A Century High School teacher accused of making inappropriate comments to students, teaching content unfit for students and having "sexually charged" items in his classroom may soon return to work.
On Nov. 20, Gregg Schmidt, a social studies teacher at Century, was placed on paid administrative leave pending the completion of an investigation, which was completed last week.
On Friday, an improvement plan is scheduled to be finalized. In addition, Schmidt, who has been a teacher for Bismarck Public Schools since 1998, will be required to undergo professional development training in classroom ethics and sexual harassment training.
Students made uneasy
Three students reported Schmidt's inappropriate conduct to the district in November. Their claims include that he made comments that made them uncomfortable and he touched students' shoulders and backs.
Mike Geiermann, general counsel for North Dakota United, which represents the state's teachers and public employees, said he has been in consultation with Schmidt. He called Schmidt a "long-time, well-respected" teacher in Bismarck and said Schmidt did not intend to make any student uncomfortable. Geiermann said Schmidt did not wish to comment for this story.
"As we know, statements can be misinterpreted very easily," said Geiermann, adding that Schmidt indicated he would like to return to teaching. "Mr. Schmidt is dedicated to ensuring that the education provided in his classroom is the best it can be."
On Nov. 3, a Century student went to the school counselor to request a transfer from Schmidt's U.S. History class, citing occurrences in the class that made her uneasy.
The counselor referred her to the assistant principal, Sharon Espeland, who then contacted the district's human resources director and Title IX coordinator, Lisa Kudelka.
On Nov. 15, another student shared similar concerns about Schmidt's conduct in another section of the teacher's U.S. History class. Shortly after, a third student came to the office to report what she encountered in Schmidt's class.
Schmidt received a similar letter of reprimand in 2013 for insensitive comments he made to students, according to district records. At that time, a student requested to be removed from Schmidt's class after Schmidt asked whether she was an immigrant and remarked on her skin tone and hair. Schmidt was admonished and told to not let this happen again.
In the latest investigation, students' complaints include that Schmidt:
- Rubbed students' shoulders and touched their backs, including one of the reporting students. Schmidt responded that he was unaware this was causing discomfort among students.
- Asked all the female students in class one day if they had boyfriends, and each was required to answer. Schmidt said this was part of a discussion on "beauty myth."
- Referred to his wife as "sexy" and "hot" while teaching. Schmidt apologized for making students uncomfortable.
- Hung a pair of women's shorts from antlers in his room, which Schmidt said a former male student wore to physical education class and gave to him.
- Had a hand sanitizer bottle filled with lubricant in his classroom, which he claimed had been part of a prank that former students gave to him as a parting gift.
The investigation also discovered inappropriate materials hung in his classroom, including:
- A handwritten Valentine's Day card taped onto a cabinet door, which read on the front, "I'll be your slave ... King Schmidtler (sic)."
- A poster on display which referenced Schmidt setting a student up on a date with his relative.
- Two signs hung in his classroom read: "Hail Schmidtler (sic)," and "Holy Schmidt."
Schmidt has since taken down these items at the request of the administration.
Geiermann said the items in question were gifts to Schmidt from former students, which had hung in Schmidt's classroom "for years."
In regards to Schmidt putting his hands on students, Geiermann said there was never any "improper intent" and Schmidt did so to congratulate students.
The investigation also found an article posted on Schmidt's class website, which contained several paragraphs referencing orgasmic and nonorgasmic women and heterosexual and homosexual males. Students were given an assignment that asked them to write a summary sentence for each paragraph. Also found on Schmidt's website was a PowerPoint on sexuality, including content on several slides that were not appropriate for the high school classroom, nor did it align with district and state curriculum guidelines.
Based on the investigation: "It is determined that Mr. Schmidt engaged in an egregious pattern of inappropriate behaviors which compromise the ability of some students to feel comfortable in his classroom," the Jan. 16 report stated.
The investigation concludes that Schmidt disobeyed directives to maintain healthy teacher-to-student boundaries in physical space, as well as in interactions; violated the North Dakota Code of Ethics for teachers; taught content not appropriate for high school aged students; and other violations.
False rumors that Schmidt had been fired circulated on social media after he was placed on administrative leave. Former students came to his defense and started a Change.org petition on his behalf, which garnered nearly 2,000 signatures.
There also were conversations online regarding retaliation against students who reported Schmidt, according to Tamara Uselman, BPS superintendent.
"There was some cyberbullying in response to individuals who came forward to express discomfort in their classrooms," she said, calling this "unfortunate."
After training, it is not yet clear when or where Schmidt will return to teaching.
"My job is to get reports on the improvement being made, and then, based on the individual's improvement, to then make a decision about appropriate return to the classroom," Uselman said.