School Administrators/Local Education Agencies
The commission believes that local school entities, as well as teacher preparation institutions, share in the responsibility of promoting the integrity of the education profession. School districts and other local school entities play a unique role in creating a climate within their schools that fosters ethical conduct and practice. Achieving this climate is accomplished through effective policies, productive in-services, good hiring practices, zero tolerance for professional misconduct, and a commitment to the profession at large.
The commission offers its support to local school entities in these areas. To that end, we welcome your suggestions and questions and we ask that you consider the following:
You are already aware that the most important decisions a school entity makes involves hiring. It is incumbent upon you as an employer to screen carefully prospective employees through reference checks, the employment history review process, the certification system where applicable, and the mandated criminal record and child protective services checks.
The certification status of all certificated educators can be verified by accessing the Teacher Information Management System (TIMS). Any public discipline that has been imposed against an educator will be noted on the individual's record. If there are questions about an individual's certification, you will be directed to contact the office of chief counsel for further information. It is your responsibility to ensure not only that your employees hold active certification, but also that their responsibilities fall within the scope of their certification. It is also recommended that when hiring individuals for a non-certificated position, that the individual be reviewed to determine whether they hold or held educator certification or other licensure and whether the individual was ever the subject of discipline with respect to the certification or license.
In addition, Section 111 of the Public School Code of 1949 (24 P.S. Section 1-111) requires that all prospective employees submit state and federal criminal record checks prior to employment. Section 111 specifically creates various hiring prohibitions on public and private schools from hiring an employee whose criminal record check reflects certain convictions. Act 153 of 2014 added additional clearance requirements with respect to volunteers and mandated that clearances be renewed every 36 months.
Frequently asked questions about Act 153 requirements
Finally, Act 168 of 2014 requires all school entities and independent contractors of school entities to conduct an employment history review for applicants for employment in positions where there is direct contact with children.
Frequently asked questions about Act 168 compliance (PDF)
Another issue, contract abandonment, has emerged as a recurring problem for many districts. Apparently, educators have been signing contracts with one district and yet continuing to apply and interview with other districts. On many occasions, the educator will accept a second position and fail to follow the notice requirements specified in the Public School Code of 1949. It is not uncommon for some educators to not provide any notice to the first district. As you know, this course of action not only violates the Public School Code it constitutes in many cases a breach of contract.
While this practice is not specifically prohibited in the educator discipline act or the code of professional practice and conduct, school entities can take action to reduce significantly the incidence of contract abandonment by implementing consistent policies. Specifically, the commission recommends that school entities immediately query candidates whether they have or have not entered into a contract with another district. Should the school entity discover that the candidate has entered into such a contract, the school entity should consider whether to continue the interview process.
While it is impracticable to have a policy on every issue or activity that may result in professional misconduct, it is recommended that school entities develop policies on issues related to boundary violations with students, the use of social media and sexual misconduct. A significant number of the cases that come before the commission involve inappropriate relationships or communications with students.
In addition, school entities should consider incorporating the code of professional practice and conduct into a local policy. The code sets forth the values and standards of behavior that should be expected of all professionals.
Misconduct under the
Educator Discipline Act (PDF) includes incompetency, immorality, negligence, intemperance, cruelty, sexual misconduct, sexual abuse or exploitation, violations of
Pennsylvania's Code of Professional Practice and Conduct for Educators, violations of 24 P.S. §1231, founded reports under the child protective services law and arrests and convictions of crimes involving moral turpitude or crimes listed in section 111(e) of the public school code. In addition, educators who fail to fulfill their obligations under the act, including mandatory reporting, or who misuse the disciplinary process or threaten or harass individuals who use the system in good faith may also be prosecuted.
The actual activities that form the basis for discipline can occur in or outside of the classroom. There is no requirement that the conduct be directly related to the performance of professional duties on school grounds. In fact, much of the criminal activity that results in convictions is unrelated to the school or students. For example, an educator who is convicted of any crime involving fraud (i.e., receiving stolen property, theft by deception, tax evasion) will lose his or her certificate automatically as the crime involves moral turpitude.
The non-criminal conduct that is actionable is often related to professional duties. Such conduct runs the gamut from misuse of school property, including computers, to engaging in sexual and romantic relationships with students. Conduct involving sexual misconduct comprises the clear majority of the cases that come before the commission. 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.
