A Penalty on the Handoff

School Administrator, September 2015
 Ethical Educator
               Illustration by David Clark



The wife of a high school assistant football coach who was terminated from his coaching position makes copies of the football team’s playbook and mails them to several upcoming opponents on the football team’s schedule. The wife is a teacher at the high school that had employed her husband. The varsity football coach is furious about the unauthorized playbook distribution and complains to the central office about punishing the offending teacher. Is disciplinary action warranted?


Kelly Henson:

The teacher’s wife has acted in a vindictive, retaliatory and unprofessional fashion. Student athletes were deprived of the opportunity to have a fair competition and were potentially exposed to injury. She has taken school property without permission and disseminated it without authorization.

The educator should be disciplined for her actions. Furthermore, I seriously doubt this teacher can remain in her current school. My experiences as a principal and superintendent tell me she will not be able to maintain appropriate professional relationships with her peers. Animosity will be directed at her by peers and likely parents and students, and she will have a significant loss of effectiveness. An administrative transfer to another school in the district should be considered.


Mario Ventura:

The wife’s actions were unprofessional and unethical and warrant disciplinary action. The anger she felt over the firing of her husband led her to rationalize inappropriate behavior in her intent to retaliate against those she feels responsible for the termination of her husband’s employment. More specifically, her purpose was to damage the successor coach’s football season. However, her actions not only affected the coach’s program but also the players on the team, the student body and the school community.

Disciplinary action can and should be taken at the school site level. The teacher’s supervisor should refer to policy that addresses the professional responsibilities of the teacher. She failed to make the well-being of students a fundamental consideration before sharing the playbook with opponents on the school football team’s schedule. Her actions also interfered with the professional responsibilities of the coaching staff.

Finally, she used a school resource, the team’s playbook, in a selfish manner to get back at those individuals she believes are responsible for the firing of her husband. At a minimum, her actions constitute a letter of reprimand.

The termination of a school employee should be considered carefully, especially when the employee has family members attending the school. Precautionary steps routinely should be taken to collect assigned resources such as the football playbook, technology devices and other property of the district when a staff member is dismissed. Access to data management systems and communication systems also should be restricted.

In this scenario, the district should consider how the staff and students will respond to this teacher’s actions and how it will affect her ability to perform her professional responsibilities. The district may find it necessary to involuntarily transfer the teacher to another school.


Sarah Mackenzie:

This teacher performed a startlingly vindictive act, one that would certainly mean she would lose the respect of her colleagues. More important, she presents a terrible lesson for students. It’s hard to imagine that she thought she had any right to act in this way. And one wonders how she would justify the action if the story were to be published on the front page of the local newspaper. (In fact, it may have been.) It certainly violates the ethical rule of publicity, as well as the golden rule.

As a member of a couple, both of whom work for the same school system, she and her husband had an obligation not to let their relationship interfere with their professional responsibilities. Not only has she violated her teaching responsibilities in the school, but also the expectations of good sportsmanship. The penalty for a team member who lost his position on the team for some reason and who compromised the team’s success in this way would be severe. For a teacher to engage in this kind of behavior is a significant offense, and the resulting discipline for her must be emphasized to underline for students and the entire community its seriousness. At the very least, suspension without pay for a period of time is warranted. Her judgment and professionalism are in question, so the consequence might likely be dismissal.


Shelley Berman:

This unauthorized use of district property constitutes unprofessional conduct by a teacher who seeks to retaliate against the district by undermining the success of the football program. In the end, her behavior hurts students who are giving their best effort to represent their school and brings disrepute to herself, her school and the district.

If the playbook was developed by the assistant coach prior to his employment with the district, he may have some property rights in its ownership and use. However, his wife’s distributing it to opposing teams would still constitute unprofessional conduct. It is more likely that the playbook was developed collaboratively among the coaching staff and that these individuals were paid with district funds to perform their coaching responsibilities, thereby giving the district ownership of their work product. If that is the case, her unauthorized taking of the playbook belonging to the district, and her apparent intent to deprive the district of the value of its property, may also represent a property crime, depending on that state’s law.

Although the teacher and the assistant coach may have a sincere grievance about the assistant coach’s dismissal, distributing the playbook is neither an appropriate nor proper manner to address that grievance. Her action embodies conduct unbecoming a teacher, who instead should be modeling ethical behavior for her students. It undermines the confidence students may have placed in her and the respect they have for her as an individual who acts with integrity. Disciplinary action is warranted, although it legally may not rise to the level of dismissal.

The teacher, school and district should take other actions beyond discipline. A key purpose of high school sports is not about winning, but about building character and a sense of teamwork and fair play. Most schools and coaching staffs understand this concept. The varsity coach probably learned of the playbook distribution from an opposing coach who received a copy. If the other schools in their conference were contacted by the principal or superintendent, it is likely that they would refrain from using the playbook and would destroy any copies they received. Such support for the integrity of the game and the well-being of all students could be an important demonstration of character and honesty for staff and students.

In addition, the district should provide some additional resources to the coaching staff to revise and update the playbook to give the team the best chance possible on the field. If students on the team and their parents are aware of the distribution, the principal should meet with them to discuss the incident and the actions the school and district are taking to support them. Most important, the teacher needs to accept the consequences of her actions and formally apologize to students, parents and colleagues if she is to re-establish her credibility within the school.


Each month, School Administrator draws on actual circumstances to raise an ethical decision-making dilemma in K-12 education. Our distinguished panelists provide their own resolutions to each dilemma. Do you have a suggestion for a dilemma to be considered? Send it to:

The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, interim superintendent, Andover, Mass.; Kelly Henson, executive director, Georgia Professional Standards Commission; Sarah MacKenzie, associate professor of educational leadership, University of Maine at Orono; and Mario Ventura, superintendent, Isaac School District, Phoenix, Ariz., and member of Model Code of Educator Ethics Task Force. Expanded answers are published in <i>School Administrator</i> magazine’s online edition.