A Pennsylvania appeals court says a special education teacher shouldn't have been fired for hanging an "I abuse animals" sign around the neck of an autistic, mentally challenged 14-year-old who hit a goat during a petting zoo field trip.

The Commonwealth Court's ruling Monday upholds an arbitrator's decision to convert Bruce Millheim's firing from the Bethlehem-area Colonial Intermediate Unit to a 53-day unpaid suspension.

Arbitrator Rochelle Kaplan reversed Millheim's December 2011 firing despite finding fault with the sign and other discipline measures, including calling students sissy and crybaby, twisting arms and pushing heads.

In her 2012 ruling she said the intermediate unit owed him 14 months of back wages. She said he must follow an improvement plan.

The intermediate unit's solicitor says school districts, not arbitrators, should make personnel decisions.