Utah teachers may face training about avoiding sexual misconduct before they can get or renew a license

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Utah State Board of Education Vice Chair Brittney Cummins speaks at a news conference at the Capitol, as the Utah State Board of Education presented its legislative priorities on Jan. 28, 2019.

The state school board wants to require anyone applying for a teaching license to first complete training on misconduct — focused on behaviors, such inappropriate contact with students, that could lead to discipline.

The recommendation, presented Thursday, comes from a task force that examined how to improve the process teachers face when they are accused of improper behavior in the classroom. The group was formed last year after the Utah Board of Education settled two lawsuits from educators who said they were unfairly punished.

Several rule changes suggested by the task force will be reviewed in committee next month. But the board voted unanimously to move forward Thursday with the idea of requiring more training as part of the licensure process. That would include additional training, too, when teachers renew their licenses.

“Educators need comprehensive training regarding conduct and educator discipline,” said Brittney Cummins, who sat on the task force and serves as vice chair of the board of education. Many, she added, do not have a clear understanding of the standards for teachers.

Currently, those applying to be teachers are asked to study the rules, and questions about them appear on the licensing exam. Under the change, they would have to complete an online training module on ethics, misconduct and discipline.

Creating the module will cost roughly $600,000, said Deputy Superintendent Angie Stallings, so the next step is to request funding from the Legislature.

“The task force felt that existing requirements for educators to regularly read the educator standards rules and complete a ‘review’ for re-licensure have done little to address this problem,” the recommendation reads.

One of the teachers who sued over his discipline, Eric Kohler, was accused in 2015 of talking to a female student 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, the revocation of Kohler’s teaching license was changed to a 4½-year suspension; Furness’ three-year suspension was reduced to 1½ years. The state board was also audited and decided to review how it could handle cases better in the future — looking at when misconduct should be reported, how long an investigation takes and whether discipline is handed out evenly.

The Utah Professional Practices Advisory Commission, or UPPAC, is an 11-member advisory panel that hears cases against educators accused of a range of misconduct, including sexual improprieties, fiscal mismanagement and inappropriate drug and alcohol use on school grounds. It recommends a punishment — such as a warning letter, suspension or revocation of a teaching license — to the board of education.

Board members can then vote whether to uphold the recommended discipline or not.

In 2019, UPPAC has received 59 cases against teachers. Last year, it saw a 10-year high of 119.

The last time the panel itself was reviewed was in 2014, after a spike in sexual impropriety allegations against Utah instructors.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Teachers who violate professional standards account for less than 1% 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.)

Some members of the board of education, which have sometimes had a tense relationship with the disciplinary panel, questioned Thursday why UPPAC exists when there is already a legal process for those accused of criminal misconduct to go through the state court system.

“I have had concerns about UPPAC since I got elected to the state school board,” said member Michelle Boulter, who represents parts of southern Utah. “Where’s that line when we sit as judge and jury?”

Boulter also mentioned a recent St. George case where a teacher was sentenced to life in prison after pleading no contest to molesting students over a 32-year career at an elementary school. In court filings, 31 women and girls between the ages of 12 and 41 spoke out against Curtis William Payne, 60, and said he had touched them inappropriately.

Payne had only ever received one letter of warning from UPPAC, Boulter said.

(However, court documents allege that Washington County School District received multiple complaints about Payne’s behavior dating to 1999 and never removed him from the classroom. He was given warnings at least three times, as recently as 2008, to not allow students to sit on his lap and to keep some lights on in his room when showing a movie in class. The district says those incidents were referred to both police and the Division of Child and Family Services, but there was never enough evidence found to file charges.)

“For 30 plus years, he was molesting children and is now going to jail,” Boulter said. “Should we tell parents not to let their concerns go through UPPAC because the teachers will just be allowed back into the classroom?”

Cummins said that the state already requires schools and districts to report when allegations of child abuse comes up. That’s part of why she believes that training will be beneficial — so that everyone understands those rules.

Additionally, UPPAC deals only with licensing issues. So a teacher could be referred to the panel and have his or her license revoked. And they could also go through the criminal justice system and be reprimanded that way.

“They’re parallel processes that have different functions,” Cummins added.

What school districts have been reporting to UPPAC, though, has been inconsistent. So some of the rule changes would address the requirements for what misconduct requires a mandatory report to the disciplinary panel.

As part of the review of the process, the task force also recommended expediting the timeline for issuing punishment and removing the word “grooming” from the guidelines about boundary violations. Cummins said that was because such violations extend beyond that, and she didn’t want school districts to limit it only to grooming. The group will continue to collect data, too, and look at the process again in another year.

In the initial data it released Thursday, the findings show that most of the 389 cases of teacher discipline from 2015 to now have involved an educator violating a student’s boundaries, such as inappropriate touching. That accounted for 98 cases. Violence was second, with 76. And sexual misconduct was third at 40.

Additionally, most of the cases reported to UPPAC came from charter schools, with 59 reports. Davis School District was next with 48.

Since 2015, most UPPAC investigations — 57 — resulted in a letter of warning. There were 54 suspensions, though, and 24 license revocations. And there was no action taken on 47 cases.

The training module would go through the different types of misconduct and the possible consequences.