North teachers file federal suit

August 05, 1997


Staff Writer

Two North Hagerstown High School instructors have filed a federal civil suit alleging the Washington County Board of Education and Superintendent of Schools violated their Constitutional rights when they transferred them to other schools against their will.

The suit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, claims that teacher Austin Gisriel and instructional assistant Kurt Britner were transferred to stifle their criticism of the school administration and to punish them for a controversial newsletter they began publishing last fall.

School officials deny the claims and contend both transfer actions were legal and made in the best interest of the school system, said Baltimore attorney Leslie Stellman, who is representing the school board and superintendent in the federal case.


The transfers - set to take effect at the beginning of the school year - violated Gisriel's and Britner's free speech and citizenship rights, claims the federal suit, filed by Hagerstown attorney Brett R. Wilson.

Gisriel and Britner asked the court to protect their jobs at North High, and order a $1 nominal damages award and payment of attorney fees and court costs.

Wilson also filed a motion to prevent the transfers until the federal suit is settled. A hearing on the motion has been set for Thursday in Baltimore, he said.

The primary concern has and continues to be the students, said Britner, 44.

They were seeking to champion both students' and staff members' interests by speaking out against what they felt was wrong in the school system in "North High News and Views," published semi-regularly since September, he said.

School officials never issued a directive to stop publishing the newsletter, said Gisriel, 40.

However, they were definitely sending a message that free speech won't be tolerated if it isn't what they want to hear, he said.

"What's being encouraged is, `Don't say a word, get your check and go home. If you dare speak out, just remember what happened to Gisriel and Britner,'" Gisriel said.

The transfers aren't punishment, since Gisriel and Britner are both being moved to comparable assignments, and aren't meant to impede free speech, Stellman said.

They were made to improve the situation at school, which was experiencing "very severe tension" caused "not by the newsletter itself but by the behavior and actions of the people in question," he said.

The school board is aware of but hasn't seen the federal suit, President B. Marie Byers said Monday night.

The board is scheduled to hear an appeal on the transfers on Wednesday and will make a ruling within a week, Byers said.

Byers said she didn't think the transfers violated any constitutional rights and the matter should be settled locally.

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