The Montgomery County Sentinel
Media Used As Front By Judge, Teacher Says
By Peter Sleeper
Joseph Acanfora IH, the eighth grade teacher who is an avowed homosexua1 and whose transfer from a county school classroom to an administrative job was affirmed this week by a Federal judge, believes the judge “ruled on the gay issue, but used the media as a front,”
Acanfora’s comment was directed at Judge Joseph H. Young’s 30-page decision, which in large part dealt with “post-transfer publicity” when Acanfora “took his case to the people” via newspaper and television interviews.
“This case does not involve an admission of homosexuality…” wrote judge Young, “but rather repeated unnecessary appearances on local and especially national news media” which “inevitab1y sparked additional controversy” regarding the subject of homosexuality in the classroom and “detracted from the educational process.”
Judge Young’s decision in Baltimore upheld the transfer last September by the Montgomery County school system of Acanfora, an eighth grade earth science teacher at Parkland Junior High School, to a non-teaching “desk job” in the department of curriculum and instruction.
School officials have said they will not rehire Acanfora even for his curriculum position when his contract expires on June 21.
“The danger does not seem as great as the defendants assume,” wrote Judge Young concerning, Acanfora’s’ teaching position, “but the danger is not illusory.”
By law, the superintendent of schools in each county of the state may transfer a teacher “as the need of the school system requires.” Due process,” wrote Judge; Dung, is “usually deserved.”
The judge noted that “mere knowledge that a teacher is a homosexual is not sufficient to justify transfer or dismissa1, but added Acanfora’s public appearances showed an “indifference to the bounds of propriety.” Acanfora said he “disagreed completely” that his media attention had a disruptive effect on the educational process. “The school board took me out the classroom which meant I was not qualified and made it known I was a homosexual,” he said.
“But the students and teachers were not given any details,” he added. This cast negative stigmas on me personally and professionally. By going on television, I wanted to discuss some fears and misunderstandings about me and homosexuality in general. I did it to defend my integrity and. professional qualifications.
“The judge said my appearances incited controversy. I say my appearances, in fat, allayed controversy. I talked about a homosexual teacher fighting for civil liberties.”
Some of the media appearances and interviews cited in the ruling included a telephone interview with The. Sentinel, an interview on WWDC radio’s “Empathy”, an interview on Public Television’s “How Do Your Children Grow” and participation in a 20-minute segment of CBS’s nationally broadcast television magazine “60 Minutes.”
Acanfora 22 who lives in Washington said the judge “has ruled on the gay issue, but used the media as a front.” On any other issue, I could have said more. But because I was talking about homosexuality, he ruled that it was beyond the bounds of discretion and self restraint.”
Judge Young also wrote “a homosexual teacher need not become a recluse, nor need to lie about himself … but a sense of discretion and self-restraint must guide him.”
“The judge’s choices are not real,” said Acanfora. “He is saying be a teacher and be a homosexual in the open, but don’t be controversial. But you must hide and. lie about your homosexuality to remain a~ teacher. You can’t be a known homosexual teacher and not be controversial. It’s not real. That’s what I was when I was hired.
“The effect of Judge Young’s decision is to tell all homosexuals teachers in the state to keep their mouths shut and play games to keep their homosexuality hidden if they want to keep their jobs.”
Just about the only point Judge Young and Acanfora agree upon is that the question of homosexuality in the context of the educational experience is unique. Judge Young wrote: “The question is whether speech is likely to incite or produce imminent effects deleterious to the educational process...These questions are charged with emotion and of such a delicate and sensitive nature that the injection of controversy tends to breed misunderstanding, alarm and anxiety.”
“It’s a sensitive and unique issue,” Acanfora said. It’s a hush-hush subject, But that’s because people are ignorant about it. Because something is controversial and sensitive doesn’t mean you run away from it.”
The media has played an important role in his life, Acanfora added. He referred to a 1972 press conference in Harrisburg, Pa, when that state’s secretary of education announced Acanfora had been certified to teach despite his homosexuality and student activism in a homophile group on the Pennsylvania State University campus.
This press conference, reported the New York Times, was the first Montgomery school official knew of Acanfora’s homosexuality. He has not told school officials of his private sexual tendencies upon application for fear of “not getting a fair chance” to be hired. Three days after school officials learned of his homosexuality, he- was transferred from teaching to an administrative job away from day-to-day contact with students
“The press reported the facts. They did their jobs. I hold nothing against them. They came to me to find out about my case. They were interested because the people were interested. They came to me, and I accepted their invitations. I did not seek them out,” Acanfora said.
Judge Young singled out one television appearance -- on~60 Minutes -- as having “an element of sensationalism” and “sparking controversy.”
CBS News producer Harry Moses, in charge of the Feb. 25 segment, denied that the show was sensational and said it was “balanced” in compliance with the Federal Communication Commission’s fairness doctrine.
Moses also denied that Acanfora tried his case on television. “TV is not a court,” said Moses. “It doesn’t come to conclusions. I would like to think the publicity was not prejudicial to the case.”
Moses said he picked up the story from a New York Times piece after John Pittenger, the Pennsylvania secretary of education, announced Acanfora’s certification. “It seemed to me we repeated something that had already made the press. Had Acanfora not gone on the air, he still would not have been teaching. He may have had his contract renewed, but he would not be teaching, and that is what he says he wants to do.”
Moses added that he interviewed more than 50 parents and no one was “exercised” over the matter nor was there any public outcry.”
Acanfora still wants to teach, and although “discouraged” he says he “wants to fight on with appeals.” “It will take years, he explained, because once one school system refuses to renew a contract it is a difficult barrier to overcome when applying for other jobs in other school systems.”
Not until all appeals are successfully finished will he be hired as a teacher, he predicts. “And four year of college (studying to become a teacher) are down the drain,” he said.
The next three months, Acanfora says he will spend in Michigan, “thinking about what I can do and what I want to do.”