Certainly no one enters the education profession with the goal of becoming a professional investigator. Unfortunately, investigatory skills have become an important facet of an administrator's toolkit. While school entities should secure training opportunities for staff that is charged with investigating allegations of misconduct, we provide the following general "tips" for your consideration. Please note, however, that in all investigations, the local school entity should coordinate their efforts with local law enforcement or child protective services investigators when relevant. The local school entity should not take any actions that would jeopardize or interfere with the criminal or child protective services investigation.
- Develop an investigation protocol that provides for prompt and fair investigation of complaints
- Investigate all complaints immediately even if there has been a delay in reporting
- Do not discourage complainants or unilaterally decide allegations are false
- Collect all physical evidence supporting complaint ... Preserve evidence
- Determine whether other officials need to be notified of complaint; i.e., police, child welfare, PDE
- Impress upon potential witnesses/interviewers the confidential nature of the investigation
- Do not guarantee that the complainant can remain anonymous if complaint is to be fully investigated
- Consult with solicitor concerning appropriateness of contacting parents
- Designate the "investigator", who should be instructed not to take sides and remember that investigator can be called as a witness in any subsequent litigation
- Investigator should interview not only complainant, teacher, but anyone who might have knowledge of the relevant facts
- Re-interview witnesses where there are factual conflicts
- Prior to interviews, prepare questions, select a location with limited distractions and privacy
- Interview witnesses individually
- Refrain from sharing details of allegations with witnesses
- Consider obtaining written statements
- Interview educator after collecting facts from complainant and witnesses
- Allow educator to be accompanied by union representative where appropriate
- Document the scope and conclusion of the investigation
- If allegations are determined to have merit, take prompt appropriate action; if no merit is found, share this conclusion with complainant and educator.
The educator discipline act mandates that the chief administrative officer of a school entity report to the department within 15 days any educator:
- Who has been provided with notice of intent to dismiss or remove for cause, notice of removal from eligibility lists for cause, or notice of intent not to reemploy for cause;
- Who has been arrested or convicted of any crime that is graded a misdemeanor or felony;
- Against whom there are any allegations of sexual misconduct or sexual abuse or exploitation involving a child or student (no longer requires administrator to have reasonable cause to believe the allegations before reporting);
- Where there is reasonable cause to suspect that he or she has caused physical injury to a child or student as the result of negligence or malice;
- Who has resigned or retired or otherwise separated from employment after a school entity has received information of alleged misconduct under the educator discipline act;
- Who is the subject of a report filed by the school entity under 23 PA.C.S. CH. 63 (relating to child protective services); and who the school entity knows to have been named as a perpetrator of an indicated or founded report under 23 PA.C.S. CH. 63.
Mandatory Report Forms: Failing to submit mandated reports may result in discipline against the chief administrator's certification or eligibility to be employed.
In keeping with the commission's belief that every school entity and every educator has a responsibility to maintain the integrity of the profession, we suggest that your reporting responsibilities exceed those mandated in the act. All professional misconduct should be investigated and reported to the department for review. If the report is not mandatory, the educator complaint form should be submitted.
Please note that individuals who file mandatory reports or complaints in good faith are protected from civil liability. Similarly, immunity extends to those who provide information or cooperate in an investigation or prosecution unless the individual acted maliciously.
If you have questions about whether a report to the department should be made, please contact the office of chief counsel at 717-787-5500.
Confidentiality Agreement Ban
The act specifically prohibits a school entity from entering into any agreement with an educator or an educator association whereby the school entity agrees not to comply with its mandatory reporting duties or other duties in the act.
The educator discipline act mandates that all information related to any complaint, any complainant, or any proceeding related to discipline remain confidential until or unless public discipline is imposed. Breaches of confidentiality can result in a conviction for a misdemeanor of the third degree.
The confidentiality provisions do not apply to proceedings based on indictments or convictions for crimes involving moral turpitude or crimes listed in Section 111(e) of the Public School Code of 1949. Proceedings involving reciprocal discipline are also not confidential.
School entities are not, however, prohibited from disclosing information known prior to the disciplinary proceeding, developed in the course of their own investigations or information previously made public as a result of a local employment disciplinary or dismissal proceeding.
Staff is available to provide on-site workshops on educator misconduct, professional discipline, and investigation strategies. In addition, the commission has created an eight module ethics toolkit that provides a variety of video and case studies to use with staff to explore ethical responsibilities, including appropriate boundaries with students.