Is it immoral for the Director of a Pennsylvania vocational-technical center to physically threaten to punch one educator and then three hours later threaten to put a gun to the head and shoot a second educator?
13 June, 2021 by
Thomas W. Bailey
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Background: H.H. was the Director of the Jefferson County-DuBois Area Vocational-Technical School (School) in 1985.  The ruling body of the School was the School Committee (Committee).   H.H. was convicted of the Summary offense of Harassment in 1985.  The Pennsylvania Crimes Code reads in relevant part: “A person commits a summary offense when, with the intent to harass, annoy or alarm another person: (1) he strikes, shoves, kicks or otherwise subjects him to physical contact, or attempts or threatens to do the same…”

 The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court’s (Court) opinion in this case does not discuss who the victim was or the details of the offense.  The Court’s opinion does contain portions of the School solicitor’s letter written to H.H., on behalf of the School Committee, as a result of the 1985 conviction.  The letter directs H.H. to: “have no physical contact with any employee, union, non-union or otherwise.  Such physical contacts are not necessary and often cause problems which hold the School in a bad light.   Therefore, you must refrain from such things and make a conscious effort to treat (School) personnel and employees with due respect.  Failure to do so will be considered a violation of the Committee’s directives.”

 Thereafter in 1989, H.H. and five other School administrators were organized as members of the School’s Student Assistance Program Training (SAPT) team.  School rules required attendance of all team members at each SAPT session.  H.H.’s SAPT team members missed one of the SAPT scheduled meetings.  As a consequence, the SAPT team members were told they would not be permitted to continue to attend future SAPT training sessions.

 Nevertheless, H.H. sought to gain permission from SAPT training coordinators for his team to continue to attend the SAPT sessions.  In October, 1989 H.H. attempted to gain this permission by confronting two different SAPT coordinators.  A heated discussion ensued in both instances.  The Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Education (Secretary) determined that the first SAPT coordinator’s version of what happened to be more credible than H.H.’s.  According to this SAPT coordinator: “H.H. grabbed the front of the coordinator’s shirt with his left hand and raised his right hand, made a fist and stated that ‘if anybody did that to his people again, he would…’.”

 Three hours later, H.H. met with the second SAPT coordinator, the head counselor.  Once more, the Secretary found the head counselor’s version of what happened next more believable than H.H.’s version.  The head counselor stated: “… H.H. indicted his displeasure with what he considered to be inappropriate training tactics and remarked ‘If anyone ever did this to his people again, he would put a gun to their head and shoot them’.”

 As a result of the 1985 Summary conviction, the Solicitor’s letter and the two 1989 threats to the SAPT coordinators, the Committee voted to institute dismissal charges against H.H.   The Committee conducted hearings to gather information.  Following the hearings, the Committee dismissed H.H. on the grounds of immorality, persistent and willful violation of school law, persistent negligence and cruelty.

 H.H. appealed his dismissal to the Secretary.  The Secretary reviewed the record from the Committee hearings.  The Secretary determined the Committee’s dismissal of H.H. on grounds of immorality, persistent and willful violation of school law and persistent negligence was supported by the evidence and confirmed the Committee’s dismissal.  The Secretary took no action regarding the cruelty charge.

 

 

Issues on appeal to Commonwealth Court: The Court agreed to review the Secretary’s actions on the three charges to determine whether they were supported by substantial evidence. 

 

Court opinion: First, the Court discussed H.H.’s background at the School.  This included the 1985 Summary Harassment conviction, Solicitor’s letter and both physical confrontations with the SAPT coordinators. Thereafter, the Court reviewed the Secretary’s reasoning in confirming his dismissal.

 The Court stated that an educator must not exhibit conduct that offends the morals of the community and that would constitute a bad example to the students.  It is these students, whose ideals an educator is supposed to foster and elevate.   The Court then recognized that the Secretary determines whether or not educator conduct actually offends the community’s moral standards referring to Everett Area School District v. Ault, 120 Pa Cmwlth Ct 514, 348 A2d. 1341 (1988). 

