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
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.
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
- Do the technical rules of courtroom evidence apply during an EDA hearing?
- What educator conduct constitutes immorality in a relationship with a student?
- What educator conduct constitutes lack of professional competence for an educator engaged in a sexual relationship with a student?
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.
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
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.
- Zelno v. Lincoln Intermediate Unit No. 12 Board of Directors: Can a school entity terminate an educator for “immorality” after their third DUI conviction?
- Slater v. PDE & Professional Standards Commission: If an educator is arrested for new criminal charges alleging conduct which appears to pose a threat to the welfare of students, will their certificate immediately be suspended pending outcome of the new charges?
- Homer Horton v. Jefferson County – DuBois Area Vocational Technical School Committee: Is it immoral for the Director of a Pennsylvania vocational-technical center to physically threaten to punch one educator and then three hours later threaten to put a gun to the head and shoot a second educator?
- Nichols v. ARIN Intermediate Unit 28: Can a school entity’s local policy restrain employees from wearing religious emblems as jewelry, but allow secular emblems to be worn?
- Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Education and Carol Bittner v. Jersey Shore Area School District: Although a Superintendent did not issue an annual rating for several educators for each of two years, are those educators still entitled to “professional employee” status after the second year?
- Cleveland Board of Education v. James Loudermill: May a school district employee be dismissed without prior opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing or be forced to wait nine months later to determine if the dismissal was proper?
- Horosko v. Mt. Pleasant Township SD: May a school entity terminate an educator if she does not “command respect and good will of the community” surrounding the school?
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.
© 2021 Paul K. Fox