“Mr. Johnson got arrested! What to do when a school employee is charged with a crime.”
By Allen Clendaniel of Sedor, Wendlandt, Evans & Filippi, LLC
Part seven of a series on interacting with the world outside of the schoolhouse gates.
A popular high school science teacher got arrested on Friday night. Rumors are flying around the school and community. The rumors are that the charges are serious. The teacher is out on bail and plans to report to his classroom on Monday morning. What do you do on Sunday afternoon?
THE CHALLENGES AND OPTIONS
The first challenge is what to do with the school employee on Monday morning. The safest action is to place the employee on paid administrative leave pending an investigation. This should be done in writing. The notice should direct the employee to report back to an administrator at a specific date and time and require the employee to remain available to the administration. This prevents the employee from disappearing and collecting paychecks in Hawaii. Administrative leave buys the District time to gather information and strategize about how to handle the situation.
The second challenge is finding out as much as possible about what happened. Depending on the location, the charges should be online on CourtView. School officials can obtain copies of the charging documents. This will provide some useful information about the alleged crime. Unfortunately, law enforcement is not legally permitted to provide the District with a police report when a criminal case is pending.
Remember, criminal charges are simply allegations. The employee is entitled to due process and trial by jury. This means that the District cannot terminate an employee because he has been charged with a serious crime.
So what should the District do with the employee while the criminal process unfolds? One option is to keep the employee on administrative leave pending the outcome of the criminal proceeding. If the employee is convicted, the District can then initiate termination proceedings. The downside to this approach is that criminal cases can take many months to resolve. During this time, the District is paying the employee as if he were working. Another downside is that criminal charges may be dismissed for reasons that have nothing to do with the employee’s actual innocence. The District may have to let the employee return to work. Depending on the charges and the community, the District could face rightfully furious parents livid about an accused criminal returning to work with children.
Another option is for the District to conduct its own investigation. While the District does not have subpoena power, the District can require the employee to be interviewed. The employee may “plead the Fifth.” The District’s lawyer will guide the District through those legal issues. The District can also try to interview other individuals involved and gather other information. After the investigation is complete, the District can terminate the employee if the District believes that there is a preponderance of evidence that the employee committed a crime that would warrant termination. The “preponderance of the evidence” standard is the standard in civil cases. It is best described as fifty percent (50%) plus a grain of sand. This standard is much lower than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard in a criminal case. Indeed, our firm has won teacher termination cases where the teacher was acquitted by a jury! The arbitrator found that under the lower civil standard, there was evidence that the crime occurred and upheld the termination.
When an employee is charged with a crime, the District should make sure to have a coordinated message to the community and any media. The media loves stories about school employees who are in trouble. Reporters will likely be calling. The District should coordinate with its lawyer and have a simple message along these lines: “The District is aware of the charges. The employee has been placed on administrative leave. The District is reviewing the situation and is taking it very seriously but cannot comment further about a personnel matter.”
The District should place the employee on administrative leave. The District should determine whether it should initiate its own investigation or wait for the criminal process to unfold. If the District conducts its own investigation and the investigation shows that the employee engaged in conduct that would warrant termination, the District can initiate its own termination proceedings. Throughout this process, the District should have a consistent and concise message to the parents, community, and media.
Read the entire series on Interacting with the Outside World – School District Style:
Part one: Panic is not a Plan – Crisis Communications for School Districts by Clint Campion
Part two: Crisis Management: The Case of the Bickering Parents by Lea Filippi
Part three: Crisis Management: The Case of the Aggressive OCS Investigator by Allen Clendaniel
Part four: Crisis Management: “Shaken – Not Stirred …The Day the Open Meetings Act Collided with a 7.0 Earthquake” by John Sedor
Part five: Crisis Management: The Case of the Ominous Essay by Lea Filippi
Part six: Crisis Management: “Parallel Worlds: The Intersection between Schools and the Juvenile Delinquency System” By Clint Campion
“WE INTERRUPT OUR REGULAR PROGRAMMING TO BRING YOU THIS SPECIAL REPORT” [Or: The ROUGH RIF ROAD] By John Sedor
More from Sedor, Wendlandt, Evans & Filippi, LLC:
Five-part series: Union Issues in Schools
Four-part series: Freedom of Expression in Schools
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The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Association of Alaska School Boards. AASB welcomes diverse perspectives and civil discourse. To submit a Guest Column for consideration, see our Guest Column Guidelines and email your 400-1000 word submission HERE.