PA Educator Ethics Update

Our Quest for the Training of Ethical Decision-Making

With thanks to Thomas W. Bailey, attorney-at-law, collaborator on ethics-in-education workshops
This blog is dedicated to pre- and in-service educators residing and working in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

News from the Pennsylvania Department of Education

In Pennsylvania (as well as the rest of the country), the statistics on school staff misconducts have been rising alarmingly. Sample data from Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE):

Involving more than 2545 PA school staff members since 2004 when they began reporting them, PDE maintains a database of all disciplinary infractions, the names of the offenders and their offenses here.

Besides criminal prosecution, based on the Pennsylvania Code of Professional Practices and Conduct for Educators, conduct that can trigger professional discipline include behavior defined as:

  • Immorality – Immorality is conduct which offends the morals of the Commonwealth and is a bad example to the youth whose ideals a professional educator or a charter school staff member has a duty to foster and elevate.
  • Incompetency – Incompetency is a continuing or persistent mental or intellectual inability or incapacity to perform the services expected of a professional educator or a charter school staff member.
  • Intemperance – Intemperance is a loss of self-control or self-restraint, which may result from excessive conduct.
  • Cruelty – Cruelty is the intentional, malicious and unnecessary infliction of physical or psychological pain upon living creatures, particularly human beings.
  • Negligence – Negligence is a continuing or persistent action or omission in violation of a duty. A duty may be established by law, by promulgated school rules, policies or procedures, by express direction from superiors or by duties of professional responsibility, including duties prescribed by Chapter 235 (relating to Code of Professional Practice and Conduct for Educators).

“Typically, charges initiated against a teacher on any of the grounds listed above may result in a hearing before a Professional Standards and Practices Commission (PSPC) hearing officer. If an educator elects not to contest the charges, however, a decision on the matter may be made without a hearing. When charges are brought against an educator on non-criminal grounds, the PSPC has discretion to determine if the conduct occurred, if the conduct constitutes one of the grounds for discipline, and what discipline should be imposed, if any. In contrast to cases arising on criminal grounds, the PSPC maintains full adjudicatory discretion in cases filed on the above-described grounds.”

Professional Standards and Practices Commission

Ethics Training… on a Personal Note!

As a music teacher for nearly a half-century (35 years full-time involvement in the public schools), not once did I experience someone other than myself and retired social studies teacher Thomas Bailey present a course, class, or even an hour-long workshop on ethics. Obviously, the growing statistics are a concern, but what do you expect when almost no PA-certified teacher you ask can name the title or content of his/her “code of conduct?” Updated frequently, a comprehensive section on this blog-site is devoted to a much-needed exploration of the definitions, research, sample case studies, and “conundrums” in professional and ethical decision-making. Here are some highlights of past articles for your perusal:

For PMEA, I have directed numerous professional development webinars or sessions at conferences. Check out the “free” materials posted here.

An excellent perspective on the judicial process for educator ethics prosecutions and interpretation of the PA law can be found on Thomas Bailey’s website and this blog-post.

Finally, it seems that the Pennsylvania Board of Education and PDE have also awakened to this “cause.” In the last several years, there’s been significant movement in the rewriting of statues and regulations, and mandating ethics training in future pre-service, induction, and in-service programs. Below is a quick look at the history (albeit a very slow progress) sponsored by our state government.

History of PA Legislative & Executive Branch Rules Revisions

Professional development workshops for PA Act 48 credit are offered by Thomas Bailey here.

What’s Needed for the Future? Let’s Renew the Mandate to Share Knowledge and Peer Engagement in Ethics Training

Based on Thomas Bailey’s and my experience in providing more than four years of local and state educator ethics and professional decision-making workshops, we recommend the following:

