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Sub teacher fired over bin Laden note

He says newspaper jotting was taken out of context

Friday, September 21, 2001

By Carmen J. Lee, Post-Gazette Education Writer

Like many aspiring writers, John Gardner scribbles notes for the book he envisions on whatever paper is available.

But that practice has threatened his substitute teaching job with the Pittsburgh Public Schools because of a sentence he wrote on a portion of newspaper about Osama bin Laden.

Gardner, 51, of Stanton Heights, says the comments he took down from a television newscast he heard were: "Osama bin Laden did us a favor. He vulcanized us, awakened us and strengthened our resolve."

Those remarks and others about last week's terrorist attacks Gardner says he wrote in the margins of a newspaper page for a book he is working on. It's about making the best of horrible situations and he's calling it "On the Wings of Adversity."

But Gardner's notes have created a bit of adversity for him.

Based on an account from a teacher at Rooney Middle School and a photocopy of a portion of the newspaper, district spokeswoman Pat Crawford said what school officials have is a report that Gardner wrote: "Osama bin Laden did us a favor!"

Because of the report, four school police officers escorted Gardner yesterday from Rooney's gymnasium, where he was subbing for the gym teacher, and he was sent home.

He also was given a formal letter from the district's director of employee relations, Jody Spolar, that said he was "released from your assignment as a day-to-day substitute teacher with the Pittsburgh Public Schools until further notice." The letter also prohibited Gardner from going onto school district property or attending district events.

Crawford said school officials will meet with him today to give him the opportunity to tell his side of the story.

"Those words are loaded," Crawford said. "It wasn't good judgment to leave that around where other teachers and students could see it."

But Gardner said school officials appear to have only a portion of the newspaper which contained the comments he copied down from newscasts.

He said before his class yesterday morning, he transferred those notes from the newspaper to a notebook and then threw the newspaper away in a trash can. Another teacher was in the room erasing a blackboard while he was writing, he said.

Gardner is concerned that he wasn't given the chance yesterday to explain the situation and to show school officials the newspaper and his notebook.

"If they wanted the whole story, you'd think they'd want the whole newspaper," he said.

Other comments Gardner said he wrote on the newspaper from news commentators, President Bush and others included, "We're going to be stronger because of it" and "There's nothing like a great disaster to learn how generous the American people can be."

Gardner also produced numerous pages of sayings and tips on how to respond to negative situations that he's collected as part of his research for his book.

Witold Walczak, head of the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, has been talking to school officials on Gardner's behalf and will participate in today's meeting.

"We are hopeful that when all the facts are presented, the school district will recognize that this is one big mistake, and Mr. Gardner's rights and privileges will be fully restored immediately," Walczak said.

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