This Mockingbird Was Fired, Not Killed

By: john harrison

My lawsuit against Bishop O’Connell High School was tried over three days in front of Judge Daniel Fiore II in Arlington Circuit Court. Rather than face a jury and admit that although Bishop O’Connell had acknowledged months before that it owed me $1,570.40 in salary that it still refused to pay almost three years after it was due, on the first day of trial the school finally agreed to just pay me the back salary it still owed.

So, that was a clear win on Count I (Breach of Contract-Suit for Salary Due and Unpaid) of my lawsuit. Up until trial the school had been refusing to pay me the money it had already admitted that it owed months before unless I signed a confidentiality agreement keeping both payment of past due salary and the school’s refusal to pay back salary it had admitted owing a secret. Since I declined to keep these facts secret Bishop O’Connell would not agree to pay until the judge got on their case and they finally dropped their demand for a confidentiality agreement on the first day of trial. Score one for the good guys.

The result in Count II (Breach of Contract-Wrongful Termination) was not as good. Because they had handed me a check for the full amount due before the trial opened, the jury never learned that O’Connell had already admitted breaching my contract in Count I while they considered whether it had also breached it a second time under Count II.

Under Count II the Bishop O’Connell attorney urged the jury to find that under the contract the school had broad discretion to fire and that the student demonstrations, whether or not I had anything to do with those demonstrations, were a sufficient trigger to fire me.

In the alternative, she argued that it was important that the new assistant tennis coach/social studies teacher Mark Borgiasz had testified that he had seen three students, including Julie Olafsson one of the leaders of the student demonstration, enter my classroom at the beginning of first period and later at the end of first period he had seen them in the Chapel with the other demonstrators. She urged that the Borgiasz testimony allowed the jury to infer that I knew of and had encouraged the student demonstrations. Therefore, she said, the school was justified in firing me simply to help end the student demonstrations.

In any event, because the jury found for the school; and I did not get the $10,000 remaining on my contract when the school fired me.

Since the school did not even try for a motion to dismiss at the conclusion of the plaintiff’s case it was clear to everyone in the courtroom that the issue of whether the firing was proper needed to be rebutted by evidence from the school. The case was not going away. However, since juries do not have to explain their verdicts we will probably never know which of O’Connell’s arguments the jury bought.

Early in the trial the Bishop O’Connell attorney asked me when I was testifying whether it was true that I had asked Julie Olafsson to testify but that she had refused. My attorney objected and the judge directed me not to answer since the question was clearly improper under the rules. However, it was a nice bit of lawyer set up for Mr. Borgiasz’s testimony, since the school somehow knew that Julie had told me she could not come to the trial because of commitments at her college in North Carolina. While Julie and the others did not come to my classroom at the beginning of first period and then leave in time to get to join the student demonstrators in the chapel, and therefore Mr. Borgiasz’s testimony that he had seen them do that was wrong; any logician will tell you that it is impossible to prove a negative.

At the trial we learned that the students had been respectfully praying in the chapel on April 17th 2012 during 1st period when Dr. Vorbach broke the sanctuary and ordered them out. We also found out that my initial non-renewal and subsequent termination were all Dr. Vorbach’s ideas, not Ms Prebble’s. And, that the school believes that its contract gives it the discretion to fire a teacher even if the teacher had no part in whatever was causing the school’s problems. That really should give pause to every teacher still working at O’Connell.

Meanwhile, Superdance made less than $100,000 this year, or put another way, less than half of what it has made in the past, and the Soup drive struggles as well.  While Michael J. Donohue, a spokesman for the Arlington Catholic Diocese which owns and operates Bishop O’Connell, told the media after the student protest of my firing that, “change is difficult” I doubt that this was the kind of change he was looking forward to under the new administration at Bishop O’Connell.  It gets worse though.

Since Dr. Vorbach arrived at Bishop O’Connell, multiple serious scandals have plagued his administration. A senior Bishop O’Connell employee used a school check for a political contribution. This is improper for a 501(c) 3 institution and it imperiled the tax-exempt status of the entire Arlington Catholic Diocese.  If you believe the school’s explanation, it was technically an embezzlement of school funds. If that was true why does the employee still work there? Why does he still handle school funds? Why is he still authorized to sign school checks?

