Information for Educators
My duties as a professional educator
There are over 700,000 educators under the commission’s jurisdiction and over 160,000 educators who work in schools across the commonwealth, including traditional public schools, charter and cyber charter schools, licensed private academic schools. The vast majority of these educators are highly competent and committed members of the education profession. It is the misconduct of the few, however, that impugns the integrity of the profession and gives rise to the need for professional discipline.
As an educator in Pennsylvania, you have made a commitment to uphold the values that are made explicit in the code of professional practice and conduct for educators. This code should guide your actions and relationships with students, parents, colleagues and the community at large.
Educators have long been viewed as moral exemplars and as role models within our society. In order to be an effective educator, you must recognize the moral component of education and your fiduciary responsibilities to the students in your charge. As a "fiduciary" you are expected to act in the best interests of the students at all times. In addition, as a member of a profession, you have the unique privilege of self-regulation. One of the challenges of self-regulation is the concomitant duty to report misconduct and to protect students from conditions that are harmful or unsafe. It is only by working together to enforce high ethical standards within the education community that we can ensure the quality of education in the commonwealth.
Under the amendments to the professional educator discipline act, effective February 16, 2014, all educators are obligated to file a mandatory report with the department of education whenever they have knowledge that the action or inaction of another educator may involve sexual misconduct or sexual abuse or exploitation.
Steps to take if a complaint is filed against you:
The educator discipline act provides that any interested party may file a complaint against an educator for misconduct with the department of education. While the complaint review system is designed to cull out frivolous or meritless claims, complaints remain under investigation until the department determines that there is no legal sufficiency to proceed, the complaint lacks probable cause, the complaint should be dismissed, or that local discipline action by a school entity is sufficient.
If you are the subject of a complaint, the department will inform you of the nature of the complaint by letter. The identity of the complainant will not be disclosed unless that information becomes necessary in your defense against the allegations. It is also important that if you know or think that you know the source of the complaint that you take no steps to confront, harass or intimidate the complainant.
As soon as you become aware that a complaint has been filed against you, it is recommended that you carefully review the allegations lodged against you. If applicable, you are encouraged to contact your union representative or an attorney. Union representatives are generally very familiar with the discipline process and can provide you with support and guidance throughout the process. If you are working in a private school or currently not working, you should consider consulting an attorney for advice.
What to expect after a complaint has been filed against me:
After a complaint has been filed, it is reviewed to determine whether the complaint is legally sufficient to warrant discipline. If the complaint is found wanting, it is dismissed at this stage. The legal sufficiency review involves accepting the facts stated in the complaint as true and then determining if the facts would warrant educator discipline. If legal sufficiency is found, then the staff attorney conducts a preliminary investigation, which includes seeking information from you and the employing school entity where applicable. In addition, the legal office may interview prospective witnesses and the complainant. The purpose of this second review is to determine whether there is probable cause to believe that grounds for discipline exist or whether the allegations are supported by accompanying documentation. If probable cause is not found, the complaint will be dismissed.
When probable cause is found, the department's legal office conducts a full investigation. In cases involving arrests or convictions for crimes involving moral turpitude or section 111(e) crimes, the process is expedited and the investigation typically is limited to securing certified copies of court records evidencing the arrest or conviction. Where the complaint is based on factual allegations that do not fall within these two categories of crimes, the department's legal office can elect to refer the complaint to the local school entity for investigation or can choose to retain the investigation. In either case, the department's legal office must conduct either a follow-up investigation or a full investigation. Given the complexity of investigations and the uniqueness of every case, it is difficult to predict the length of an investigation.
After completion of the investigation, the department must decide whether the case should be dismissed, whether a formal notice of charges should be filed with the commission, whether local disciplinary action by a school entity is sufficient, or whether the case can be resolved through a settlement agreement. All settlement agreements must be approved by the commission.
Once a notice of charges is filed against an educator, the case is managed by the commission. In cases involving factual disputes, the commission may assign a hearing officer, who will conduct a hearing and recommend a decision to the commission. The commission meets bi-monthly at which time it renders adjudications on specific cases. Decisions adverse to you can be appealed to commonwealth court.
What are my rights in the disciplinary process:
The commission is committed to ensuring that your rights are protected during the review, investigation and prosecution process. To that end, complaints must be made subject to the penalties related to unsworn falsifications and cannot be anonymous. You will be advised of the specific allegations against you in writing. Investigations will be conducted in an impartial manner. You will have an opportunity to provide exculpatory information to the investigator. You have the right to seek legal counsel and will be given an opportunity to provide a written response to the notice of charges. At all stages of the proceeding, you will be notified in writing of the department's decisions. In the event of a hearing, you have the right to appear and an opportunity to defend against the charges. The commission's hearing officers will conduct fair and efficient hearings. The commission, as final adjudicator of your case, will remain impartial at all times.
