluded.

    “It was unexpected,” Mr. Grant said, “and we do intend to appeal it when the time is appropriate.”

    Mr. Durant declined to comment on the case, citing the ongoing litigation.

    Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at: or 419-724-6086, or on Twitter @NolanRosenkrans.