Following beloved Torrey Pines High School physics teacher William Harvie’s sudden retirement after 33 years, students and parents could not accept that he would leave without notice and began a dedicated effort to bring him back, flooding the San Dieguito Union School District (SDUHSD) board and staff with letters, starting a petition signed by 759 supporters and filling the room at the Nov. 3 SDUHSD board meeting.
Their arguments to bring back the teacher were so strong that the board rejected Harvie’s resignation in a 4-1 vote. After the meeting Interim Superintendent Eric Dill placed a call and Harvie agreed to come back to work on Monday morning, Nov. 7.
Students welcomed him back to class on Monday, many wearing the t-shirts they designed in his honor and wore to rally for his return at the school board meeting.
The students’ actions proved that Torrey Pines physics is indeed radioactive, as their slogan states. Their efforts on behalf of their teacher had a ripple effect throughout the community and they received an outpouring of support and gratitude from former students on their Harvie-devoted Facebook page and online petition — some students who were inspired to pursue a career in physics but many who were just simply impacted by his motivational teaching style.
“I wasn’t the greatest at physics. I was actually quite awful at it,” read one note from Jenny Diamond, class of 2001. “One morning I walked into class. There was Mr. Harvie, perched at his desk. He was reading an article I wrote for the Falconer. I was shocked. ‘Jenny,’ he said, placing the article in front of me. ‘We all have different gifts. This is yours. Don’t forget that.’ He said that 17 years ago. Here’s to Mr. Harvie, who believes in us. And to all of you, who believe in him.”
After Harvie’s sudden departure last week, speculation swirled about the cause of his departure. Some contended he must have been forced out due to disagreements over curriculum with TPHS Principal Rob Coppo.
Dill said the board was at a disadvantage as they are not allowed to speak about personnel matters in open session because of privacy issues. He would only say that the resignation was unexpected, unplanned and something that Harvie requested. Dill said while unexpected resignations are rare, the district did have four instances last year where teachers asked to resign immediately and did not complete the school year.
“The questions and reasons that people have come up with I would say are unfair to Mr. Harvie and unfair to Mr. Coppo. I have heard equal extremes,” Dill said. “I have heard Mr. Coppo forced Mr. Harvie to resign, I’ve also heard that Mr. Harvie must have done something. I can tell you that neither of those things are true, that this was, in fact, a voluntary request that he submitted to us and asked to resign immediately.”
Dill stressed that there are many protections for teachers if a school board or administration wants to take a disciplinary action against them. Dill said if it had been a situation where Harvie was being asked to leave there would have been administrators in his room every day, as well as support providers and the beginning of documentation. Some students, however, stated that they had witnessed administrators in the classroom, yelling in the hallways and that Harvie had been honest with them about disagreements with administration, which fueled their suspicions that his resignation was not voluntary.
“Nobody questions Mr. Harvie’s outstanding teaching or who he is as a person. This was his request and we honored that request,” Dill said.
The board heard from 14 speakers at the meeting, both parents and students, encouraging them not to accept the resignation and to launch an investigation about the true cause of his leaving the school so uncharacteristically.
“This early retirement does not at all reflect his core beliefs or his personality,” said senior Ben Ehrlich, who has been Harvie’s student for a year in both AP Physics 1 and AP Physics C. “I clearly recall his motivational mantras from last year that he carried on to this school year, which emphasize finishing the job, never quitting and never settling for silver, rather striving for gold…It is clear that a man who lives by these wise words wouldn’t suddenly and voluntarily retire two months into the school year.”
Students were concerned about AP Physics classes being wasted in his absence and that their education might stagnate or suffer if a suitable replacement could not be found. The class’ textbook is an original collection of hundreds of pages of Harvie’s own handwritten notes that has been utilized by universities such as UCLA and MIT.
Parent Shelly Oliver, whose two sons have graduated from Torrey Pines, reiterated that Harvie taught students more than just physics. She said he regularly discussed real life issues with the kids, which not only enlivened her dinner conversations but made her son think critically and independently and prepared him for college.
“We’re grateful for that gift and we’re also grateful for spicing up our dinner conversations,” Oliver said. “Admittedly I am not privy to Mr. Harvie’s abrupt departure from Torrey Pines but if he needs my support, I’m going to be there for him. And if there was a squeaky wheel that complained about him to the administration about his teaching style I’m prepared to squeak right back.”
At times, the meeting was loud and raucous. Some frustrated parents shouted and yelled repeatedly “Make the call!”— if he didn’t accept the offer to come back, the parents said they would be satisfied with the answer.
SDUHSD Vice President Joyce Dalessandro remarked that she wasn’t sure where the hostility was coming from.
“I know what an outstanding teacher he is and I was shocked and horrified to hear that he had left,” said Dalessandro, whose daughter was a student of Harvie’s. “The fact that we are not being given the chance to speak, the fact that there are calls out from the audience is not very helpful. I truly love Mr. Harvie. My daughter, who has gone onto higher education and a job, still talks about Mr. Harvie so I understand what you’re saying.”
SDUHSD Trustee John Salazar said after receiving so many emails and seeing the room filled with supporters he could not accept Harvie’s resignation: “It just doesn’t add up.”
“I was elected to this board. I was not hired by Mr. Dill or any administrator and I certainly wasn’t hired by the teachers. I was put on this board by you. By the taxpayers, by the parents. And that’s who I work for,” Salazar said. “We can get Mr. Harvie back. The board can listen to their employers, which is you, and he will at least be offered the job back.
“The very least this man deserves is to have his resignation denied,” Salazar continued over roars of applause and cheers. “My employers, the people who elected me, are asking me to do this.”
“We can’t let this teacher get away, no way,” agreed trustee Mo Muir.
In her vote in favor of accepting Harvie’s resignation, Hergesheimer said she believed what staff had told her in closed session regarding his resignation and chose to honor it.
Harvie declined a request for comment.