  • Presentations should be interactive, allowing time for group discussion, question/answer periods, and “empaneling the ethics jury” to review fact scenarios of identifying levels of ethical misconduct, violations of code and/or policies, and the possible negative consequences, risks, and harm to the students, school staff, and community-at-large.
  • Case studies should uncover all aspects of professional educator decision-making: pedagogy, enforcement, resource allocation, relationships, and diversity, and illuminate possible ethical conflicts, contradictions, or “conundrums.”
  • Content should include definitions of common vocabulary (e.g. “fiduciary”), and an in-depth examination of the PA Code of Professional Practices and Conduct, Public School Code of 1949 and the Educator Discipline Act, and PA Chapter 126.
  • In relation to the PDE Discipline Process, all educators in the Commonwealth should be made aware of PA “governance” and its three independent branches: legislative (statutes), executive (regulations), and judicial (case law), as well as their rights for due process.
  • Following the research of Troy Hutchings, the principles of educator “ethical equilibrium” and understanding the differences between a “code of conduct” (more explicit and well defined) vs. a code of ethics (more open-ended, based on the circumstances/context of the situation) should be discussed comparing representative examples.
  • Presenters should unpack and apply the standards in the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification (NASDTEC) Model Code of Ethics for Educators (MCEE). Since the PA Board of Education endorsed the NASDTEC MCEE in January 2017, little has been publicized (even on the PSPC website) about understanding and implementation of this national “teacher code of ethics.”

Thomas Bailey and I are available to present virtual or in-person workshops on professional and ethical decision-making of educators. Please email any interest or questions here.

PKF

© 2021 Paul K. Fox

Studies in PA Educator Ethics Case Law

Photo by Associated Press: Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court

Reviews of Court Cases on PA Education Regulations & School Staff Misconducts

Special thanks to guest blogger Thomas W. Bailey, current attorney-at-law and retired social studies teacher, who provides Act 48 courses of continuing education in professional decision-making, analyzing educator ethics, the law, PA Code of Professional Practices and Conduct, and discussion and interpretation of sample fact scenarios based upon classroom dilemmas.

Previously, this blog site (category = ethics) has offered numerous articles on defining issues of morality, ethics, regulations, professional aspirations, codes of conduct and codes of ethics, teacher-student relationships and boundaries, confidentiality, mandatory reporting, and reviews by “mock juries” of educator misconduct case studies. For my PMEA music education colleagues, PCMEA members, and education majors and newcomers to the profession throughout the Commonwealth, one area that still needs to be addressed is a discussion on Pennsylvania case law. One essential question is applicable to ALL pre- and in-service educators across the country: Have you informed yourself about the structure of YOUR state’s three branches of government, laws governing school staff responsibilities, prohibitions, and discipline, specific codes of conduct and/or ethics, and the judicial review process and case law?

“Ignorantia juris non excusat.” (Ignorance of the law excuses not.)

Manitoba Law Journal, October 1885

Thomas Bailey has provided an outstanding resource for learning more about PA regulations, court decisions, and putting into practice the values of ethical decision making. Below is a glimpse of his court case blog. Please visit his website for more detailed information and to sign-up for online classes: https://twbaileylaw.com/.

PA Commonwealth Court Case – Music Teacher Charged with Immorality

M.T. v. PA Department of Education: Analysis written by Thomas W. Bailey

Background

A male high school instrumental instructor and band director, M.T., began a romantic relationship with a 10th grade female band student (Student) in 2001 while employed for a Pennsylvania school district (District). M.T. continued the relationship with the Student to include sexual acts during her junior and senior years. The Student testified several sexual acts occurred within the District’s band room and band room office ending in 2004 with her graduation. M.T. continued to contact the Student when she attended college.  Her parents complained to the District of continual communication by M.T. while their daughter was in college.  In July, 2004 the District gave a written reprimand to M.T. to cease contact with the Student.  M.T. continued contacting the Student after the reprimand.

The Student subsequently broke off the relationship with M.T. in the Spring, 2005 and told her parents of their sexual relationship. The parents then contacted the District where M.T. was still employed.

In April, 2005, M.T. was suspended without pay by District based upon the parent complaint. 

PSPC website

On November 7, 2007, the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) filed a Notice of Charges with the Professional Standards & Practices Commission (Commission) and served a copy to M.T. Charges from the Educator Discipline Act (EDA) included immorality, negligence, intemperance, cruelty, incompetence, sexual abuse or exploitation, and violations of the Code of Professional Practice and Conduct for Educators (Code of Practices). The violations of the Code of Practices included provisions prohibiting the acceptance of gifts by teachers and prohibiting sexual conduct between a teacher and student. PDE also claimed that M.T. posed an immediate threat to the health, safety, and welfare of students and sought immediate suspension of his certificates.

