Ethical Educator

Precedent Without Policy
School Administrator, May 2017

Scenario: A much-loved high school history teacher is arrested for driving under the influence. It’s his second arrest for drunk driving, with the previous arrest taking place more than 10 years prior. The district has no policies on dealing with misdemeanor arrests of staff, and the state board tells the school district the matter should be dealt with locally. The superintendent is left worrying about what precedent to set with any decision he makes. How should he proceed?

Shelley Berman:
Driving under the influence of alcohol is a troubling and potentially dangerous offense, one we continually counsel students against. Being arrested twice for this offense, even though the arrests were years apart, may indicate the teacher has a serious problem with or addiction to alcohol. At the very least, it is evidence of extremely poor judgment.

At this point, the teacher’s use of alcohol apparently has not been evident in the classroom. However, news of his arrest will probably travel quickly, undermining his standing among students and parents. His position as an authority figure and role model will likely be diminished. In addition to having a negative impact on his professional and personal life, the arrest is apt to result in the loss of his driver’s license, making it harder for him to meet his responsibilities at school and at extracurricular activities.

The superintendent and the principal must begin an investigation that includes reviewing the police report on the latest arrest and then meeting with the teacher to hear his perspective. They will need to determine whether this incident represents a potential addiction to alcohol. Because alcohol abuse or addiction is considered a medical problem, they may need to make a referral to an Employee Assistance Program or an addiction treatment center and provide a medical leave of absence if the teacher undergoes treatment. Even if addiction isn’t present, the teacher’s irresponsible use of alcohol necessitates a referral for therapy or counseling with the understanding that another alcohol-related incident, even some years in the future, could jeopardize his career and employment.

As for setting a precedent, the superintendent will want to treat this case as a medical or mental health issue, taking steps that will enable the teacher to resolve the alcohol use or addiction problem and return to teaching, with the understanding that another similar event could end his teaching career. 

Sarah Jerome:

The superintendent should proceed on two courses of action: investigation of the history teacher and creation of a policy to guide practice in similar future events. The first step in the investigation is to examine the facts, provide due process, determine whether the misconduct has a relationship to the person's ability or fitness to perform assigned duties, and determine the impact on the school and educational community. The superintendent may want to consider a leave of absence for the teacher so the teacher can be assessed and receive treatment as warranted by the assessment.

The district needs a policy to guide practice in this matter and all similar situations in the future. In creating a policy, the following need to be considered:

» Most states provide guidelines for license revocation, license suspension and dismissal for felony and certain misdemeanor convictions. The policy needs to recognize these parameters.

» The conduct may have had an adverse affect on students, fellow teachers, education community and the degree of that adversity must be determine.

» Consider the credential held by the teacher. Was the teacher a driver's education instructor? Was the teacher a health education instructor? Does the teacher work with students on making wise and judicious decisions? Does the misconduct impair the teacher's ability to teach and be a role model to the students? Does the teacher transport students as part of the duties?

» Consider proximity and remoteness in the time of the conduct.

» Consider whether students were involved.

» Consider motives.

» Consider the likelihood of recurrence.

» Consider the publicity and notoriety given to the conduct.

» Consider requiring annual background checks and receipt of subsequent arrest notices.

» Consider whether school property was involved. Was it a district vehicle or was the offense on school property or on a school field trip?

» Consider the legal consequences such as probation, fines, incarceration, restricted driver’s license.

» Consider whether bodily injury occurred.

Many states suggest private admonishment on first offense and have policies in place to address public revocation or suspension for immoral or unprofessional conduct or unbecoming of a teacher or for persistent defiance of and refusal to obey the laws regulation the duties of persons serving in public school systems.

The bottom line is that teachers are held to a higher standard of conduct than the general public and if the community is offended by the conduct of the teacher, it is likely that the teacher will either resign or be released. The consequences for each misdemeanor increases the likelihood of license suspension or revocation. Drunk driving is a serious matter and must be treated seriously by the district. The job of protecting students and encouraging quality educators is paramount.

Mario Ventura:
The superintendent should take under consideration that educators, like other licensed professionals, are held to higher levels of personal and professional conduct. Inappropriate behavior that violates the law can have adverse effects on the community’s trust in our profession.

The superintendent should have a conversation with the governing board about staff conduct outside of the workplace and the importance of maintaining community trust. Although the state board allows these types of incidents to be dealt with at the local level, a drunk driving conviction is a very serious offense in other states and could be cause to revoke licensure. Therefore, it is within reason that the governing board consider a recommendation for the development of a policy that sets the expectation for all employees to conduct themselves in an ethical and legal manner outside of the work place.

Maggie Lopez:

The superintendent needs to talk to district legal counsel and get guidance on next steps. Many variables must be considered, including state statutes where this incident occurred, laws, and district policies on how to address substance abuse by staff. The teacher’s legal rights regarding continued employment, leave of absence or termination also must be discussed. The superintendent will be expected to make a recommendation on whether this teacher returns to his classroom. 

Teachers serve as role models for students and the community. This incident presents a difficult situation for all involved. The teacher is much loved, but he has made a poor choice that will inevitably have an impact on his students. The superintendent needs to be sure to proceed in a manner that is both legal and most appropriate for the district (inclusive of the students, staff, school board and the teacher).  

As educators who care about students and staff, we always want to believe that everyone deserves a second chance. Sometimes however, the choices our students and staff make can end up with consequences that leave us few positive options. Hopefully in this case, after reviewing all data, there is a way to find an equitable resolution.

An additional piece for the superintendent to consider is the fact that the arrest is public record and could become widely known to the community. No matter what recommendation the superintendent ultimately makes regarding this staff member, it will be critical to have a plan for how to address questions and concerns that could arise. The district should send a clear message that drinking and driving are not acceptable. Additionally, the district should immediately develop a policy regarding misdemeanor arrests.

Each month,
School Administrator draws on actual circumstances to raise an ethical decision-making dilemma in K-12 education. Our distinguished panelists provide their own resolutions to each dilemma. Do you have a suggestion for a dilemma to be considered? Send it to:

The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, superintendent, Andover, Mass.; Sarah Jerome, a retired superintendent in Arlington Heights, Ill., and an AASA past president; Maggie Lopez, a retired superintendent in Pueblo, Colo.; and Mario Ventura, superintendent, Isaac School District, Phoenix, Ariz.