Should I respond to the notice of charges:
One of your rights is to be provided with notice of the charges against you and to have an opportunity to respond to these allegations. You have 30 days to respond to charges after the charges have been deposited in the mail. If you elect not to respond within that timeframe, the commission may enter a decision against you without benefit of your answer to the charges. It is of little benefit to plead your case to the commission or the commonwealth court after a decision has been rendered against you if you did not respond initially to the charges.
Should I request a hearing:
A hearing provides an educator with an opportunity to present witnesses or evidence in support of his or her case or explain any mitigating circumstances. The decision to request or to waive one's right to a hearing should be made carefully.
If my case is going to be argued before the commission, should I attend the meeting:
While it is not necessary to attend the meeting if you are represented by an attorney who will be appearing on your behalf, the commission recommends that you attend whenever possible. Your personal appearance is especially important if the commission is going to rule on your application for reinstatement.
What is the format of commission meetings:
The commission meets every other month (typically January, March, May, July, September, and November) at the Department of Education in Harrisburg. The meetings are public with the exception of the discussion of disciplinary matters and other issues that fall outside of the scope of the sunshine law.
Before hearing the disciplinary cases on the agenda, the state board ex officio representative provides a report. The department then proceeds to present the disciplinary cases on the agenda. Each case is called and representatives of the department and the affected educator are allowed to address the commission. The appearance is not a hearing, but more akin to an oral argument. As a general rule, the commission will not be taking testimony or receiving new evidence from the parties.
At the close of the oral arguments, the commission will enter an oral ruling on the cases. A written opinion reflecting the decisions will be issued within the next few weeks. The time frame for appeal of a commission decision starts from the date that the written decision is mailed and not the date of the meeting at which time the decision was made.
What are the most serious allegations lodged against an educator:
At all times it is incumbent upon educators to maintain a professional relationship with students, colleagues and the public and to recognize the trust that is placed in educators by virtue of their position as an educator. The most serious allegations of professional misconduct involve boundary violations and sexual misconduct or sexual abuse or exploitation with students.
Actionable sexual misconduct in a school environment is much broader than the legal concepts of "sexual abuse" or "sexual harassment". While conduct that constitutes sexual abuse or harassment is included in the concept of sexual misconduct, sexual misconduct means:
Any act, including, but not limited to, any verbal, nonverbal, written or electronic communication or physical activity, directed toward or with a child or a student regardless of the age of the child or student that is designed to establish a romantic or sexual relationship with the child or student. Such prohibited acts include, but are not limited to, the following: (1) sexual or romantic invitations; (2) dating or soliciting dates; (3) engaging in sexualized or romantic dialogue; (4) making sexually suggestive comments; (5) self-disclosure or physical exposure of a sexual, romantic or erotic nature; or (6) any sexual, indecent, romantic or erotic contact with the child or student.
"sexual abuse or exploitation” is defined under the child protective services law.
In most cases where sexual misconduct is established, the commission will revoke an educator's certification. Note that consent of a child or student to engage in sexual misconduct is not a defense or a mitigating factor in any disciplinary proceeding.
How to avoid allegations of misconduct:
It is important for you to understand the position of trust in which you are held and societal expectations concerning your conduct. Typically, educators who exercise good judgment in their interactions with students, colleagues, and the public do not run afoul of the law or the prescribed standards of conduct. In exercising judgment, you should be mindful of the values set forth in the code of professional practice and conduct as well as the following considerations:
- Avoid activities that may reasonably raise concerns as to their propriety;
- Do not engage in activities directed towards developing a relationship with a student beyond the recognized boundaries of a teacher/student regardless of the student's age;
- Avoid making comments of a personal nature or suggestive in tone to a student;
- Avoid any sexual or romantic contact with a student regardless of the student's age or apparent consent;
- Avoid inviting students to your home;
- Avoid seeing students in isolated or private situations;
- Avoid sharing information of a personal nature about yourself with students;
- Avoid giving personal gifts to a student;
- Avoid exchanging notes, e-mails or other communications with a student of a personal nature;
- Avoid situations which could be construed as posing a risk to the student or facilitating an inappropriate relationship with students;
- Refer students to the appropriate resource if they are in need of counseling; and
- Be mindful of your reputation in the community.
The most important thing you can do to protect yourself against allegations of misconduct is to:
Be informed - understand the rules and laws that oversee your conduct, including the code of professional practice and conduct for educators, policies of your employer, and pertinent state and federal laws.
Remember - let your actions be guided at all times by the best interests of the student.
What should I do if I suspect that one of my colleagues has been engaged in professional misconduct:
As a professional educator, you have an obligation to protect students from conditions that are harmful or unsafe and are prohibited from knowingly and intentionally withholding evidence about violations of an educator's legal obligations. In addition, you have an obligation to the profession to uphold its values. It is the commission's position that individual educators have a responsibility to intervene when they suspect misconduct. Such intervention may involve a report to a supervisor or the filing of a complaint. As stated above, the amendments to the educator discipline act, which are effective February 16, 2014, now mandate that all educators are obligated to file a mandatory report with the department of education whenever they have knowledge that the action or inaction of another educator may involve sexual misconduct or sexual abuse or exploitation.