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When Dorothy Crawley, a tenured Chicago elementary school teacher, felt like taking a vacation, she didn't let her job get in the way.

So on three occasions in 2015, she called in sick and hit the road. Crawley took a "pre-planned" Caribbean cruise and another trip to Norway. Her Facebook posts documented her travels.

All was fine until some anonymous tipster dropped a dime on Crawley. The caller informed Chicago school officials that Crawley wasn't sick when she took her time off, she was on a vacation.

Among Crawley's defenses to the disciplinary charges filed against her was that she didn't know she couldn't use sick time to take a vacation.

A hearing examiner found, among other things, that that claim made "no sense" and recommended Crawley's dismissal.

The school board agreed and fired her. Crawley took her case for "wrongful" termination to a state appeals court, which recently upheld the school board's decision by a 2-1 vote.

It's extremely difficult to fire a public school teacher. But the appellate court held that Crawley stepped over the line in a way that was "irremediable."

Here's what happened.

When the school district and the lawyer for the teacher's union met before a hearing officer in Crawley's case, there was no dispute about the facts.

The question was what to do about them.

Crawley claimed that she was entitled to a prior warning about her misconduct because it could be corrected and was not "irremediable." Crawley contended she could only be fired "for cause," and tenured teachers are entitled to a "written warning" before they can be fired.

That's generally true, and it represented a big hurdle for the administration to clear.

But there's an exception to the rule as outlined in a statute passed in 1996 that characterizes certain conduct as "irremediable."

"No warning need be given before taking adverse action against an employee who engages in irremediable conduct," wrote appellate Justice Mathias Delort in his majority opinion.

But what is "irremediable" conduct? Further, does taking phony sick days meet the definition? The statute defines irremediable conduct as "cruel, immoral, negligent or criminal or that in any way causes psychological or physical harm to a student."

Hearing officer Lawrence Cohen found Crawley's behavior both "negligent" and "immoral," and therefore irremediable.

Reviewing courts are required to accept the decisions of hearing officers and school boards unless they are "against the manifest weight of the evidence," meaning clearly wrong.

Based on that standard and after reviewing the evidence, the court majority said "we cannot say" the board's decision was "against the manifest weight of the evidence."

"The evidence demonstrated that after using up other available time off, Crawley misused an aggregate of eight sick days spread over three periods" for vacations and "personal" travel to New York.

As a consequence, the court said, school officials "had to hire a substitute, essentially paying twice for a single day of teaching time." Crawley's students were damaged because "their lesson plans and pedagogical continuity was disrupted."

Justice Maureen Connors dissented. She argued that because dismissal was unjustifiably harsh, the school board's decision did go against the "manifest weight of the evidence."

Connors acknowledged misuse of sick days shows a lack of good judgment but contended it "did not rise to the level of immoral conduct that would merit termination" without a warning first.

She said "there is no evidence" that Crawley's absence caused "significant damage to the students, faculty or the school" and pointed out that Crawley said she would have found another way to take her trips without calling in sick.

"Absolutely. Knowing that I could take FMLA (family and medical leave) and things like that for mental health, some of the services they spoke of, I've never heard of, and I didn't know they were available," Crawley testified.

Because there was no showing of "significant" harm to students and Crawley "said she would have corrected her conduct had she been issued a warning," "I would find her conduct was remediable," Connors wrote.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-351-5369.

Opinions Editor

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.