School district refused to let domestic-abuse victim return to work

By: - June 13, 2021 8:00 am

Leaders of the new Center for School Mental Health in Iowa are pledging collaboration with the children’s mental health system. (Photo by Element 5 Digital, via Unsplash)

An Iowa school district acted unreasonably when it refused to let a teacher who had been the victim of domestic abuse return to work without first seeking counseling.

The school district’s actions resulted in the teacher losing pay and employment, even though she posed no threat to anyone at the school, the judge found.

Mara Butler, who worked for the Graettinger Terril Community School District in Palo Alto County since 2016, was a full-time industrial technical arts teacher last year when she was the victim of domestic abuse.

The police were involved in the incident, but Butler was not charged with a crime. School officials learned of the incident and, according to state records, they contacted her last September and informed her that she was required, as a condition of her employment, to receive counseling and treatment. She also was required to obtain from a licensed therapist a release that would allow her to return to work.

According to state records, Butler had difficulty finding a counselor that provided services near her home. She informed the district of that fact in late September and also explained to school officials that while she believed their request was unreasonable, she was trying to comply. She was then placed on involuntary leave of absence without pay until she could provide the required release.

Butler continued searching the area near her home for a certified counselor that met the district’s criteria and in February 2021 she found a therapist 125 miles away in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

She attended the counseling and provided the cleared-for-duty report to the school in March of this year. The district allegedly indicated it was dissatisfied with her actions during the entire process, and it required her to sign an intent-to-resign contract if she was to remain on the employer’s medical insurance plan through the remainder of the school year.

Butler applied for unemployment for the period she was out of work and was initially denied benefits, which led to an appeal hearing before Administrative Law Judge Duane Golden.

Golden recently awarded Butler benefits, ruling that the districts’ demand that Butler “obtain fit-for-duty counseling, and a written release to return to work after she was assaulted by a domestic partner, was unreasonable.”

The judge noted that Butler “did not pose a threat to anyone at the school, and the employer did not have sufficient cause to place claimant on an involuntary leave of absence while she was forced to seek counseling services.”

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.

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