Firing a Teacher Is Getting Easier: Courts Are Becoming an Important Arena for Those Bent on Raising Student Achievement by Firing Teachers Who Are Deemed Incompetent

By Darden, Edwin C. | Phi Delta Kappan, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Firing a Teacher Is Getting Easier: Courts Are Becoming an Important Arena for Those Bent on Raising Student Achievement by Firing Teachers Who Are Deemed Incompetent


Darden, Edwin C., Phi Delta Kappan


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. …

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