Is an educator student sexual relationship, which continued after the student graduated from high school, still grounds by which to sanction the educator?
12 June, 2021 by
Thomas W. Bailey
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Background: A male high school instrumental instructor and band director, M.T., began a romantic relationship with a 10th grade female band student (Student) in 2001 while employed for a Pennsylvania school district (District).  M.T. continued the relationship with the Student to include sexual acts during her junior and senior years.  The Student testified several sexual acts occurred within the District’s band room and band room office ending in 2004 with her graduation.   

 M.T. continued to contact the Student when she attended college.  Her parents complained to the District of continual communication by M.T. while their daughter was in college.  In July, 2004 the District gave a written reprimand to M.T. to cease contact with the Student.  M.T. continued contacting the Student after the reprimand.

 The Student subsequently broke off the relationship with M.T. in the Spring, 2005 and told her parents of their sexual relationship. The parents then contacted the District where M.T. was still employed.  

 In April, 2005, M.T. was suspended without pay by District based upon the parent complaint.   

 On November 7, 2007, the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) filed a Notice of Charges with the Professional Standards & Practices Commission (Commission) and served a copy to M.T.  Charges from the Educator Discipline Act (EDA) included immorality, negligence, intemperance, cruelty, incompetence, sexual abuse or exploitation, and violations of the Code of Professional Practice and Conduct for Educators (Code of Practices).  The violations of the Code of Practices included provisions prohibiting the acceptance of gifts by teachers and prohibiting sexual conduct between a teacher and student. PDE also claimed that M.T. posed an immediate threat to the health, safety, and welfare of students and sought immediate suspension of his certificates.

 The Commission appointed a Hearing Officer (HO) who heard three days of testimony from the Student, M.T. and others.  M.T. was represented by counsel.

  The HO’s recommendation to the Commission include his Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law which determined PDE had met its burden of proof on all but two charges.  The Hearing Officer’s recommendation did not find M.T. to have given a prohibited gift to Student and that he was not an immediate threat to students.  M.T. filed many exceptions with the Commission.  M.T. claimed the technical rules of admissibility of evidence apply during Commission hearings, that his alleged, immoral conduct was not testified to by third party witnesses and that PDE did not offer sufficient evidence of professional incompetence, among other exceptions.  PDE asserted M.T. remained an imminent threat to students. 

 Upon review, the Commission denied M.T.'s exceptions, found him to be responsible on all charges except the gift and  immediately revoked his teaching certificates.

 

Issues before Commonwealth Court: 1. Do the technical rules of courtroom evidence apply during an EDA hearing? 2. What educator conduct constitutes immorality in a relationship with a student? 3. What educator conduct constitutes lack of professional competence for an educator engaged in a sexual relationship with a student?

 

Commonwealth Court’s opinion: Technical rules of evidence followed in courtroom litigation do not apply to a Commission Hearing Officer. The strict rules of evidence practiced in Pennsylvania Common Pleas Courts and US District Courts are not followed. All relevant evidence of reasonably probative value may be received. 

Sexual intercourse with a student inside the band room office constituted educator immorality. “Immorality is conduct which offends the morals of the Commonwealth and is a bad example to the youth whose ideals a professional educator or charter school staff member has a duty to foster and elevate.” Third party testimony to the immoral acts was not necessary.  Immorality with a student violated EDA Section 9c(1).

 M.T.'s professional competence in teaching kids did not appear to suffer during the sexual relationship with the student. Incompetency is a continuing or persistent mental or intellectual inability or incapacity to perform the services expected of a professional educator or a charter school staff member. Absence evidence of failure to prepare for class or uphold assigned duties, the educator was not proven by the preponderance of evidence presented to be incompetent in his actions. PDE failed to carry its burden to prove this Charge.

 

Importance: Immorality of educator student sexual relationship defined in detail.  Criteria for professional incompetence explained as well as PDE's burden of proof before the Commission.  PDE must prove elements by preponderance of the evidence: over 50% of the evidence produced exhibits culpability. 2-25-21

 

M.T. v. PA Department of Education 56 A3d 1 (Pa. Commonwealth Court 2010)

 M.T. pro se

Attorney Nicole Werner for Pennsylvania Department of Education

 

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