We’d like this to be a fair process. We’d like it to be a collaborative process where the State Board engages the stakeholders in trying to do what’s best for the profession. —Tracey Watson, general counsel for the Utah Education Association
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."
Alder said executive sessions, or closed meetings where board members discuss and vote on personnel issues, were also moved from the end of the day — when board members are exhausted from hours of meetings — to the middle of the day to allow a more thorough review.
"There has been a request for more discussion," she said.
But even with those changes, Castle said more is necessary and those practices that have evolved need to be codified in policy to ensure consistency moving forward.
"That’s why we’re asking for some firm guidelines about what happens," Castle said. "We’re trying to get them nailed down so that the cow will stay milked when some of us are not here anymore."
Of particular concern to Castle is the frequency in which a teacher's license is suspended as a result of potentially criminal activity — such as lewdness or viewing offensive material on school computers — without that activity being screened by law enforcement.
In some cases, she said, those teachers spend a mandated amount of time outside the classroom and reapply for a teaching license with a spotless criminal record. The policy has been changed to require reporting to law enforcement. But Castle said many cases remain in the pipeline that have not been subject to screening by district attorneys.
"We still have teachers who are committing crimes, UPPAC is lifting their licenses because of crimes they’ve committed and then we’re relicensing them again and those crimes are never reported to law enforcement agencies," she said. "Looking at porn at your home is not a crime. Looking at porn at school is a crime."
She also said that too many educators were given the impression that their teaching licenses would be automatically reinstated after three years, when in fact they merely have the ability to apply for reinstatement after that period.
"They should bring something to the hearing on how they have remediated themselves," Castle said. "You can’t just go home and watch TV for three years and come back and tell us you’ve done what you needed to do."
Alder said the commission has changed the language it uses in reviews as a result of that request, making it clear that there is no guarantee a former teacher will be allowed back in the classroom.
She also said that in 2012 and 2013, a total of 15 teachers applied for reinstatement and all but four were told that further remediation would be necessary before they applied for licensing.
"I think it's a sound process," Alder said. "In terms of the rigour of the review, I can tell you my investigations, the other investigator and the commission itself reviews these cases in depth."
Tracey Watson, general counsel for the Utah Education Association, said it is important in discussing disciplinary actions that a teacher's right to due process is protected. She said educators initially felt like they didn't have a voice in the discussion on licensing policies but the association has since been invited to participate in the debate.
"We’d like this to be a fair process," she said. "We’d like it to be a collaborative process where the State Board engages the stakeholders in trying to do what’s best for the profession."
While the Utah Education Association agrees that certain conduct must be punished, Watson said there are many instances and scenarios that exist in a gray area. She gave the example of an altercation with a student, where no two cases are identical and must be evaluated individually.
The board is focused on end-of-line measures to dissuade misconduct, she said, but there also needs to be training and education to prevent the misconduct from happening in the first place.
"Nobody is disputing that sexual conduct is not permissible," she said. "What’s less clear and what there are more examples of is conduct that falls outside the criminal arena — conduct that isn’t clearly right or wrong."
She said the education association will continue to work with the State Office of Education and State School Board in improving the review process. But she added that she does not see the same problems with the advisory commission that some members of the board share.
"I feel like the UPPAC process is currently a fair process," she said. "Can we make it better? We can always make something better."