Serious educator misconduct is exceedingly rare, but stories of neglect and abuse of children by teachers are deeply troubling. In Ohio, laws help to ensure that unprofessional educators cannot simply leave one school and commit further misconduct at another.
Q: What is educator misconduct?
A: Ohio law has long prohibited “conduct unbecoming” the teaching profession, and in 2008, the Ohio State Board of Education specifically defined such misconduct in the Licensure Code of Professional Conduct for Ohio Educators (Code). These rules require educators to:
• behave in a professional manner;
• maintain a professional relationship with all students;
• accurately report information required by the local board of education or governing board, state education agency, federal agency or state or federal law;
• adhere to federal, state and local laws and statutes regarding criminal activity;
• comply with state and federal laws related to maintaining confidential information;
• serve as positive role models and refrain from using, possessing or unlawfully distributing illegal or unauthorized drugs;
• ensure that school property, public funds or fees paid by students or the community are used in the best interest of students and not for personal gain;
• fulfill all of the terms and obligations of their employment contract.
Q: What happens when an educator is accused of violating the Code?
A: It depends on the seriousness of the allegation. The vast majority of allegations found to be true are handled internally by school districts. A school does not have to report violations to the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) if the teacher continues to be employed, but if the teacher leaves the school’s employ due to actual or alleged misconduct, then the school must file a report. When ODE receives such a report, it determines if an investigation is appropriate. Nearly 90 percent of these reports are found to be without merit, either due to a lack of evidence of misconduct or because ODE determines that the alleged misconduct is not serious enough to warrant discipline. When discipline is warranted, possible penalties range from admonishment to denial, suspension and revocation of an offending educator’s license.
Q: Who makes a report to ODE, and when is it required?
A: Anyone can report suspected educator misconduct. Reports of prior criminal convictions, which are automatically generated from licensure applications and periodic background checks of current educators, represent the vast majority of reports ODE receives. Children services and school districts are the next largest sources of reports. Some school district reports are voluntary, but districts must report to ODE whenever an employee leaves employment due to actual or alleged misconduct, or when an investigation into alleged misconduct is underway. This report is required whether the employee is fired, resigns or leaves the employment in another way. The superintendent must provide all employee reports (except for those involving the superintendent or treasurer, which must be reported by the school board president). Only school superintendents and board presidents are required to make reports to ODE, but any person may make a report and is protected from liability if it is made in good faith.
Also, “mandatory reporters” (those holding certain state-issued licenses, including children services and law enforcement personnel, as well as teachers and school administrators) must report to law enforcement or children services if they suspect any person, including an educator, of child neglect or abuse. Unlike reports to ODE, these reports are required even if the school still employs the suspected individual, and all licensed educators (not just superintendents and board presidents) must report. Further, the law requires educators to err on the side of reporting if there is any doubt, so even a low level of suspicion can trigger a report. Once the reporting requirement is triggered, it is illegal for an individual to delay reporting while an internal investigation is completed. Children services staff conducts most investigations internally, but law enforcement agencies become involved in serious matters. Failure to make mandatory reports can result in criminal charges for the licensed individual, along with professional sanctions.
Q: Can schools allow an employee to resign quietly to avoid the reporting requirements and bad publicity for the district?
A: No. Schools must report to ODE whenever a separation of employment results from actual or alleged misconduct, even if the employee resigns before the school completes its investigation. This reporting requirement is not negotiable, and the school superintendent’s failure to make a required report is a criminal violation. Moreover, in cases of suspected abuse or neglect, the school must make a separate report to children services or law enforcement without delay and regardless of the employment decisions made by a district or the suspected individual.
This “Law You Can Use” column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. It was prepared by Bill Deters and Jeremy Neff, attorneys with Ennis, Roberts & Fischer in Cincinnati.