 In Ault, two classroom teachers participated in a “last day of school” water pistol battle with the same group of students in consecutive periods.  Unfortunately a few students were injured due to one teacher accidently mixing cleaning soap in his squirt gun water.  The school entity suspended one of the teachers and terminated the other.  The Court determined participation in the water pistol battle did not amount to an immoral act on behalf of the teachers and reduced the school entity’s punishment for both educators.

 In the case at hand, the Court concluded that the Secretary’s decision to find H.H.’s conduct to be immoral was based only upon the 1985 Harassment conviction.  The Court reasoned “the mere conviction of a summary offense for harassment” does not constitute immorality.   The Court cited no legal authority for this point.  The Court did recognize that prior educator convictions for the summary offenses of sexual misconduct and shop lifting had constituted immoral conduct in the past before this same Court.

 The Court never mentioned the 1985 Solicitor’s letter or either of H.H.’s 1989 confrontations with the SAPT coordinators.  “We, therefore, conclude that H.H.’s dismissal on immorality grounds is not supported by substantial evidence and is therefore, invalid.”

 Regarding persistent willful violation of school law, the Court declared the Secretary must find three prerequisites exist: persistence, willfulness and violation of school rules.  Persistency requires a series of individual incidents. 

 In reviewing the Secretary’s order, the Court only discussed H.H.’s 1989 assaults on both SAPT coordinators.  No mention was made of the earlier 1985 Harassment conviction or the 1985 Solicitor’s letter.  The Court reasoned that because only three hours passed between Horton assaulting the first SAPT coordinator and the second SAPT coordinator, not enough time had passed to satisfy the requirement of a series of incidents over time.

 “Contrary to the Secretary's conclusion, however, we do not find that the two isolated encounters between H.H. and SAPT personnel constituted a series of events, thus satisfying the standard for persistence. Regardless of whether H.H.'s conduct was willful or he in fact violated a school law, the occurrence of two incidents less than three hours apart hardly rises to the level of persistence. We, therefore, conclude that H.H.'s dismissal on this basis is not valid.”

 Finally, the Court discussed willful negligence.  The Court recognized that H.H. stated that he never received an unsatisfactory annual evaluation by the School Committee.  Next, the Court once again wrote that the necessary prerequisite of persistence was missing.  H.H.’s two assaults upon the SAPT coordinator within a span of three hours did not constitute “persistent.” 

 “Accordingly, we reverse the order of the Secretary and reinstate H.H. to his position as director of the School.”

 

 

Importance of this Case:  I recognize that I have not read details of H.H.’s 1985 Harassment conviction or the Secretary’s decision in his case.  I have also not heard H.H.’s view of the two confrontations with the SAPT personnel.

 Having stated these disclaimers, this opinion is one of the worse Commonwealth Court decisions I’m aware of for two reasons.  The first is entirely emotional and based upon my 26 years of classroom teaching.  I doubt any of the members of this Court have taught in Pennsylvania’s public schools.  No classroom teacher wants to be supervised by an administrator with H.H.’s temperament.   To be subject to threats and the arbitrary use of force while teaching, perhaps during a classroom observation in front of 30 students, is unacceptable.  The Court chose to ignore, for some reason, facts from the findings of the Committee and the Secretary.

 Secondly, the Court has created a two-tiered standard to evaluate claims of educator misconduct.  All “school leaders” are educators.  In my experience reading educator misconduct appellate cases, if a teacher had committed these same acts over several years, they would be terminated and any appeal to the Commonwealth Court denied. There is no room in Pennsylvania public education for case law which creates dual standards of behavior for educator misconduct.

 I applaud the decisive dismissal action taken by the Committee and the Secretary’s agreement with same.  Only non-educators would allow H.H.’s conduct to continue to poison a public school community.    6-13-21

 

Homer Horton v. Jefferson County – DuBois Area Vocational Technical School Committee (PA Commonwealth Ct. 1989) 630 A2d 481, 157 Pa Cmwlth 424, 85 Ed. Law Rep 897.

 

Anthony S. Guido, DuBois, for Mr. Horton

Gerald Bish, Brookville, for the Committee

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