Dealing with Accusations of Child Abuse and other Misconduct
1. Contact the VEA office immediately. We can provide you with valuable advice and assistance. The VEA office can begin an investigation, help you determine if the matter is being treated as a criminal offense, refer you to an attorney, and help you get association representation during any meeting with administration, parents, or complainants about the accusation.
2. If “adverse action” (discharge, non-renewal, suspension without pay) is threatened, the VEA office must be notified. The VEA staff will decide when to call the WEA General Counsel’s office to obtain a WEA-paid attorney. Before a member consults the attorney assigned by the WEA General Counsel, the member, local leaders, or VEA staff must provide the assigned attorney with all of the information that he/she may have obtained from investigation of the allegations.
3. The VEA provides support to members accused of misconduct:
a. Emotional support. Educators accused of child abuse are devastated. Members must support their colleagues in this situation. Remember, in America a person is innocent until proven guilty. Members must be encouraged not to treat an accused member as a pariah. This is the time for other members to be friendly and supportive.
b. Technical support. Sometimes, educators are not good at controlling students without physical coercion. The local can identify members with such weaknesses and provide assistance from master educators, so that the accused can learn better discipline techniques. Ideally, such technical assistance should be offered before a member is accused of abuse.
c. Rumor control. A minor accusation, particularly one of sexual misconduct, often becomes exaggerated. Once an allegation becomes public, the association should be sure that the allegation is not exaggerated.
4. You should immediately determine if the allegation is being treated as a criminal offense. The safest course is to assume any child abuse allegation will be treated as a criminal offense. Any allegation of sexual misconduct with a student is likely to be treated as a criminal offense. Additionally, allegations concerning misuse of school district or student money may be treated criminally. Sometimes allegations of drug and alcohol use, possession, or distribution are also treated criminally.
5. If there is any possibility that the allegation will be treated as a criminal offense, the accused person should contact an attorney who is experienced in criminal law immediately.
If the matter is being treated as a criminal offense, you should immediately talk to the VEA staff about whether you need a lawyer. A lawyer may be needed to help you decide whether you should answer questions about the incident from the district, CPS, or the police. The lawyer can advise you on whether to exert the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. WEA’s Educator’s Employment Liability (EEL) insurance policy covers criminal cases. If you are ultimately found not guilty (if the matter involves corporal punishment), EEL will pay even if you are found guilty. The insurance company does not pay attorney’s fees until after the case is over. Be sure you file an EEL claim as soon as possible. Claim forms are available at the VEA office. WEA’s Legal Defense program does not cover criminal matters. However, the General Counsel’s office will pay up to $200 for fees incurred in consulting a criminal lawyer, if UniServ staff told you to consult a lawyer. The General Counsel will pay the $200 only after being provided with a copy of EEL’s denial of funding.
Be sure that the attorney that you consult has a lot of recent criminal experience. Before you enter a plea or make any admissions, your criminal attorney must talk to a WEA attorney about impact on employment rights. Otherwise, ability to protect your job may be impaired.
6. If there is any possibility that the allegation will be treated as a criminal offense, do not discuss the allegations with anyone except your attorney and current spouse. Do not even deny or admit the allegation to anyone other than your spouse or attorney. Do not discuss the allegation with VEA staff or local leaders, except to say:
a. What the accusation is;
b. Who the accuser is;
c. What action the district, parents, police, etc., have taken or indicated might be taken;
d. Any witnesses to the incident and person with whom you discussed the event.
7. Do not resign, even if you believe you’ve done something wrong, until you’ve talked to the VEA office.
Handling Media and Public Attention
Public interest surrounding allegations that an educational employee has abused a student is very high and the media and community often become involved.
It is important to establish a positive climate through a credible and compassionate voice to the public. Our major goal is to always let the community know (through the media) that members of the local association are concerned about the welfare of all students, while also being committed to ensuring that members are treated fairly.
The way we handle things in a crisis determines not only our public image, but can also affect the way future allegations are handled and perceived. It also establishes our ability to positively affect the media in other situations.
UniServ staff should be contacted immediately upon learning of any accusation against a member. Good internal association communication requires setting the proper tone, keeping rumors under control, and communicating within the ranks.
After an allegation becomes public (i.e., if the local newspaper publishes the information) the local association could send a note to local members. Without revealing any confidential information, the basic factual information should be explained (who was charged, with what, how the association is proceeding, etc.). Do not disclose the identity of the accusing students. Everyone should be aware that certain information must remain confidential. The association should focus on assuring due process for all accused members. All members are vulnerable to false accusations and an accused member should be supported and protected from hasty judgments.
Tips for handling public attention
1. Never mention the name of the student(s) who did the accusing.
2. Acknowledge the seriousness of the event and put the association on the “right side” of the issue.
3. If the association and/or the school district has conducted any training or provided any other positive programs aimed at helping education employees and/or students deal with the issue of sexual abuse, emphasize the success of those programs. Sometimes, a negative issue can result in some positive publicity for the good things that are going on related to the issue of abuse.
4. Avoid speculation by the media of “deal cutting.” Always say you expect a full investigation and that all the member’s rights will be protected.
5. Calm aggressive reports by remaining confidant and discussing the issue in generalities rather than specifics of the individual case. When continually pressed to comment on the specific incident, continue to say, “It isn’t appropriate for me to talk about the details of the case that is still being reviewed. That would be unfair to all the parties involved.”
