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SALT LAKE CITY — The percentage of Utah teachers who behave inappropriately is small, State School Board chairwoman Debra Roberts said Friday, and the safety of students is a top priority.
"Our teachers are some of the best in the nation," she said. "(They are) very ethical, very excellent educators."
Roberts' comments came during a meeting of the State School Board, during which the state's top education officials discussed ways to improve the process by which teachers have their licenses issued, suspended and reinstated.
A desire to both prevent misconduct and respond appropriately when misconduct occurs has fueled an ongoing debate at the State School Board. During months of discussion, board members have attempted to find a balance between the safety of students and the due process of Utah's educators.
"The (misconduct review) process has been and always will be a process of refinement and improvement," Roberts said.
There are a number of reasons why an individual educator's license may be revoked, from substance abuse and unprofessionalism to criminal acts like assaulting or engaging in a sexual relationship with a student.
Board member Jennifer Johnson said research suggests that while rare, instances of sexual misconduct occur more frequently than what is reported to school and law enforcement officials.
"There’s a big gap between what we’re catching and what’s really happening," she said.
Roberts expressed frustration at the negative and potentially unproductive tone that has surrounded discussion of teacher misconduct policies and the Utah Professional Practices Commission, which investigates allegations of misconduct at the state level.
She recommended that the board take time to seek input from school principals and district superintendents, prepare a formal list of recommendations and "take a vote and move on."
"It is my hope that the accusations and hyperbole which has characterized the work of UPPAC over the last two years can be laid aside," she said.
Roberts distributed a report detailing several instances where the commission had acted on its own volition to adopt recommendations from board members in the absence of official action by the State School Board.
"There’s been an assertion made that UPPAC has been kicking and screaming," Roberts said. "I want to point out that UPPAC has been constantly working to improve."
Board member Dixie Allen asked her colleagues to remember the needs of teachers as the discussion on misconduct policies moves forward. She said Utah's teachers are underpaid and underappreciated and the board should not lose sight of supporting quality educators by focusing narrowly on punishment for the few who engage in inappropriate behavior.
"We have teachers on edge. We have districts who can't fill teaching positions," she said. "To get quality people into the system, we need to support them."
Johnson suggested that in its discussions of teacher misconduct, the board look at both policies from outside of Utah as well as ways to provide professional conduct training to educators who transfer to Utah schools from out of state.
"We still have teachers because of the society we live in that move from state to state," she said. "Because of that, it makes good sense for good policy to be studied and shared across the nation."
It's not that we want them to never be able to repent of past sins and move on with their lives. But we also want to make sure any future employer can see those things and confront and address those issues before making a hiring decision.
–Dan Griffiths, Board member
Board member Dan Griffiths suggested that information in the state's educator credential information database be made available to school principals and district staff who encounter reinstated educators applying for employment.
The database information of an individual educator is currently available only to officials in the charter school or district where that educator is employed, but Griffiths said future employers may benefit from knowing about past instances of misconduct and subsequent remediation.
"It’s not that we want them to never be able to repent of past sins and move on with their lives," he said. "But we also want to make sure any future employer can see those things and confront and address those issues before making a hiring decision."
That type of modification of the database would be able to happen quickly, Associate State Superintendent Judy Park said, if it were a direction the board decided to go in.
"There would be an immediate ability to make adjustments in (database) information that is important to have," she said.