Appeals court preserves job of convicted school worker

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Ruling on a new state law placing a lifetime ban on public school employment for those with certain criminal convictions, Commonwealth Court today decided the state cannot force the Allegheny Intermediate Unit to fire a long-time employee.

The decision applies to Arthur Johnson of the North Side who was hired by the AIU after he disclosed he had been convicted of voluntary manslaughter 18 years earlier, had served five years in jail and had completed his five-year probation.

"We are pleased that he can continue," said AIU Executive Director Linda Hippert, who called Mr. Johnson an "exemplary" employee.

He was hired initially as a van driver, later becoming a facilitator for the AIU's fatherhood program, counseling hundreds ofyoung dads.

Under the old law, school job applicants had to undergo criminal background checks and were prohibited from becoming employed for five years after convictions for certain serious offenses.

The new law, known as Act 24 of 2011, sets a lifetime ban, and the state Department of Education has maintained it applies to current and future employees. The court decision does not address future employees.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association in February filed suits fighting for the jobs of Mr. Johnson and five others, in Delaware, Dauphin and York counties.

His is the first to have an appellate decision.

Mr. Johnson initially won an injunction at the Common Pleas Court level, but the state Department of Education appealed it to Commonwealth Court.

The opinion, signed by President Judge Dan Pellegrini, stated that because the new law creates a lifetime ban for a "homicide offensethat has no temporal proximity to Johnson's present ability to perform the duties of his position, and it does not bear a real and substantial relationship to the commonwealth's interest in protecting children, it is unreasonable, unduly oppressive and patently beyond the necessities of the offense."

It said the law "imposes unusual and unnecessary restrictions" on Mr. Johnson's job and is "unconstitutional" because it violates his due-process rights.

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Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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