Bigfork High School autoshop and woodshop teacher Steve Melkioty will keep his job after the board rejected a termination request from Superintendent Cynthia Clary at their Feb. 15 meeting.
Clary’s request was based on an incident that occurred on Jan. 18 where Melkioty allegedly sprayed a fire extinguisher at a student’s feet. Melkioty said he did it in self defense to get him out of the shop room in an effort to avoid physical altercations.
“I believe Melkioty used poor judgment in handling this situation,” Clary said. “He admitted to using physical force and demonstrated lack of professional conduct.”
He was on paid suspension since the incident occured.
Melkioty has worked part-time as the autoshop and woodshop teacher at BHS for six years and was not required full teacher certification. Full certification would include classroom management courses with training in conflict resolution to avoid heated situations.
Though Melkioty waved his right to privacy, the student had not and wished to remain unnamed. It was later stated by the student’s parents that the student requested his parents not speak during the termination hearing, though they were present along with over 100 other parents and students.
The school board meeting, termination hearing and private executive session for the board to hear the student’s side took five hours.
The conflict arose when the student’s truck repairs weren’t completed for him to drive it to his first day of classes at Flathead Valley Community College. He was to leave for FVCC after his morning classes at BHS.
Melkioty told the student he could get the brake booster needed to repair the truck at half-price from Flathead Salvage. The student agreed to it.
However, out of safety concerns the student’s father ordered a new part and brought it to the school.
“Your connections as a professional is everything,” Melkioty said when he explained why he was upset with the student.
The part was not installed because Melkioty wanted to teach the student “a lesson” for not using the ordered part as planned, so he had the students put any parts taken out back together and leave the new booster on the front seat. Melkioty reported having had similar “trust issues” with the student in the past.
The student confronted Melkioty about why the part wasn’t installed and began yelling profanities, first at the situation and then directed them toward Melkioty.
As the encounter progressed Melkioty attempted to push the student back, out of fear of getting hit.
However, Melkioty went backwards instead of the student, who is much larger than Melkioty.
When the student returned a few minutes later, slamming the door as he entered, Melkioty shot the fire extinguisher at his feet to get him out of the room.
According to Melkioty it didn’t just come out in a stream, but as a powder that went up in the air.
It was later revealed that Melkioty discharged four pounds of flame retardant powder, which takes between four and six seconds to dispel.
“I wasn’t out of my mind, I did not want to hurt the student,” Melkioty said.
BHS art teacher Sarah Taylor was in the neighboring room when the incident occurred and heard what was said. After the incident, Melkioty was “shaking, visibly upset, but not angry,” according to Taylor.
THE TERMINATION HEARING
Melkioty’s lawyer, Peter Leander, said the situation could have been much worse because it was in a shop with power tools and heavy machinery within arms reach.
Bill Howell, field consultant for Montana Education Association/Montana Federation of Teachers, also spoke in Melkioty’s defense.
The next day the student’s father said the hearing “turned into a circus.” He also said he agreed with the board’s decision not to terminate Melkioty and understood it was Melkioty’s lawyer’s job to defend Melkioty, but felt their portrayal of his son was “wrong and hurtful.”
“It’s one of those things where people tend to want to take sides, but basically beating up on my child with character assassination was inappropriate,” he said.
Board member Taddeus Jordt asked Melkioty if the truck was safe to drive. Melkioty responded that it was safe to drive, the student had used it in its current condition for a period of time but it was taken out of the shop with brake pads on, which it did not have when it was brought it.
Other repairs were still needed, and the student’s father did not believe it was safe to drive and later had the vehicle towed.
The student’s father later expressed concerns with liability and safety without “some kind of check list” before turning them out on the road.
“I was horrified when I got in the truck and hit the brakes,” the student’s father said the following day. “I had to have it towed, it was un-drivable.”
Several parents and students provided comment in support of Melkioty.
“He defended himself against a 230 pound man,” Deanna Elfers, mother of eight, said. “Terminating him would be a tragedy.”
BHS senior Matthew Sefcak said his plans to get a welding certification through Melkioty have been placed on hold due to the class being at a standstill with Melkioty on suspension.
“We need Mr. Mel to function,” Sefcak said. “He’s what keeps that place going. …I know a lot of us have a lot riding on this. We all need the discipline and the skills Mr. Mel provides to function.”
Tim Boose, father of BHS sophomore and one of Melkioty’s students, Gunner Boose, said he believed shooting the extinguisher at the student’s feet was “a good way to diffuse the situation.”
During the final deliberations, board member Paul Sandry said the public was right and that corporal punishment can be used in Montana. He also noted the student said there was no pain inflicted.
“So it’s not even corporal punishment, it’s response to behavior,” Sandry said. “If he were a female teacher, we wouldn’t be sitting here, and as a guy we think he should be able to put up with a little bit more.”
Sandry closed his statement by saying he didn’t feel Melkioty should be terminated and that the extinguisher was “probably a good choice.”
Trustees Dave Carlson and Thaddeus Jordt agreed, and requested documentation of the incident.
Trustee Maureen Averill added she would like to see Melkioty take some classes on student conflict, which are required for fully certified educators.
“No one wins in this, that’s the sad part,” the student’s father said the following day. “The lesson learned from this is our educators need to be trained in how to diffuse a situation like this.”
Board member Dennis Fabo and trustee Doug Fraley were not in attendance because they were out of town.