Okanagan teacher disciplined for 2018 science demonstration that led to $60K school fire

A longtime teacher in the Okanagan was suspended twice and transferred to another school following a science demonstration that resulted in nearly $60,000 in fire damage two years ago.

On Tuesday, the B.C. Commissioner for Teacher Regulation (BCCTR) released a consent resolution agreement that contains the discipline outcome for Allen David Penner, a secondary school teacher who was employed by School District 23 at the time of the incident.

According to the agreed facts, Penner conducted a chemical volcano demonstration for his Grade 9 science class, but failed to dispose of the chemicals properly, leading to a garbage can fire several hours later that caused $59,655.99 in damage to the school.

The demonstration happened on Feb. 16, 2018. The consent resolution, which is posted on the BCCTR website, said it involved the decomposition process of ammonium dichromate by making a chemical volcano.

The agreement said that district science teachers are expected to be familiar with material safety data sheets (MSD) prior to using chemicals, and that they are required to follow instructions and safe work procedures.

“Before conducting the demonstration, Penner failed to review or follow specifications in MSD sheets for the safe handling of ammonium dichromate and chromium (III) oxide,” the agreement said.

It also said Penner, who has been teaching since 1992, did not wear safety glasses, nor a lab coat or gloves, and performed the demonstration without a ventilation system, “risking himself and students to exposure to the chemicals.”

The agreement said the chemicals should have been disposed of in one of the school’s hazardous waste containers, but weren’t, adding Penner “used water to wet down the residue, wrapped it in paper towels and threw it in the garbage can in the classroom.”

“In doing so, Penner did not consider the possibility that the residue contained unreduced amounts of an oxidizing chemical which was not significantly cooled down and which created a fire hazard when thrown in the garbage can.”

The residue reacted with garbage in the can, the agreement states, and several hours later it started the fire, the agreement said.

The agreement said School District 23 issued a letter of discipline to Penner on Sept. 25, 2018, and suspended him without pay for 10 days. It also transferred him to a different school in the district.

According to the consent agreement, the BCCTR added another three-day suspension, which was served June 10-12, 2020. “Penner failed to maintain currency on the handling of harmful substances,” and that he “created an unsafe environment by failing to follow appropriate safety guidelines.”

In related news, an online petition has been started to get Penner reinstated at George Elliot Secondary.

“Mr. Penner is one of the most valued, loved and funniest teachers in the Lake Country community,” reads the petition, which had more than 750 signatures as of Wednesday morning.

“Students everywhere greatly enjoy his science classes, humorous stories, nature walks, teaching techniques, patience and intelligence.

“He has been at George Elliot Secondary for more than 20 years, and we, the undersigned, hereby state that we want him to once again return to teach at our school.”

The BCCTR’s consent agreement can be found here.

The online petition can be found here.

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