Ex-O'Connell Teacher Files Complaints, Alleges Discrimination
Harrison: Complaining about discrimination internally 'rocked the boat' at private Catholic high school.
A Bishop O'Connell history teacher who was fired in April said he has filed two complaints against the school — one of which alleges racial, ethnic and gender discrimination against students.
John Harrison, whose termination last month led students to protest and has angered more than 3,000 alumni, told Patch that he filed complaints May 1 with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR).
"I filed those two complaints, and we'll see what the government does," Harrison said. "I do not believe that the actions of O'Connell are correct … and will not be upheld. Because you just don't just act this way."
Michael J. Donohue, a spokesman for the Arlington Diocese, which operates Bishop O'Connell, did not return phone calls or emails seeking comment. Donohue has said in the past that the school doesn't discuss individual personnel matters.
The EEOC complaint, which Harrison declined to share with Patch, is the "first step" in filing an age discrimination suit against the school. The EEOC has 180 days to decide if it will prosecute the case or else it will issue a letter that allows Harrison to file suit.
Stephanie D. Garner, an assistant legal counsel at EEOC, said she could not confirm or deny the existence of the complaint, citing federal privacy laws.
Harrison, an attorney, did share the OCR complaint with Patch.
In it, Harrison alleges the high school's use of an English placement test to determine eligibility for the Honors World History class he taught discriminates against boys, African Americans and non-native English speakers, particularly Asians.
In an interview, Harrison said he believed the discrimination wasn't intentional, but said school administrators failed to act once he and other faculty members notified them about the situation.
"It doesn't matter if O'Connell intends to discriminate or not," Harrison said. "The kids are not getting everything they should. It should be a level playing field. And there's no reason for it not to be."
In his complaint, Harrison says the English placement test is about as useful "as a blood test" in determining eligibility for Honors World History.
Conversely, he says reading-intensive courses like that are better for students who may be struggling with English as it helps them understand the language better.
"While I recognize that the Department (of Education) has limited control over Catholic Schools, if you do not act, no one will," Harrison says in his complaint.
The school recruits African-American athletes as well as Korean students but then fails to offer those students the same advantages it offers white students, the complaint says.
"On every level this is wrong. Such blatant invidious discrimination cannot be immune to correction," it says.
In an email, Education Department spokesman David Thomas said he could not confirm or deny a complaint, citing privacy laws.
Harrison said the EEOC advised him to take some of his grievances to the Education Department.
"That's not a lawsuit I would bring, but it is a lawsuit they might bring — that they are much more likely to bring," he said. "I gave them the facts and they will either do something with it or not."
Harrison said complaining internally about discrimination "rocked the boat" and likely created tension with administrators — helping to set the stage for his termination.
Last month, a group of students concerned about the exodus of teachers from the school tried to gather in the school's quad, only to find their way blocked. They moved to the school's chapel, but were eventually made to leave.
Some made their way to Harrison's classroom. Harrison said he was fired after not forcing those not in his class to leave.
"Now, we wait it out. Lawsuits have to work their way around," Harrison said. "I'm a lawyer, so I understand that. The kids are going to go crazy. It's going to be six to 18 months before this is resolved. And by then, things will die down. But we'll have to see what happens in the meantime."
A Facebook group of school alumni who oppose Harrison's firing has grown to more than 3,300 members.
Harrison is also an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. He said he is working to get a course approved for the fall semester there.