There have been repeated allegations of cheating by the Bishop O’Connell boys basketball program that it knowingly used an overage player, Junior Etou, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Many have wondered why this diocese high school in Arlington, Virginia, would be recruiting even eligible high school basketball players from the over 6,500 miles away Democratic Republic of the Congo in the first place.

In addition, the school’s basketball program had a close association (they practiced in the Bishop O’Connell gym, they had their own key to the school, they supplied well over half of the varsity basketball players), with an AAU sports organization run by the now twice-convicted drug dealer, Curtis Malone.

According to Sports Illustrated, while this already convicted drug dealer was so closely associated with O’Connell he was convicted a second time of selling large quantities of both heroin and cocaine out of his home in Prince Georges County. Like several DC Assault players, Junior Etou lived in the drug dealer’s home while he was on the Bishop O’Connell varsity basketball team.

Another former DC Assault player, Michael Beasley, also lived with Curtis Malone at about the same time. While he made it to the NBA, Beasley has struggled with repeated drug related issues.

Worse, according to Deadspin one of the basketball players, supplied to the Bishop O’Connell varsity basketball team by the drug dealer’s sport organization DC Assault, had nonconsensual sex on school grounds with an underage Bishop O’Connell student. Worse still, another basketball player, also supplied to the school’s varsity basketball team by the drug dealer’s sport organization, took a video of the sex act on Bishop O’Connell school grounds and posted it on the internet. Unbelievably, Dr. Vorbach did not discipline either of the student varsity basketball players, nor fire an assistant coach, a coach, a teacher, or an administrator for failing to supervise students that they were responsible for while the students were on school grounds. Nor did he cut the Bishop O’Connell ties to the drug dealer’s sports organization. That is strange.

Stranger still, according to Deadspin again, at least six current Bishop O’Connell varsity basketball players come from the close ties the school still has to the successor to the convicted drug dealer’s sports organization, DC Premier. Unfortunately, DC Premier is run by the same men that had helped the twice convicted drug dealer Curtis Malone run DC Assault.

But, the theme Dr. Vorbach chose for the 2011-2012 school year had been “Integrity.”

While it would be nice to have won Count II as well as Count I, everyone that has had experience with jury trials knows that the fact that the judge allowed the jury to decide the issue means that it was an open question and therefore the result could have gone either way.

Katelyn Stoskus came back from college and testified for me. It takes guts to stand up to a skilled trial lawyer’s cross-examination, but Kate was superb. Andrew Mills also took two days off from work to testify, but the O’Connell witnesses admitted everything he was going to say under cross-examination so he finally got to watch the trial for a while. “Boomer” Buckreis and Ms Prebble were the most helpful O’Connell witnesses for us.

Other students and former students came by the courtroom to lend support as did several parents of students and former students as well. They all got a chance to see the American justice system at work.

I loved teaching the students at Bishop O’Connell; even Ms Prebble admitted at the trial that my classes had been “life changing” for many students. In fact everyone at the trial that said anything about my teaching was highly complimentary. I was humbled by the support that the students gave me after I was fired and I hope to continue the friendships we formed while I was there. I particularly want to thank Katelyn Stoskus, Andrew Mills, Julie Olfasson, Alexa Gennings, Maddy Lynch, and all of the others, students, parents and teachers, that supported me.

While Bishop O’Connell High School seems now to be in a downward spiral with enrollment dropping  to about two-thirds of what it was when I was there even though it now accepts nearly every student that applies, and it is still hemorrhaging most of its best and experienced teachers, it may yet recover and be again the almost mystical place of learning it once was. . .


4 thoughts on “This Mockingbird Was Fired, Not Killed

  1. william shea

    John, I hope you continue teaching elsewhere, not every place is like that. Glad you stuck with it till the end, regardless of the outcome

    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      The problem is that it was such a great place to teach until the current administration got there that I am not sure I could find another position near as good. I may go back to teaching at Georgetown University, but i will miss the kids. Thanks for the feedback.

      1. Thomas Wolfe

        I went to a real boring Catholic School. Times have sure changed. No Sisters of St. Joseph? They would have beat their way through that school. No good deeds go unpunished.

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