School board member Lawrence Delekta was puzzled when he saw the crowd. Usually, four or five parents attended school board meetings in this rural area. But for some reason, at this particular meeting in 1979, 30 parents were sitting at the round tables.
Delores Truszkowski, then 37, wearing a plaid shirt and jeans, stood and announced that she was the group's spokeswoman. A seventh grade teacher in the Memphis Intermediate School, she charged, "brought in pictures of his wife actually having a baby."
Reading from a list, Truszkowski claimed the teacher had drawn "sexual drawings" on the chalkboard of male and female sexual organs and had "described the sexual act," according to transcripts of the court proceedings that resulted from the controversy. He had discussed the "nudity of his family;" told students that "if you have a deformed baby, kill it;" suggested that students with venereal disease go to a specialist and "don't tell your parents," and had "given his own morals about having an abortion before marriage."
Parents began shouting. "Tar and feather the guy," yelled Patrick Dishinger, according to later court testimony. Added one mother: "Something has got to be done before one of our daughters is raped."
The teacher, 36-year-old Edward J. Stachura, was suspended with pay. Denying the parents' version of what happened in the classroom, he sued the school district and its officials in federal court, charging that his rights to free speech and due process were denied in violation of U.S. civil rights laws. The jury, finding he was right on both counts, awarded him $321,000 in damages, roughly one-eighth of the school district's yearly budget, including $31,000 to be paid personally by board members and the school superintendent.
The Supreme Court agreed last month to hear during this term the school board's appeal, which challenges the judge's instructions to the jury in the trial of Stachura's suit. It is one of a series of cases over the last few years challenging damage judgments against local governments.
But no matter who wins, a scar has been left on him and this town of 1,200 that no court decision can heal. The events leading to the initial suit caused fear and bitterness. The subsequent litigation and publicity appears to have intensified those emotions rather than calmed them, even though six years have passed since Truszkowski complained to the school board.
Herbert Kubisch, 59, the former school board president who is now a supervisor in a nearby town, once thought his job was to carry out the wishes of those who elected him. Now, scared by the damage award, he proceeds with great caution. He does what lawyers advise him -- and wonders whether it is still possible for a community to govern itself democratically.
Stachura, the "winner" in this case so far, hasn't collected a penny. While he may collect some money eventually, his life and his approach to teaching, he says, will never be the same. He is back at work, in the same school, teaching a different course. But he tends to stick rigidly to the textbook rather than find creative ways to present material. Now, he says, teaching has become "just a job" and "a tremendous burden."
The seventh grade girls and boys, who years ago eagerly sought answers to their questions about human reproduction, today do not ask them. Their current teacher, Daniel Bell, 46, says that he always has been a "by the book" teacher.
The parents who organized against Stachura still think that he was harming their children. Some parents see the award as compensation for a "technical" omission -- for failing to give Stachura a hearing. Others, acknowledging that the court decided Stachura's right to free speech in the classroom also was denied, say that the damage award is a small price to pay for protecting children from values and ideas that might be harmful.
"A child's life is worth more than that to me," said Truszkowski, referring to the award. "I put too much into my kids to let them falter."
The complaints about Edward Stachura began soon after he started teaching a textbook chapter on reproduction in his seventh grade "life sciences" course. The chapter described in scientific detail the process of human conception and birth. It was Stachura's second year in the school and his ninth year as a teacher.
Marilyn Moore became concerned about Stachura's teaching in March 1979 when her daughter, Margaret, 12, told her she saw pictures of Stachura's wife "having a baby" and that Stachura had said girls could have abortions. "I felt like this teacher imposed his morals on my kids and infringed on my rights as a parent," Moore said.
Janice Tabaka, meanwhile, said she was troubled when her son, Michael, then 12, announced "Now I know how to do it" one day after school. "Do what?" said Tabaka. "You know," said Michael, according to his mother.
During the next several weeks, Tabaka, Moore and other mothers compared notes at band practice and Cub Scouts, they said. After one meetings, Tabaka and Moore each phoned Truszkowski, then president of the Parent-Teachers Organization, who later was elected to the school board. Truszkowski decided to air the complaints at the April 19 school board meeting.
The day after that meeting, Superintendent Donald Russell told Stachura he would "never see the inside of a Memphis classroom again," according to Stachura's court testimony. Russell testified that he did not use those exact words and meant that Stachura would not resume classes that school year.
In court, Stachura's lawyer argued that Stachura's actions and comments were based on approved teaching materials, including a textbook, a movie, a handbook and a "question can," a can in which students could deposit questions anonymously that they found too embarrassing to ask publicly, according to court records. In other cases, Stachura testified, his remarks were distorted by the parents and students.
The photographs of Stachura's wife "actually having a baby" were introduced into evidence. The photographs showed Georgia Stachura while pregnant in her home. The delivery room shots were of her shoulders and face only, with Stachura near her. A photograph of Stachura's son, Edward, minutes after his birth, also was shown to the jury.
Stachura testified that he showed students the photographs to show the boys, in particular, that there were alternatives to going out and getting drunk when their future wives had children.
In response to Truszkowski's complaint that Stachura had discussed his family's nudity, Stachura testified that the subject of nudity arose when students brought in and passed around a picture in National Geographic magazine of a woman wearing only a grass skirt. Stachura said he told the class that it was not necessarily wrong to not wear clothes or just some clothes, and that such decisions depended on one's culture.
"And to show that we were a product of our society, I described how as children -- in fact, my children -- ran around with nothing on, and they never found it to be a problem" until they grew older and "were taught rules of their particular society," Stachura testified.
In response to Truszkowski's complaint that Stachura had said "if you have a deformed baby, kill it," Stachura testified that a student raised her hand and asked why anyone would have an abortion. "And I suggested to them at that time that often times there is medical evidence showing that the child is deformed or something like that would be a reason for abortion," Stachura testified.
During the six years since parents began complaining about him, Stachura says he has become used to people throwing garbage, eggs, tomatoes, bottles and potato salad on his porch.
The criticisms have changed him. Once, Stachura says, he approached teaching with zeal and love, always finding experiences and examples that would transform dry, theoretical textbook information into vivid, concrete knowledge. When he taught respiration, he brought to class the lungs and heart of a cow he obtained from a slaughterhouse. When he taught science, he not only told his students how soap was made but made it with them, using lye, tallow, scrap lumber, cheesecloth and heat. When he saw that students were too embarrassed to ask questions about reproduction in front of their friends, he asked the principal for permission to use a "question can."
Now Stachura says he rarely is innovative. He says he also has stopped trying to help students who seem troubled and no longer offers words of encouragement to students who deserve it. "Now I'm fearful and standoffish," he says. "How can I give something on the emotional side of myself ever again? I go through the mechanics; it's strictly robotics."
Stachura gets no sympathy from the parents who complained. They say they don't want the emotional side of teachers, that they want facts presented in an objective way, free of values and personal examples. "He won because of a technical point, like criminals who get off because police forget to read them their rights," said Edward Tabaka, referring to the jury's decision that Stachura was denied his right to a hearing.
The damage award against school officials has had some impact. "Whenever we wonder about something, we call our attorney," said School Superintendent Charles Muncatchy, who came to the school district two years ago. "To avoid a situation like the Stachura situation, we do dial the phone more."
In the one-story, orange brick Memphis Community Schools building, Dan Bell teaches seventh graders the course Stachura once taught. Bell says he teaches "reproduction" differently from Stachura. The "question can" is gone. So are the pictures of the woman in the delivery room. "I go exactly by the book," Bell said.
Bell was asked how he responds to students' questions about human sexuality.
"They don't ask questions," he replied.