“Conduct Unbecoming a Teacher”?

From Board of Ed. v. Hurley-Richards (Ky. Ct. App. Sept. 2, 2011):

On February 3, 2009, Richards arrived at Cardinal Valley Elementary School, where she was a teacher. After seeing that there did not appear to be a hall monitor, she posted herself in the hallway as the hall monitor. Three sibling children, MK, a fifth-grader; ZK, a second-grader; and EK, a kindergarten student, were present in the hallway and ZK and EK were running. Richards instructed ZK and EK to go back up the hall and walk back down properly, without running. ZK ran down the hallway again. When Richards reprimanded him, he responded that she could not tell him what to do. Richards instructed MK and EK to go to breakfast so that she could speak with ZK. MK and ZK then began pulling EK in separate directions with ZK pulling EK’s hair. Richards, who had one arm full of school supplies, placed her other arm around ZK and proceeded to direct him toward the school’s office. ZK protested, and physically resisted being directed toward the office. At one point ZK remarked to Richards that she was choking him and Richards responded that she was not hurting him. The incident was witnessed by another employee, Sheri Hall, who testified that it appeared as though Richards had ZK around the neck. Hall did not intervene. Upon entering the office, Richards reported the hallway incident to the Principal and left….

Richards was fired, and an administrative tribunal later agreed that she engaged in “conduct unbecoming a teacher” (which, under Kentucky law, is a basis for disciplining a teacher) but reduced the penalty to a year-and-a-half-long suspension, finding:

As the student was being guided to the office, he resisted and turned to go back toward the cafeteria. At this point, Richards’ arm was across ZK’s front, sliding up and around the neck/shoulder area as she physically directed him toward the office. This may have been perceived as choking. She continued to speak loudly to the student….

Richards had no intent to harm the child and did not physically harm the child, but she demonstrated conduct unbecoming a teacher in using poor judgment in continuing to coerce ZK toward the office once he complained about choking.

A Kentucky Court of Appeals panel, by a 2-1 vote, held that the discipline was unjustified:

The tribunal concluded that Richards had engaged in “conduct unbecoming a teacher” pursuant to KRS 161.790. KRS 161.790(1) allows a teacher’s contract to be terminated for various causes, one of which is “[i]mmoral character or conduct unbecoming a teacher.” KRS 161.790(1)(b). The phrase “conduct unbecoming a teacher” has never been given a more expansive definition. However, when viewing the subsection as a whole, “conduct unbecoming a teacher” means something more than one incident of physically coercing an unruly child to the office. The grouping of “conduct unbecoming a teacher” in the same subsection as “immoral character” implies that “conduct unbecoming a teacher” is the type of conduct which has the appearance or suggestion of immorality or conduct equally egregious. In fact, prior teacher disciplinary actions, based upon a finding of “conduct unbecoming a teacher,” have always involved some sort of dishonest or corrupt behavior. See, e.g., Gallatin County Bd. of Educ. v. Mann, 971 S.W.2d 295 (Ky. App. 1998) (teacher falsified employee time records); Board of Educ. of Hopkins County v. Wood, 717 S.W.2d 837 (Ky. 1986) (teachers smoked marijuana off campus with two 15-year-old students); Board of Educ. of Laurel County v. McCollum, 721 S.W.2d 703 (Ky. 1986) (teacher falsely called in sick in order to work another job); Hutchison v. Kentucky Unemployment Ins. Com’n, 329 S.W.3d 353 (Ky. App. 2010) (teacher’s behavior, leading to six violent and threatening criminal convictions, compromised her ability to be an example to the school community); Dixon v. Clem, 492 F.3d 665 (6th Cir. 2007) (teacher took photographs of female student while she was wearing no clothes above her waist). The factual findings provide no indication that Richards exhibited any such conduct.

As the trial court observed, there is a clear disconnect between the tribunal’s factual findings and its suspension of Richards. Such an outcome is arbitrary and [should therefore be] reversed ….

As someone who has recently spent a good deal of time around 8-year-olds, I found the opinion interesting. And it seems to be sound, assuming the facts are as reported.