By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s Department of Education is toughening its standards for policing wayward teachers, who are seemingly growing in number.
Shane Crosby, an assistant attorney who handles these cases, said from 2008 through 2011 the department averaged 250 annual complaints. In 2012, it received 563.
Sometimes these situations result in criminal charges, and sometimes they don’t. Still, complaints of misconduct to the Department of Education could lead to a teacher losing his state certification, which is required for employment.
Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed 2013-14 budget recommends adding $775,000 to the department’s Office of Chief Counsel, expressly to address the increase.
Crosby said the state typically resolves about half of all new cases in the year they are opened.
“But with this increase in the caseload, when we receive 563 cases in one year, we’re not going to be able to do that,” he said.
Crosby said a variety of reasons may contribute to the increase, but he partially attributed the spike to the Jerry Sandusky case, which raised awareness of teacher misconduct.
His division is also handling more than 100 cases related to the statewide cheating scandal on Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests, where educators changed answers.
Crosby said a “high priority” is placed on cases involving sexual misconduct, or those in which the health and safety of students can be jeopardized.
“Some cases do go on the back-burner while we do address the more serious cases,” he said.
But, Crosby said, school administrators also play a role in the process, as they have the ability to put an educator on leave pending the disciplinary outcome — an authority the state department doesn’t have.
The budget proposal would add three staff members to the educator discipline division, and two staff members to the Professional Standards and Practices Commission, which hears the cases.
The funding would come from a $25 increase to the one-time $100 fee that teachers pay to the Department of Education when they become certified in Pennsylvania.
Terri Miller is the president of S.E.S.A.M.E., or Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct and Exploitation. She said the group supports legislation that increases funding for any kind of awareness training or investigations of misconduct, calling it “a great step forward.”
But as far as examining the frequency of Pennsylvania’s misconduct allegations compared to other states, there’s really no way to tell.
Miller said the federal government does not require states to gather or remit such data.
“We don’t have a national scope of the problem because data is not even being required to be gathered,” she said.
In Pennsylvania, complaints with the Department of Education are filed in two main circumstances: cases of criminal misconduct, or non-criminal misconduct. State law spells out certain crimes in which a conviction means a teacher will automatically lose his license — such as homicide rape, or theft – but the department still handles the procedural aspects of the revocation.
In the non-criminal realm, the cases may involve inappropriate behavior, such as a teacher viewing pornography in the classroom. For that teacher to lose his certification, attorneys such as Crosby would have to prove it more likely than not the conduct occurred. It’s less of a burden than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” prosecutors must prove in courtrooms.
Crosby said many of the cases are what he calls “uncharged criminal misconduct.” That could be a case of a teacher accused of misconduct who is prosecuted due to lack of charges, evidence or case dismissal. Or, it could be a situation in which an educator has frequent flirtatious behavior with a student.
“That may not result in a criminal charge, but that is still very serious misconduct from the department’s perspective,” Crosby said.
Crosby expects the division’s case load to increase even further as lawmakers consider making changes to the Professional Educators Standards Act.
One of those changes would remove a one-year statute of limitations on such complaints. Another would require districts to report all accusations of misconduct to the state. Now, the law requires reports when administrators believe there is “reasonable cause” to believe conduct occurred, Crosby said.
“Sexual misconduct is underreported as a result of that,” he said.