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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, , 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 , 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.

concerned alumni May 10, 2012 at 10:36 PM
As a graduate of Bishop O' Connell, it is clear the disparity in teaching styles, and also in expectations. Since they started recruiting for sports, there have been students that have not had proper education entering a college prep school such as O' Connell. So proper educational techniques are not taught at all. By the same token, even when Sr Regina was in charge of academics, and I'm sure it is now, there has never been a push by O'Connell for students to challenge themselves academically, by allowing them to freely enter Honors and AP Courses, like many other schools do. Ridiculous requirements such as the one Harrisson mentioned above, or even having an A+ in a previous course to move up to the honors or AP Level is unheard of, and stiffles the students abililtes to push themselves academically. The culture at DJO has been on a downward spiral for years, and I hope this case sends a serious message to the Diocese, and the Board at O' Connell. I'm sure when they notice all of their donation emails are not coming back with checks, something will be said!
PROUD Alumni May 10, 2012 at 11:28 PM
Was Mr. Harrison on any sort of probation before his contract was not renewed? Did the fact that he no longer taught any honors classes have any effect on his contract not being renewed? I know that he had many complaints from parents - did that have anything to do with the contract? I thought all of this had to do with Mr. Harrison's firing, not DJO's policy for Honors/AP classes.
Allie May 11, 2012 at 01:38 AM
This stuff has been occurring in Catholic high schools since at least the end of WW2. My parents yanked me out of a Catholic high school almost 50 years ago for the elitism and over-emphasis on sports.
John jenkins May 12, 2012 at 10:46 PM
This is baloney. What did he get fired for? I hope it wasn't too serious! It usually is in the end. Schools just don't get rid of teachers. They get rid of bad teachers and fire teachers that shouldn't be in high schools anymore. I looked at hs FB page and he has lots of pictures of 13 year olds. That's creepy ... Possibly illegal. Wrong!
Nick Appel May 13, 2012 at 09:05 AM
Actually, he is a great guy, coming from someone who knows him and had him as a teacher. I suggest you shut your mouth on topics you don't know the first thing about, Jenkins.

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