The Risks of Not Moving Forward with Teacher Termination

Most school district administrators are aware of the significant burdens involved in firing tenured teachers in California – the extensive due process rights, the amount of time involved, and the legal fees.  But as one small school district in the Bay Area recently learned, there are also significant risks in not moving forward with termination.

In May 2010, years ago, a five-year-old autistic child was thrown to the floor by a 52-year-old kindergarten teacher and kicked on the ground when he would not join the circle of her students. The matter was apparently witnessed by about a dozen people, including at least one adult instructional aide who allegedly took the teacher outside to try to calm her down.  After four days on administrative leave, the teacher was transferred to another classroom, and given a “Notice of Unprofessional Conduct.”  A year later, the victim’s family sued the school district, the teacher, and the school principal, claiming battery, negligence, failed mandated reporting duties and other infractions.  The teacher pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor child abuse charge in October 2011 and received four years probation, along with a year of child abuse training and an order to stay away from her victim, according to recent news reports.  Still, the District did not move to terminate her employment, or even limit her access to children.

Earlier this month, the district finalized a $950,000 settlement with the victim’s family.  As part of the settlement, the teacher agreed to be taken out of the classroom and to retire at the end of the school year.  The announcement of the settlement has set off a wave of outrage in the community, and in local newspapers, where nobody can understand how the teacher was not fired.

The District and its attorney have tried to explain how hard it is to fire teachers in California.  But the audience isn’t buying it.

Yes, it is very hard, and very expensive, to fire a tenured teacher in California.  But it isn’t impossible.  And school districts shouldn’t be so cautious about moving forward with disciplinary action that they create even more potential liability, not to mention bad publicity.  There appeared to be little excuse for not complying with the mandatory child abuse reporting requirements in this case.  Moreover, during the course of the litigation, it was revealed the other disabled children had made abuse allegations in the past.  While those allegations may have been difficult to verify, given the credibility and communication issues involved with special needs children, that doesn’t mean the employer was powerless to take action, particularly given that there were generally other adults in the room.

School districts can and should be proactive when dealing with potentially abusive teachers in the classroom.  A prompt and thorough investigation should be performed regarding all allegations, separate and apart from reporting the allegations to CPS and/or police.  No allegation of abuse should go unreported and/or undocumented.  Any decision regarding the termination of a tenured teacher should be made in consultation with an attorney well versed in the intricacies of the teacher termination process, and after a thorough examination of all the relevant facts, taking into consideration the risks of action, and inaction.

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