Top-Ranked But Suspicious

Type: Article
Topics: Ethics, School Administrator Magazine

February 01, 2019

Ethical Educator

Cartoon of student accusing a teacher on a justice scaleJack Reynolds, in his 18th year as superintendent, was upset about dealing with a teacher with 30 years in the district who had been accused of battery on a 4th-grade pupil. An arrest warrant was signed by the parent. “You know if I ranked all my teachers from top to bottom, she would be one of those least likely (to hit a child), ” Reynolds told a colleague. He placed the teacher on administrative leave even though the only evidence was the child’s claim.

Did the superintendent act properly?

Maggie Lopez: 

The superintendent acted appropriately. When an allegation is made against an employee, the prudent action is to put the employee on administrative leave. Although the superintendent is hesitant to believe the accusation is true, the correct protocol has been followed.

This is apparently going to become a police investigation (owing to the arrest warrant) and the school district should work with the police to provide whatever information is requested. The district’s legal counsel can provide any legal support the district needs.

Because an arrest warrant is a public document, as are police reports, the information could be accessed by the news media. The superintendent needs to work with the teacher’s principal and legal counsel to be ready to address the student’s and family’s concerns, as well as staff and community needs as they arise. The district also must remember this is a personnel matter. Any information not cited as public must remain confidential.

Max McGee:

In placing the teacher on leave, Superintendent Reynolds acted properly, ethically and lawfully. Ideally, he took his action after first consulting the district’s attorney, informing the school board and preparing a written communication to staff, parents and the community. Once a notice of an arrest appears in the local media, there likely will be vocal parents — some who want the teacher fired immediately and others who want her reinstated right now.

While the teacher cannot be found innocent or guilty until a thorough investigation is completed, placing the teacher on leave is best for students and the teacher. Students in the class are not in an uncomfortable situation having to choose between their teacher and the classmate, parents or others who side with the 4th grader, and the teacher does not have to be subject to daily gossip, furtive glances and open accusations that invariably arise in contested battery cases. Also, placing the teacher on leave allows parents to cool off and temporarily satisfies all sides. On one hand, she is not currently in the classroom, and on the other hand, she still has employment.

The only instance of the superintendent’s improper — or at least inappropriate — action was mentioning his thoughts to a colleague. Fortunately, it was not in e-mail but nonetheless, such a statement presumes that he already has judged her and also ranks teachers — a practice that if made public would be disconcerting to teachers (and the union) at best and more likely destructive at worst. We advise him to keep his thoughts on ranking teachers and guilt or innocence to himself.

Meira Levinson:

Virtually any teacher accused of battery against a student should be put on administrative leave while the criminal case is investigated and resolved, regardless of how beloved or unlikely a perpetrator the teacher may be. It is essential that school and district leaders demonstrate that they are serious about protecting students, respecting students’ claims and concerns, and upholding due process rights for all involved (which is why it was appropriate for the superintendent to place the teacher on administrative leave rather than to fire her preemptively even if the contract had permitted such a move).

I say “virtually any teacher” rather than more categorically asserting that every teacher accused of battery should be immediately placed on leave. This is partly because there are few absolutes, and context always matters. If a number of people observe a teacher non-negligently slip and accidentally fall on a student, say, and nonetheless the student and his parent turn around and accuse the teacher of battery, then the leadership reasonably may choose to keep the teacher in the classroom while the case wends its way through court (although it is very hard to imagine an arrest warrant’s being filed under such circumstances!).

In addition, there may be extremely rare cases in which a student or parent has a history of filing provably false allegations—although one would want to investigate what deeper issues are at play. In general, however, going to the police and filing an assault claim against one’s teacher is a move that no one engages in lightly, let alone frivolously. The superintendent was thus right to respond as he did.

Shelley Berman:

Placing the teacher on administrative leave while the charge is pending investigation is appropriate. In spite of the superintendent’s perceptions of and confidence in the teacher, an accusation of battery must be taken seriously. The involvement of police and the issuance of an arrest warrant make this a more problematic matter to resolve and a public issue that will likely be covered by the media. To not act with sufficient caution could result in the school district being accused of putting children at risk, even though the teacher may have an excellent reputation.

The district will need to initiate its own investigation into the allegation and work alongside the police department without interfering. Interviewing the parent and the student as well as the teacher is a critical start to the investigation. It is essential that the teacher be offered the opportunity to have legal or union counsel present at the interview. If the incident occurred in school, it is likely that other students or adults observed the event. A nurse may have documented any physical evidence, such as bruises or other marks. If the incident occurred outside of school, the district may have to rely on the police investigation for a determination. The superintendent needs to remain neutral and objective throughout the investigation.

This situation is difficult for both the teacher and superintendent. If the superintendent is correct and the teacher is innocent, the allegation itself may have damaged the teacher’s reputation and the community’s perceptions of her. In that case, the superintendent can serve the teacher best by expressing his confidence in her as she returns to the classroom and allaying the fears of parents while not demeaning the student. If, on the other hand, the teacher is found to have struck the child, then administrative leave was the right action prior to disciplinary action by the district.

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, superintendent, Andover, Mass.; 
  • Meira Levinson, professor of education, Harvard University, and author of Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries;
  • Maggie Lopez, retired superintendent in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and 
  • Glenn "Max" McGee, a former superintendent and regional president of ECRA Group in Schaumburg, Ill.