Utah schools don’t always report teacher misconduct — and that could allow some educators to harm students again, audit says

Shortcomings in the way Utah educators are disciplined could — and, in one documented case, did — allow them to reoffend, according to a report released Tuesday.

The state auditor examined how Utah’s public education system sanctions educators found guilty of misconduct and handed down four findings:

• In “several cases” local education agencies — school districts and charter schools — violated state law by not reporting educator misconduct to the Utah Professional Practices Advisory Commission, which investigates such claims.

• The failure to report misconduct may have allowed teachers fired for misconduct to reoffend at other schools.

• School officials making hiring decisions don’t have easy access to information about past misconduct from applicants.

• Despite all that, the school board’s licensing discipline “has improved.”

Using a small sample of teachers' personnel files and other documents, auditors found 58 cases of alleged misconduct between 2008 and 2018 that should have been reported to the advisory commission but weren’t. During that same period, the commission was made aware of and investigated 647 reports.

Among the cases that should have been reported, auditors found allegations of a teacher sexually harassing female students, in one case touching the neckline of a girl’s shirt; a teacher watching pornography on a district computer; a teacher offering extra credit for female students to dress a “certain way;" a teacher throwing a wrench at a student; and a teacher telling two female students he or she would like to watch them kiss.

In the review, auditors found 20 cases in which teachers taught elsewhere before they were reported to the advisory commission for misconduct. In one case, a teacher was fired after several acts of misconduct that were never reported to investigators. That person went on to teach at another school, where the educator “once again committed misconduct.”

The report states that had the teachers' initial misconduct been reported to the advisory commission, it would have investigated and potentially prevented the later misconduct.

The audit emphasizes the need for school districts to report misconduct — defined as “immoral, unprofessional or incompetent behavior,” ethics violations, sex-related felony convictions and sexually explicit conduct with students — to the advisory commission.

It also addressed concerns school officials had about past misconduct cases not being readily accessible for them to consult. It recommended the state school board make a searchable database of previous teacher discipline.

While the review found “some older cases” in which discipline was “too lenient" for teachers, it also found that new rules have improved the consistency and degree of punishment. The audit still recommends the state school board continue to “evaluate and refine” its protocols.

The audit also stated schools may not be reporting misconduct to the advisory commission because of unclear language in its rules. The audit recommended the school board clarify its rules.

In a response to the audit, board of education Vice Chairwoman Alisa Ellis wrote, “The [board] is committed to making sure our state has safe classrooms, which are staffed by highly qualified, effective educators.”

Ellis said the board was committed to investigating misconduct and holding school districts accountable. She also said the board is establishing a review group to examine disciplinary protocols.