Three Key Takeaways from Decision on Teacher Dismissal for Erratic Behavior
A recent Illinois State Board of Education hearing officer decision upheld the dismissal of a tenured teacher who engaged in off-topic rants in the classroom, stored pornographic images on a district laptop, and refused to undergo a fitness for duty examination despite multiple instances of erratic and threatening behavior. The decision touches on a wide range of issues including when a teacher on a remediation plan can be dismissed for cause based, in part, on conduct that is a subject of the remediation plan and whether surreptitious recordings in the classroom are protected by the Illinois Eavesdropping Act. The case is an excellent roadmap for the steps that school personnel administrators should take when responding to erratic behavior by an employee. For those who are not able to review the entire 75-page decision, we summarize the case and key takeaways for school leaders below.
The case involved a tenured teacher who was dismissed based on charges that he engaged in grossly unprofessional behavior and exercised extremely poor judgment by storing pornographic images on his work computer, engaging a student in transferring the pornographic images from his personal cellular phone to a flash drive using his work computer, using class time for off topic rants with no relation to his courses, and refusing to submit to a fitness for duty examination despite extremely erratic and at times threatening behavior that worsened during the administration’s investigation into his misconduct. After six days of hearing, the hearing officer determined that the board of education established cause for dismissal.
Notably, this was not the first time that the teacher had shown erratic and troubling behavior. Indeed, one day after he started a remediation plan addressing off-topic rants in the classroom, he spent the majority of a class period engaging in identical behavior. The teacher’s conduct had been recorded in the classroom by students without the teacher’s knowledge. The Hearing Officer rejected the teacher’s argument that the school district could not rely on the evidence because of the Illinois Eavesdropping Act, noting that teachers do not have a reasonable expectation to privacy during a routine class in a public-school classroom.
The Hearing Officer found the teacher’s conduct, even after being placed on a remediation plan, was grossly unprofessional and, when coupled with other behavior, could not have been addressed even by the plan. She explained: “If the only issues were that . . . he was still going on bizarre off-topic rants and using sarcasm too freely, a mentor teacher might have been able to work with him during the remediation period,” but “those were far from the only types of unprofessionalism and misconduct uncovered” in the case.
The other misconduct at issue included the teacher storing pornographic images on his work computer, which clearly violated school policy, and asking a student to transfer the photos. The Hearing Officer found that coercing a student to “perform a personal task for the teacher unrelated to the educator-student relationship” during a sports meet clearly “undermin[ed] the District’s mission towards its students.”
The teacher also engaged in frightening and, at times, implicitly threatening communications with district administrators during the investigation into his misconduct. Based on that irregular behavior, the administration directed him to submit to a mental health fitness for duty. He refused. The Hearing Officer determined that on those facts, the teacher’s refusal to comply with a directive from administration to submit to a fitness for duty examination was insubordination and cause for dismissal.
Overall, the Hearing Officer found that the teacher’s conduct demeaned students, interfered with the pace of their education, and subjected them to a toxic teacher-student relationship that was counterproductive and undermined the constructive environment expected in school.
Such conduct was irremediable per se because it was negligent and even cruel. The Hearing Officer noted: “It does not require expert testimony to suggest that by abusing his power and authority over his students, [the teacher] inflicted psychological harm on these students.”
Even if it were not irremediable per se, it would be irremediable under the Gilliland test because of the damage to students, the faculty, and the school. This was found to be particularly true with respect to the teacher’s refusal to submit to a fitness for duty evaluation.
Importantly, the Hearing Officer recognized that the teacher’s refusal to recognize the seriousness of his conduct or take responsibility for his errors demonstrated that he could no longer be a good teacher or positive role model for students.
Key Takeaways for School Leaders
This case provides a number of important takeaways for school leaders, including:
- Patience Is Key. Even in the face of increasingly erratic behavior by an employee, it is important to keep calm and follow your investigative and administrative procedures. In this case, the school district administration showed remarkable patience in the face of increasingly troubling conduct by the teacher. That patience was key to the Hearing Officer’s decision that the teacher’s conduct, in sum, was cause for dismissal.
- Document All Misconduct. The Hearing Officer found a number of different types of conduct to be cause for dismissal: the ranting despite a prior warning through the remediation plan process; storing pornographic photos on a school device and pressuring a student to transfer the photos between devices for the teacher; and the teacher’s refusal to submit for a fitness for duty examination despite his progressively more disturbing communications with administration. Each of these types of conduct might not, on its own, be cause for dismissal, but together they were sufficient for the Hearing Officer to support dismissal. This highlights the importance of documenting and following through on all potential misconduct by an employee when seeking dismissal.
- Keep the Pressure for Compliance On. Based on the Hearing Officer’s decision, it is likely that the teacher’s termination would have been upheld even if the only conduct he engaged in was refusing to undergo the fitness for duty examination. The Hearing Officer focused on the reasonableness of the directive to submit for the examination, which was not genuinely at issue in the case. Moreover, administrators gave the teacher opportunity after opportunity to submit for the examination, and he did not. That persistence may have been key for the insubordination finding, and so should be used as a model by other school leaders facing similar issues in the future.
The school district was represented at hearing by Franczek P.C. attorneys Shelli Anderson and Jackie Gharapour Wernz. For more information on this or any other school personnel matter, contact the authors of this alert or any other Franczek attorney.