Like students, teachers must work hard and be on their best behavior at all times.
When necessary, district officials have the power to deploy legal means to fire a classroom instructor--even one who has earned tenure--if his or her conduct puts students' academic well-being in jeopardy or reflects badly on the school system.
Three common scenarios can prompt dismissal proceedings: behavior on campus, behavior off campus, and egregious actions that inspire a district to challenge previously attained tenure. Below are several court cases that provide cautionary examples of how teachers and administrators can be drawn into the dismissal vortex.
What happens off campus does not stay off campus
The leading case on the rights of a tenured teacher occurred 17 years ago at the U.S. Supreme Court. In Cleveland Board of Education v. Loudermill, the Court explained that nonprobationary employees who are threatened with dismissal are entitled to notice of the charge against them, an opportunity to present their perspective in a fair hearing, and a chance to examine the evidence gathered to support the decision.
Fairly or not, the reality is that teachers are deemed role models for students and pillars within the community. Bad acts away from school that undercut that elevated status can inspire serious consequences. Consider the case of Nancy Zelno, a tenured teacher in Pennsylvania at an alternative high school.
Zelno, who led a drug and alcohol avoidance program, pled guilty on May 5, 1999, to her third driving under the influence offense and her second driving with a suspended license violation. As punishment, Zelno was sentenced to jail time on weekends during the school year and full-time the following summer. The Lincoln Intermediate Unit No. 12 Board fired her under a state law permitting termination for "immorality" or "intemperance." When the Pennsylvania secretary of education backed the school system, Zelno went to court, explaining that her crimes did not diminish her teaching ability, and she did not corrupt the morals of students.
In a 2001 decision, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania rejected Zelno's arguments. While immorality was not specifically defined in the law, the court concluded that " ... Zelno's behavior offends the morals of the community and sets ... a bad example to students whose ideals she as a teacher is supposed to foster. This affects her credibility and impacts her ability to teach."
on campus teachers must take care of business
Roberta Weisbecker, a pregnant probationary teacher in the Sayville (N.Y.) Union Free School District took her maternity leave and failed to complete key duties before exiting in 2009. According to court papers, Weisbecker did not leave the substitute teacher enough information to finalize report card grades; in addition, academic assessments necessary to determine the grades went undone.
Based on those serious oversights, the principal and superintendent recommended to the Sayville Board of Education that Weisbecker be fired. She resigned before the board could vote.
Weisbecker then sued in federal court under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits gender discrimination (including pregnancy) in the workplace.
The school district won the case at summary judgment, a litigation stage at which both sides have submitted preliminary evidence and the court decides if there is enough proof to earn a trial. The District Court for the Eastern District of New York said Weis-becker's claim of an "adverse job action" and pregnancy discrimination were both flawed. The ruling stated that no adverse action existed because Weisbecker resigned ahead of a scheduled hearing that would have allowed her to explain her side. Evidence of gender bias was slim, the court observed. The opinion also noted that Weis-becker was on maternity leave, so a jury could not reasonably conclude she was essentially forced from her job due to intolerable working conditions.
Legally guaranteed job rights for teachers
Related to the discussion of teacher dismissal are state tenure laws, which provide two-way protections. They help teachers acquire special job security after proving their instructional prowess, and they enable school districts to terminate faculty who fail at teaching duties or seriously misbehave.
Tenure laws differ from state to state, but generally full-time teachers are divided into two categories: probationary and tenured. After about three to five years, teachers qualify for the height-ened job protection that comes with tenure status and can be dismissed only under certain circumstances, such as:
* Immoral character;
* Conduct unbecoming;
* Neglect of duty; or
* Failure to maintain certification.
Clearly state tenure laws aren't perfect: The time from start to finish in removing an admittedly incompetent teacher can be way too long, and the process can be so cumbersome that principals opt for rotation rather than confrontation.
Tenure law reformers are increasingly turning to the courts, not state legislatures, as the true battleground. In Michigan, a pending lawsuit challenges the new Teacher Tenure Act as unconstitutional. Among other things, the revised Michigan law extends teacher probation from three to five years. The law also changes the legal standard making it easier to shed tenured teachers. Previously, a district required "reasonable and just cause" to legally terminate. Now, the bar has been lowered to permit dismissal for any reason that is not "arbitrary or capricious."
On May 31, 2012, the Michigan Tenure Commission issued its first decision applying the arbitrary and capricious standard. In Frank Cona v. Avondale School District, the commission sided with a school board's decision to dismiss a teacher. The panel overruled an administrative law judge who reinstated the teacher with simply a 20-day pay loss.
The commission wrote, "If there is a reasoned explanation for the decision, based on the evidence, the decision is not arbitrary or capricious." According to the Michigan Association of School Boards' web site, the commission ruling is before the Michigan Court of Appeals.
In California, a group called Students Matter filed a lawsuit in state court in May 2012 on behalf of eight students in four school districts. The complaint states that, "A handful of outdated laws passed by the California legislature are preventing school administrators from maintaining or improving the quality of our public educational system by denying them the flexibility to make teacher employment decisions driven by the needs of their students ... [and] force school administrators to keep teachers in the classroom long after they have demonstrated themselves to be grossly ineffective."
Easier said than done
Ultimately, laws reflect our collective values and beliefs as captured by elected officials and legal decisions. The issue of teacher quality is one of the hottest topics in education. While communities find it easy to justify starting termination proceedings against a teacher who has committed a bad act, deciding the criteria for performance evaluations is more difficult. Thus, the crucial question is whether test score performance, principal or peer evaluation, or other criteria, alone or in combination, will yield the right answers.
Dismissal laws and district policies, therefore, must strike a balance. The law should afford assurances to public servant teachers who are literally paving the path toward the future. By contrast, for individuals who don't have the underlying skills to succeed, the rebuke should be swift and sure, with laws permitting districts to enact a quick and decisive exit.
RELATED ARTICLE: Questions and actions for school lawyers, administrators, parents, and teachers to consider
What grounds for firing are provided by your state's tenure laws?
What does the hiring pipeline look like, and can better upfront practices reduce the necessity for teacher dismissals?
Does your district policy address the off-campus expectations for employees?
Are principals trained and encouraged to document the performance of instructors and to keep precise records in the event that litigation occurs?
Is your school district prepared with a public relations strategy to counter the emotional backlash if there is justifiable cause to dismiss a long-standing and popular teacher?
EDWIN C. DARDEN (email@example.com) is director of education law and policy for Appleseed, a freelance writer, adjunct law instructor, and managing partner of The Education Advocacy Firm, Springfield, Va.…