Substitute teacher banned from school district for joking to students about principal who died by suicide

Josh Carlton made off-color comments to a high school theater class about the recent suicide of the school principal. (Photo: Facebook/JoshSCarlton)

A substitute teacher has been dismissed from a high school in Springfield, Ore., and banned from the entire school district for making “inappropriate” jokes about sexual abuse, harassment and suicide that hit close to home for students.

The transgression was brought to light by a student’s secret audio recording, in which the teacher, Josh Carlton, can be heard delivering an impromptu comedy routine to a theater class of 20 to 30 kids at the Academy of Arts and Academics on Thursday, according to the Register Guard newspaper. Most of Carlton’s jokes allegedly addressed the recent death by suicide of the school’s former principal, Mike Fisher, who, at the time of his death, was under police investigation for allegedly sexually abusing and raping a student for years, starting when she was 14.

“Sometimes I look through old texts, you know, because I’m lonely, and I run into a conversation with my old boss,” Carlton said about Fisher, his former supervisor, in the recording. “And it’s weird because he was reminding me that I need to get certified to teach science, but I wasn’t reminding him not to hang himself after his 10 years of sexually assaulting and abusing a former student.” 

Carlton went on to critique the kind of culture that leads to sexual abuse and lamented his inability to confront Fisher while he was alive for being “sexist,” according to the Register Guard. “I had the power to say something, but I let my fear of confrontation get in the way, and now he’s dead and I’m glad he’s dead because he was terrible,” Carlton is heard saying. He added that his jokes wouldn’t “add insult to injury” because Fisher is “already dead.”

But it was the students he apparently hurt by making the off-color jokes in class; some of the teens can allegedly even be heard gasping in shock during the recording. Students told the Register Guard that Carlton’s skit made them uncomfortable while they were trying to move on from the distressing events.

“It makes me feel disappointed that it’s still going on almost a year to the date,” one student told reporters. “That he would still mention it and speak to kids about it — a lot of people are still in shock, and it’s a fresh wound and it’s shocking and disgusting.”

Springfield Public School District spokeswoman Jen McCulley addressed the situation on Monday, calling Carlton’s observational humor “inappropriate and absolutely inconsistent” with the district’s expectations of its faculty. She confirmed that Carlton was the teacher who joked about the suicide and that he had taught math at the high school — nicknamed A3 — for 40 days at the beginning of the school year until a permanent replacement was hired. “After the concern was brought to our attention he was removed from our system and will not be working in Springfield classrooms moving forward,” McCulley said.

Carlton has taught at many local high schools, according to his LinkedIn profile, including Roseburg High School and Phoenix Charter School.

In a statement to Yahoo on Tuesday, Carlton expressed regret for the incident, calling the comments to students “an unprofessional choice.” He explained that he had been planning to try his hand at standup comedy in the fall, and the jokes he had written were inspired by the #MeToo movement.

“I started thinking about how our culture feels designed to let all men get away with so much, which started me thinking about the ways I am complicit in that culture,” he said. That’s when memories of Principal Fisher “burst through” into his writing. “I was often frustrated because it felt like Mike didn’t listen to women, but I didn’t say anything about this to him. I made comments — not really jokes, even — about my weakness to stand up for women in this way and made some connections to how those small steps might lead to a better culture.”

Still, Carlton admits the students at A3 were not the appropriate audience for his material. “When I wrote those jokes I decided I could never tell them in Eugene or Springfield, because it would be too close,” he said, but he claims he caved after one of the theater students urged him to perform the jokes. “I gave in to the request, against my better judgment.”

Students and faculty at A3 have been riding a tumultuous wave following the scandal and ensuing death of Principal Fisher on Feb. 1. It was originally a charter school, but in March, the district announced it would be taking over. Its charter status was dissolved, and it was declared an alternative high school before being categorized recently as a “regular high school,” according to the Register Guard. A new principal has since been hired as the community recovers.

Yahoo Lifestyle has reached out to the Springfield Public School District for additional comment.

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