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School board fires teacher

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SARATOGA SPRINGS - The Saratoga Springs School Board on Tuesday night formally dismissed a high school teacher accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a 14-year-old female student.

English teacher Mark Oppenneer's termination becomes effective today, according to a unanimous decision made, without discussion, by the school board at its meeting.

Oppenneer was fired after district officials learned he was communicating with the girl, who was a student in one of his classes, extensively via late-night e-mails and text messages, as well as meeting her outside of school.

The relationship was discovered in early September 2007 by the girl's mother, who went to the State Police with the information.

Their investigation resulted in no criminal charges, and they handed the case back to the school district.

Though authorities discovered no evidence Oppenneer broke the law, district officials described his relationship with the girl as "well beyond the permissible boundaries of a student and teacher."

Oppenneer was suspended and later tried to argue that, though he had admittedly made a "mistake," his actions did not qualify as "misconduct," as the district had labeled it. He requested a letter of reprimand as a suitable punishment, according to a report from the New York State Education Department.

The district, though, maintained the relationship fit the definition of misconduct, which can "be best described as a willful or wanton disregard for the Employer's interests or a disregard for the standard of behavior which an Employer has the right to expect of its employees," according to the report.

New York state law also allows that teachers can be suspended or fired if it has been determined that a teacher "lacks good moral character."

It was under those provisions that, after a hearing with the New York State Education Department, Oppenneer's termination was recommended.

In his ruling, hearing officer Dennis Campagna ruled the district was justified in dismissing Oppenneer because he should have known the student was "emotionally vulnerable."

Carl Korn, a spokesman for the New York State United Teachers union, which represents teachers statewide, acknowledged that the rules leave some room for interpretation.

But he said dealing with these types of situations on a case-by-case basis was likely the only remedy.

"Teachers know there's a line that should not be crossed, but I'm not sure it can be codified, because there are too many factors involved," he said.

Superintendent Janice White said teachers are told during orientation what kind of relationships with students are appropriate and that it should not be difficult to discern the limits.

"It's judgement and experience that create the boundaries," she said before the board's meeting. "You have to trust teachers to have good, professional judgement."

White said she could recall no other instances in which the district has had to deal with a teacher who has allegedly taken a relationship with a student too far.

In Oppenneer's case, she said, "the situation speaks for itself."

Throughout his communications with the girl, Oppenneer, then 36 and married, repeatedly acknowledged the age difference and how others might perceive his relationship with the girl, even if it was only platonic in nature.

"I'd be hard pressed to explain to other adults (and my wife included) the nature of our friendship," he wrote the girl in an e-mail.

District officials pointed to the frequency and timing of the e-mails - Oppenneer sent 144 messages between June and August of 2007, 95 of which were between 11 p.m. and 4:30 a.m. - and their content as the source of their concern.

The report also includes one e-mail Oppenneer sent the girl stating that he was "seconds away from superimposing a box of Trojans onto a computer in an attempt to parry your move."

Korn said there are occasions on which teachers can assume non-educational roles with their students - consoling them when there is a death in the family, for example - but that there is a "fine line" to be cautious of.

"We constantly urge new teachers, and veterans, that there is a fine line between an open and trusting relationship and crossing that line into behavior that is not condoned or tolerated," he said. "There is a line, and teachers have to be careful not to cross it."

Attempts to reach Oppenneer were unsuccessful on Tuesday. He did not appear at the board's meeting.

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