Foothills teacher resigns over cheating incident - Tucson Local Media: Import

Foothills teacher resigns over cheating incident

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Posted: Tuesday, May 24, 2005 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:50 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

May 18, 2005 - In the short walk from the front of campus to the building where he has taught students for almost 11 years, Mitch Dorson is shaking hands, signing yearbooks and cheering on student athletes for the weekend's games.

Walks like these are limited for Dorson. The popular American studies teacher is resigning. He will be turning off the lights to his classroom and his Catalina Foothills School District teaching career at the end of the month.

Dorson is leaving over cheating and what he says is a lack of district support, and an administration that does not stand by its own principals.

"I'm leaving because the environment here is unhealthy," Dorson said.

It all started last year, when the now 56-year-old teacher allowed a student to take an exam a day earlier than his other students. The student then sent an e-mail message to about 50 students, with the answers to the exam, Dorson said.

No explanation or apology was ever received, he said.

This year, when the student, whose name the district has withheld, was in the running for a prestigious scholarship awarded by the Flinn Foundation, Dorson said he could not support that.

The Flinn is a well-respected scholarship awarded to Arizona students for use at the state's public universities. Students are judged strongly on moral character, in addition to scholastic achievements.

Dorson's road to resignation began when he went to the school's administration and said someone should speak up about last year's cheating incident, Dorson said.

It was then, Dorson said, that he was told by the administration to be quiet, that if he spoke out about it he would be fired.

Contrary to rumors about the controversy, Dorson said it never crossed his mind to contact the Flinn representatives directly; he just wanted someone to deal with the situation.

He was only trying to protect the district, not cause trouble, he said.

In the weeks that followed, no one from the administration responded to Dorson's request, he said, which finally prompted him to say, "enough."

He wrote a letter of resignation in February and the board immediately approved it.

"I think there are people that wanted me gone," Dorson said.

Foothills High School Principal Wagner Van Vlack said he could not comment on the situation.

"I'm reluctant on a moral ground to comment in a story that doesn't get to the moral truth," he said, adding that he could not comment because it is impossible to get to the whole story because of privacy laws and certain information that could not be disclosed.

In the months following Dorson's resignation, students, parents and teachers have supported their favorite teacher and have called upon the board to look into the matter.

More than 60 people attended a May 10 board meeting, many of whom spoke in support of Dorson.

"People throughout all of metropolitan Tucson know and love this individual, the man whom you do not value," said Ann Moynihan, as she spoke to the board.

Moynihan, whose son is a student of Dorson, said that soon after her son joined his classroom she began to notice a difference in him, something she credits to the tremendous teaching skill of Dorson.

"He puts the fire to the tinder," Moynihan said.

Student Anastasia Zamkinos said students, parents and teachers threw a party in Dorson's honor a few weeks ago, to show their support for him and for his decision to resign.

Zamkinos has been proactive in making sure her voice was heard on the matter that caused her favorite teacher to resign.

She has written in the school newspaper and spoken at board meetings, all in favor of Dorson.

"He is really the most phenomenal influence on my scholastic experience this year," she said, adding that Dorson always goes the extra mile for his students, often incorporating historical songs in his teaching methods.

"He has an amazing passion for his teaching that comes out in everything that he does," she said.

Zamkinos said she fully understands the reasons Dorson is leaving, and admits there is a cheating problem that is not being addressed within the district.

School officials have said they take cheating very seriously and deals with each situation accordingly.

One way students are cheating is by text-messaging exam answers to each other's cell phones, Zamkinos said.

According to the district's student discipline policy, forgery and cheating are "prohibited student conduct."

Kareem Hassan, another student of Dorson, said that "the main issue is not whether or not Dorson is the best teacher in the world, but that the school can't even follow its own policy regarding cheating."

Cheating should be taken seriously, something Hassan said is not happening within the district.

Hassan said the administrators are not promoting integrity when they can't stand behind one of their own when a teacher is trying to make sure a student is punished for not having integrity.

"He was essentially forced to resign," Hassan said.

John Richardson, district attorney, said Dorson put in his resignation and the board accepted it, and that he would not comment further.

Some people have speculated that Dorson might have faced some sort of legal action from the parents of the student. Richardson said he did not know of any such action.

Dorson could, however, face an investigation and possible teaching certification removal by the Arizona Board of Education.

On May 6, a Catalina Foothills administrator reported an alleged violation of the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act, said Lisette Flores, chief investigator for the board.

Flores would not say who reported Dorson. She said, only, that it was regarding the matter of Dorson sharing the discipline of the student who cheated.

Dorson said he was shocked when he received a phone call from a newspaper reporter telling him about the report. He was stunned that no one from the district told him first, he said.

"They have confused dissent with loyalty," he said. "The emphasis has been on keeping things quiet."

Associate Superintendent Terry Downey, who oversees community schools, facilities and human resources, would not comment on the report to the Board of Education.

She said the board listened to all the comments regarding Dorson that were made at the board meeting. The board may include a presentation by Richardson on the rules and regulations of FERPA at the next board meeting May 24.

Downey would not comment on the type of teacher Dorson was or on his record at the district.

FERPA is a federal law that protects the privacy of student education records. Dorson was reported for detailing the type of punishment the student received by the district for last year's cheating, Richardson said.

"We were concerned about the release of the specific discipline received by the district's student," he said.

He would not comment on who turned Dorson in or on any other information on the investigation, saying the district "never comments on reports that are required to be made to the state Board of Education."

Richardson added that "Dorson choose to resign" and the board accepted it.

Canyon del Oro Vice Principal and Athletic Director Ed Moody will replace Dorson next year, Downey said.

Zamkinos is sad her fellow students won't have the chance to study under Dorson.

"I can't even imagine a better teacher than Mr. Dorson has been," she said. "He has moved so many of us."

While Dorson finishes out his last few days teaching, he said he is saddened he will not be able to see his students sitting behind their desks next year, but he is content he made the right decision to stand up for what he believes in and resign, he said.

If the student had only apologized for cheating, things would have been different, he said, and if the district supported him, he wouldn't be sitting in the position he is in today.

"I will not be part of the darkness I see descending on this district," Dorson said. "I am leaving healthily. If I was to stay, I would have surrendered."

Dorson said he is not sure what he will do, now, but he won't be returning in the fall to work for the Catalina Foothills School District.

In his last teaching days, he said he is noticing the care and concern from other teachers and especially students. He will be at the next board meeting to hear what the board has to say, he said.

But until then he wants to tell his student's that "there are times when you stand up," he said. "This is how we change the world one at a time."

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