The state panel that investigates teacher misconduct cases is accused of pushing for unfair punishments. Now it faces an audit.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Utah State Board of Education members Carol Lear and Kathleen Riebe listen to comments during a February board meeting.

The Utah Board of Education voted unanimously Thursday to review the state panel that investigates teacher misconduct amid accusations that it has handed out uneven and unfair punishments.

The audit comes as part of a settlement from two lawsuits, one filed by a teacher who had his license permanently revoked and the other by a teacher who had his temporarily suspended. They accused the Utah Professional Practices Advisory Commission, or UPPAC, of recommending harsher-than-necessary and often inconsistent discipline. The last time the panel was reviewed was in 2014, after a spike in sexual impropriety allegations against Utah instructors.

“There was some merit to some of their points,” said Ben Rasmussen, UPPAC’s executive secretary and director of law and professional practices for the board. “We felt it would be in everyone’s best interest to settle and look at how we can improve the process.”

One of the teachers, Eric Kohler, was accused in 2015 of grooming a female student and talking to her about his sexual dreams. The other, Michael Furness, was investigated in 2014 and 2015 for allegedly harassing colleagues and excessively disciplining a student who has special needs. Neither was criminally charged.

As part of the settlement, Kohler’s revocation was shortened to a 4½-year suspension; Furness’ three-year suspension was reduced to 1½ years.

“At no time did either of these teachers say they did nothing wrong,” said Tracey M. Watson, general counsel for the Utah Education Association, which represented the two instructors along with the legal firm Zimmerman Booher. “But it was an age-old question: Did the punishment fit the misconduct?”

Kohler and Furness’ attorney Julie Nelson added that the review should help “make sure everyone’s interests are heard," from parents to teachers to administrators. “We are happy with the settlement and the review.”

The board of education’s audit of UPPAC will include creating a seven- to 11-member committee to examine the proceedings of the panel for “overall fairness,” from the initial decision to open an investigation to the final action. The task force will be appointed by board Chairman Mark Huntsman and will include teachers and lawyers and one member of the Utah Education Association, per the settlement.

“It’s probably good to get it done,” Huntsman said of the review. “I think it’s time.”

UPPAC is itself an 11-member advisory commission that hears cases against teachers accused of a range of misconduct, including sexual improprieties, fiscal mismanagement and inappropriate drug and alcohol use on school grounds. It recommends a punishment — including suspension or revocation of a teaching license — to the board of education.

Teachers who violate professional standards account for less than 1 percent of the more than 31,000 licensed educators in Utah. Since 1992, the state board has revoked or suspended about 300 licenses. (State law automatically and permanently revokes licenses for instructors convicted of criminal sexual activity with a minor.)

In 2018, UPPAC has opened 68 cases against teachers. Last year, it opened a 10-year high of 81.

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

“I would have no problem with a review of our commission,” said Jo Jolley, a member of UPPAC for the past three years.

Members of the board of education, which have sometimes had a tense relationship with the disciplinary panel, supported the review during a 20-minute discussion Thursday. Kathleen Riebe, who represents District 10 in Cottonwood Heights and took part in the settlement negotiations, said one thing she hopes to see out of it is a clearer list of the consequences for teachers.

“If you do A, then B will happen. If you do C, then D,” she said. “As I teacher, I want those. If people know they’re going to lose their job, then they’ll be more aware of what’s going to happen.”

The current process for punishment was created before the widespread use of social media, Riebe added, so updates to those standards would also be welcome.

Board member Carol Barlow Lear, who represents District 7 in Salt Lake City, heralded the settlement as a win “in lieu of a longer, more expensive, ongoing disputation.”

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