Hoover/AISD Settlement Leaves Naughtiness Undefined

AISD board accepts resignation of Austin High art teacher, approves district's settlement offer

Just when it was about to really get dirty, the Austin Independent School District board of trustees accepted the resignation of Austin High art teacher Tamara Hoover and approved the district's settlement offer. The teacher, who faced a termination hearing this week for appearing in nude art photos posted online, wrote on her blog that she initially resisted the settlement. "My legal bills were mounting, and my lawyer felt it was in my best interest," Hoover wrote. "I am proud of the things I saw happen through this incident. I saw a city come together and celebrate individuality, diversity and love." Hoover says she will now pursue graduate school and go on to teach in higher education.

It's no wonder that Hoover feels vindicated. A significant number of Austinites seemed to have taken the district's reaction to the artsy, vaguely erotic photos as an affront to their cherished hometown weirdness. Angry students rallied outside AISD board meetings. Supporters, including parents, sent frustrated letters to the Chronicle and the Statesman. A well-received art show on August 11, brazenly titled "As Naked as You Wanna Be," actually featured some of the photos in question and failed to bring out Austin's moral minority.

Still, the settlement comes as a bit of a surprise. AISD initially refused to even sit down with Hoover's lawyer and won't comment on the change of heart. Bruce Banner of Education Austin, the union representing AISD employees, has a theory. "The district learned that blowing things out of proportion doesn't serve them," he said. "Most Austinites felt like it was a moral panic. In the future the district might be more circumspect before going after a teacher for engaging in legal, consensual activities in their private life."

The district, for its part, has not admitted any overreaction. "This was never a contest of Ms. Hoover's First Amendment rights," said AISD's official statement. "The District and Ms. Hoover disagreed as to the propriety of explicit nude photographs of her and others … being placed on the internet, and its impact on students and families, and thus, on Ms. Hoover's ability to be an appropriate role model and effective classroom teacher in AISD."

The settlement allows the district to avoid costly hearings that would have examined whether the photos violated the district's vague moral turpitude clause, which prohibits "base, vile or depraved acts that are intended to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of the actor." Jay Brim, the attorney who represented Hoover, says that the district had no proof that the photos affected Hoover's ability to do her job. "It would have been a heck of a fight," he said. "The photos were online 13 months without hurting Tamara's ability to run a classroom. They say it impacted her job. Where's the proof?" Hoover, for her part, will receive $14,850 in lost wages from the settlement. The State Board for Educator Certification will now review the case and decide whether Ms. Hoover can keep her teaching license.

The settlement appears to be a win-win for Hoover and the district. It's the teachers still working in Austin who are the real losers. The hearing would have forced the district to define exactly what teachers can do on their free time. "Teachers are asking a lot of questions. 'What about that picture of me taken in 1973 at Hippie Hollow? What if someone puts that online?'" says Brim. "It may sound silly, but it's not that different. The district is now using a purely subjective 'shock value' standard, and nobody is comfortable with that. It will have to come up with a policy that defines professional standards that can be enforced."

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AISD, Austin Independent School District, Austin High, Tamara Hoover, Bruce Banner, Education Austin, Jay Brim, State Board for Educator Certification

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