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Substitute teacher gets his job back pronto after suspension for bin Laden writing

Saturday, September 22, 2001

By Carmen J. Lee, Post-Gazette Education Writer

City school officials have reinstated a substitute teacher who was suspended Thursday because of a quote he wrote in a newspaper margin about Osama bin Laden.

District spokeswoman Pat Crawford said that after school officials met with John Gardner yesterday, his "writings were found to be benign" and "there was a misunderstanding."

Gardner, 51, of Stanton Heights, who had been in danger of losing his job, will now be paid for Thursday. His name will be placed back on the substitute list so that he can be called in when needed.

Because the call-up list is automated, the incident will not affect how often Gardner is called in, Crawford said.

But she added that given the country's feelings toward bin Laden, the Islamic extremist who is a prime suspect in last week's terrorist attacks, it was understandable that staff members at Rooney Middle School were worried about Gardner's notes.

She also said he should not have been working on a personal project on school time and, had he been focused on his teaching work, "this wouldn't have happened."

Gardner said Thursday that he had been taking notes on comments from newscasts for a book he's writing on making the best of bad situations, called "On the Wings of Adversity."

He said he had written several comments on the margins of a newspaper page, including: "Osama bin Laden did us a favor. He vulcanized us, awakened us and strengthened our resolve."

Gardner said he transferred those remarks and others from the newspaper to a notebook before class Thursday and then threw the newspaper away while another teacher was in the room.

Soon after his class started, he was escorted off campus by four school police officers and given a letter from school officials saying he had been released as a city district substitute until further notice. A report of the incident said Gardner had only written: "Osama bin Laden did us a favor!"

Witold Walczak, head of the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, who talked with school officials on Gardner's behalf, said he doesn't believe Gardner did anything wrong Thursday and that the issue involved his free speech rights.

"Any way you slice it or dice it, what school officials did here was because they didn't like what he wrote," Walczak said.

He added that while school officials were justified in investigating the situation because of their concerns, the misunderstanding would have been avoided had they talked with Gardner on Thursday rather than waiting until yesterday.

Gardner also said he wished school officials had talked with him sooner, and he remains concerned about how the incident will affect his reputation in the district.

"I'm glad it was resolved," he said, "but if we have to be afraid to express our opinions, Osama bin Laden would have had a victory."

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