The Commission appointed a Hearing Officer (HO) who heard three days of testimony from the Student, M.T. and others. M.T. was represented by counsel.

The HO’s recommendation to the Commission include his Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law which determined PDE had met its burden of proof on all but two charges. The Hearing Officer’s recommendation did not find M.T. to have given a prohibited gift to Student and that he was not an immediate threat to students. M.T. filed many exceptions with the Commission. M.T. claimed the technical rules of admissibility of evidence apply during Commission hearings, that his alleged, immoral conduct was not testified to by third party witnesses and that PDE did not offer sufficient evidence of professional incompetence, among other exceptions. PDE asserted M.T. remained an imminent threat to students. 

Upon review, the Commission denied M.T.’s exceptions, found him to be responsible on all charges except the gift and immediately revoked his teaching certificates.

Issues Before the Commonwealth Court

  1. Do the technical rules of courtroom evidence apply during an EDA hearing?
  2. What educator conduct constitutes immorality in a relationship with a student?
  3. What educator conduct constitutes lack of professional competence for an educator engaged in a sexual relationship with a student?
The Commonwealth Court of PA was established in 1968 and is one of two statewide intermediate appellate courts.

Commonwealth Court’S Opinion

Technical rules of evidence followed in courtroom litigation do not apply to a Commission Hearing Officer. The strict rules of evidence practiced in Pennsylvania Common Pleas Courts and US District Courts are not followed. All relevant evidence of reasonably probative value may be received.

Sexual intercourse with a student inside the band room office constituted educator immorality. “Immorality is conduct which offends the morals of the Commonwealth and is a bad example to the youth whose ideals a professional educator or charter school staff member has a duty to foster and elevate.” Third party testimony to the immoral acts was not necessary. Immorality with a student violated EDA Section 9c(1).

M.T.’s professional competence in teaching kids did not appear to suffer during the sexual relationship with the student. Incompetency is a continuing or persistent mental or intellectual inability or incapacity to perform the services expected of a professional educator or a charter school staff member. Absence evidence of failure to prepare for class or uphold assigned duties, the educator was not proven by the preponderance of evidence presented to be incompetent in his actions. PDE failed to carry its burden to prove this Charge.

Importance

Immorality of educator student sexual relationship defined in detail. Criteria for professional incompetence explained as well as PDE’s burden of proof before the Commission.  PDE must prove elements by preponderance of the evidence: over 50% of the evidence produced exhibits culpability. 2-25-21

M.T. v. PA Department of Education 56 A3d 1 (Pa. Commonwealth Court 2010)

M.T. pro se

Attorney Nicole Werner for Pennsylvania Department of Education

https://twbaileylaw.com/blog/court-cases-4

Additional Court Case Summaries on the Thomas Bailey Blog Site

It behooves us to learn more about Pennsylvania case law. Read and share these additional analyses They will enlighten you and may foster additional discussion with colleagues. Feel free to post your own comments on Thomas Bailey’s website.

The final court judgment (Horosko v. Mt. Pleasant Township SD above) is one of the oldest, dating back to 1939, and may be considered the foundation and precedent for current PA school employee regulations and discipline, especially in the confirmation of the following quote from the PA Professional Standards and Practices Commission of the Pennsylvania Department of Education:

“Professional expectations do not always distinguish between teachers’ on or off-duty conduct. Accordingly, teachers must act in their private lives in a way that does not undermine their efficacy in the classroom, demean their employing school entity, or damage their position as a moral exemplars in the community.”

Unit 1, The Ethics of Teaching (Ethics Tool Kit)

What you say or do, both inside and outside the classroom, can and will affect your teaching effectiveness, professional reputation, and school employment status! But, if it is ever needed, be sure to know and exercise your rights, obtain the advice of a competent attorney, and avail yourself of due process.

PKF

© 2021 Paul K. Fox