Officials spar over tougher rules for misbehaving teachers
Can a Utah educator be convicted of poaching a deer, using a cellphone without permission or writing a bad check and still be a good teacher?
All those offenses can be felonies under state law. And a new set of guidelines under debate for cracking down on teacher misconduct calls for revoking a teacher's license when the educator is convicted of a felony.
The new draft rules, now before the Utah Board of Education, seek to toughen the state's approach on permanent license revocations in misconduct cases as well as extend the recommended length of many license suspensions.
Utah educators who get in professional trouble represent a tiny fraction of the more than 31,600 men and women licensed to teach in the state, but high-profile cases of sexual abuse of students by teachers continue to grab headlines.
The situation has driven an emotional, divisive and time-consuming discussion by the state school board in recent months.
Several members said the protracted debate is drawing attention away from other major education issues such as testing, school accountability and implementation of the controversial Common Core math and English standards.
"We do have other responsibilities," Utah Board of Education Chairwoman Debra Roberts said.
Most rank-and-file teachers, meanwhile, are unaware of the new guidelines.
"We have so many decisions like these that are made without our input," said Leigh VandenÂAkker, an award-winning teacher at East High School in Salt Lake City. "If you're not at the table, you're on the menu. And teachers are getting tired of being on the menu."
Other educators noted that a majority of school personnel problems don't rise to the level of licensing issues and are instead dealt with as employment matters by principals, superintendents or, in rare cases, local school boards.
"The district just encourages them to leave," said Laura Laycock, a second-grade teacher at Freedom Elementary School in Highland, echoing the experience of many colleagues statewide.
Because any criminal sex abuse conviction leads to automatic license revocation for Utah teachers, the board's new proposed rules target a range of other behavior, including noncriminal sexual conduct, misuse of drugs and alcohol, financial mismanagement, violent behavior and other offenses.
Several school board members also take aim at the Utah Professional Practices Advisory Commission, or UPPAC, a panel of nine educators and two community members that reviews misconduct allegations that may lead to licensing sanctions against teachers.
Key board members accuse the panel of being unduly lenient over the years in its sanctions against offending teachers and of failing to recognize early signs of problem behavior before it escalates. Perhaps the most outspoken critic is Leslie Castle, board member from Salt Lake City, who calls UPPAC "a committee run amok."
Between Utah teachers who are physically violent, those who reoffend repeatedly, and an upsurge in teachers viewing pornography at school, Castle said, "I don't think the process is working.
"It may be working for teachers," she said, "but it ain't working for students."
Largely due to Castle's lobbying in recent years, the school board now more closely scrutinizes the details of sanction plans against teachers, known as stipulated agreements, that it had sometimes previously left to UPPAC's discretion.
"They're irritated by it," Castle said of fellow board members. "I think it pisses them off."
But other board members, leading educators and attorneys familiar with UPPAC roundly dispute Castle's claims, saying instead that UPPAC's process is sound, fair, rigorous, in-depth and deliberative.
"These are people who believe in education,"' said Doug Larson, a Granite School District lawyer who also serves as a UPPAC hearing officer. The panel's system of investigations and hearings on licensing sanctions, Larson said, "gets it right most of the time."
UPPAC has used sanction guidelines internally for years. Larson and others said that adding the new board-imposed "presumptive" guidelines threatens to erode UPPAC's ability to adjudicate each instance of misconduct based on the unique facts and circumstances.
"Looking at conduct is the way to go, and you can't have a bright line on that," retired 3rd District Judge Sandra Peuler said. "It has to be case by case."
Some observers warn the new rules could damage Utah's ability to recruit and retain good teachers. And some warn inconsistent punishments could draw a flurry of lawsuits and court appeals over claims that license revocations unfairly destroy some teachers' ability to earn a living.
"If they see it as disproportionate," said Carol Clawson, a former Utah solicitor general and part-time hearing officer for UPPAC, "You're going to have more appeals because people will have no choice."
Join us for a Trib Talk
Join Jennifer Napier-Pearce Monday at 12:15 p.m. for a live Trib Talk video chat at sltrib.com during which she'll talk about proposed changes to Utah's teacher conduct rules with Utah Board of Education members Jennifer A. Johnson and Kim Burningham and reporter Tony Semerad.
You can join the discussion by sending questions and comments to the hashtag #TribTalk on Twitter and Google+.
Read related stories
Read Tribune stories analyzing Utah teacher misconduct, the growing role of technology and rise in cases involving porn that appeared in Sunday's print edition, available at sltrib.com.