State School Board to review teacher misconduct policies

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 4 2013 4:46 p.m. MST

Members of the State School Board are scheduled to discuss revisions to policy regarding the suspension of teacher licenses due to misconduct.

Ilka-Erika Szasz-Fabian, Getty Images/iStockphoto

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SALT LAKE CITY — The stories are particularly alarming: teachers intoxicated in the classroom, teachers physically or verbally abusing children and teachers carrying on inappropriate or sexual relationships with their students.

But as state education officials review individual cases of misconduct, questions arise about what actions are necessary and when, if ever, a former educator should be allowed back into the classroom.

During Friday's Board of Education meeting, the board is scheduled to receive recommendations from the Utah Professional Practices Advisory Committee, which reviews cases of teacher misconduct, as well as recommendations from a task force charged with examining teacher licensing policies.

Friday's meeting comes after months of escalating discussion on the subject of educator misconduct. It is fueled by the statistically infrequent but troubling accounts of inappropriate educator behavior and has resulted in an ongoing debate among the State School Board.

At the center of that debate is board member Leslie Castle, who has been pushing for more strict and structured guidelines regarding teacher misconduct and licensing since her election five years ago.

"My first impression in my first executive session was that there was a problem," she said. "In my first executive session I voted against relicensing a teacher — in my very first one."

Castle said it is not her intent to attack Utah's teachers. She said abusive, inappropriate and criminal behavior in the classroom affects everyone in the education community negatively and it is in the best interest of all teachers to see bad behavior removed.

"We’re trying to protect your profession," she said. "If you want to stand shoulder to shoulder with criminals and predators that’s fine, but I don’t think that’s good for the teaching profession."

In most cases, when allegations of misconduct surface against a teacher, the local school or school district administration will refer the case to the Utah Professional Practices Advisory Commission. That body then reviews the case to determine whether licensing sanctions are necessary, with final action coming from the State School Board.

Castle said over the years and as the result of consistent prodding by some members of the board, practices regarding teacher conduct and licensing review have changed.

In the past, she said, board members were given only a brief description of a case on the day of a teacher's hearing. That practice has since been changed to provide board members with detailed background materials and sufficient time to review the case before making a decision.

She also said that attorneys with the professional practices commission would offer stipulated agreements to teachers in exchange for waiving their hearing — similar to a plea bargain in which a criminal agrees to terms of their conviction — without approval or input from board members.

"We're the governing body. We're the licensing body," she said of the State School Board. "It took many months of pushback against UPPAC attorneys to make them change that."

Heidi Alder, an investigator and prosecutor for the Utah Professional Practices Advisory Commission, said attorneys would explain to educators that they were waiving a hearing only in exchange for a recommendation that would be subject to board approval. But in response to the board's concerns, there has been an effort to explain the function of the agreements more thoroughly.

"It’s just a recommendation," she said. "If they do (think it's binding), that’s a misunderstanding on the part of the educator."

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