6. Feel free to say “I don’t know” if you don’t – offer to try to get the answer (if it is not a question that involves confidential information) and get back to the reporter as soon as possible.
7. Never go “off the record” or say “no comment.” Anything you discuss should be on the table. Since you are not discussing any specific circumstances pertaining to the individual case, and since it is your role to protect the accused and set a good example for everyone else to do the same, you will never have reason to go off the record. Just tell the reporter you don’t want to if he or she suggests it.
It is important not to encourage any media coverage. Let them come to you. The association president should be the only spokesperson. He or she should not refuse to talk to the press. That will only result in a statement appearing in the local press that says: “the association president refused to comment.” Such statements have only negative connotations. If a reporter contacts a local president, emphasize that you are unable to talk about the specifics of the incident or the individual(s) involved, but you are able to discuss the association’s viewpoint on such allegations in general.
Stress the following:
- Educational employees are vitally concerned about the welfare of all students. Because we have chosen to devote our professional lives to working with young people, we feel a special responsibility to help ensure that they are treated appropriately.
- We are also concerned that the American system of justice is upheld and that every individual is afforded his or her due process rights.
- Neither the association or the district is the judge, (Never speculate on guilt or allow a reporter to draw you into “what if’s?”)
- Any kind of abuse of any student by anyone is abhorrent, but add that a member is innocent unless (not until but unless) proven guilty.
- Educational employees can be highly vulnerable to false accusations because of their close association with students.
The certificate of any teacher may be revoked or suspended by the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Any school district or educational service district superintendent may initiate revocation and/or suspension of certification on the grounds of a lack of good moral character or personal fitness or acts of unprofessional conduct. Violation of written contact, intemperance and any crime against the laws of the State of Washington also constitute grounds for revocation or suspension of a teaching certificate. Revocation is mandatory for a guilty plea or conviction in a crime against a child. RCW 28A.410.090.
Those who hold certificates are also subject to a continuing requirement of good moral character and personal fitness under WAC 180-86-014. WAC 180-06-013 defines good moral character as:
1. No guilty plea or conviction in any state or country of any felony involving child abuse.
a. Physical Neglect of a child.
b. Physical injury or death of a child (except motor vehicle violations).
c. Sexual exploitation of a child.
d. Sexual offenses where a child is the victim.
e. Promotion of child prostitution.
f. Sale or purchase of a child.
2. No conviction of any crime within the last 10 years, including motor vehicle violations, which would materially and substantially impair worthiness and ability to serve as a professional within the public and private schools of the state. The following factors will be considered:
a. Age and maturity and the time the criminal act was committed;
b. Degree of culpability required for conviction, mitigating factors;
c. Classification of crime and seriousness of harm to person’s property;
d. Criminal history and likelihood crime will be repeated;
e. Permissibility of service as educator within terms or probation or parole;
f. Proximity or remoteness in time of the prior criminal conviction;
g. Evidence offered which would support good moral character and personal fitness;
h. Effect on education profession;
i. The certificate holder has the duty to provide evidence regarding the above factors.
3. No Serious behavioral problem which endangers the educational welfare or personal safety or students, teachers, or other colleagues.
4. No intentional practice within Washington with an expired, lapsed, surrendered or revoked certificate.
Various other regulations define “Unprofessional conduct:”
1. WAC 180-87-050: misrepresentation or falsification in the course of professional practice. This includes any deliberate misrepresentation, including the omission of a martial fact in:
a. Statement of professional qualifications
b. Application of recommendation for employment, promotion, certification, or endorsement
c. Application or recommendation for college admission, scholarship, etc.
d. Representation of completion or inservice or continuing education hours.
e. Evaluations or grading of student or personnel
f. Financial or compliance reports submitted to a government agency
g. Information given to SPE in the course of an official inquiry re: good moral character, personal fitness or unprofessional conduct
h. Information submitted in an investigation by police or CPS regarding school-related criminal activity
2. WAC 180-87-060: disregard of recognized professional standards. This means flagrant disregard or clear abandonment of generally recognized professional standards during:
a. Assessment, treatment, instruction of students
b. Employment or evaluation of personnel
c. Management of money or property
3. WAC 180-87-065: abandonment of contract is defined as permanent abandonment, without good cause, of employment contract, including extra curricular contract.
4. WAC 180-87-070: unauthorized professional practices includes these acts if performed without good cause:
a. Intentional employment of uncertified personnel.
b. Assignment of any responsibility in nursing, physical therapy, or occupational therapy to one not licensed.
c. Practice during suspension of certificate.
d. Failure to obey agreement not to accept employment
e. Failure to obey any condition of an order or decision.
f. Good cause includes exigent circumstances to protect health, safety, general welfare of students.
5. WAC 180-87-080: sexual misconduct with students. Includes any sexually explicit act with a student. WAC 180-87-040 defines a student as:
a. Under supervision of educational practitioner, or
b. Enrolled in any school or district served by educational practitioner, or
c. Enrolled in any school or district while attending school related activity at which educational practitioner is performing professional duties, or
d. Former student under 18 who has been under supervision of education practitioner.
6. WAC 180-87-085: furnishing alcohol or controlled substances to students.
7. WAC 180-87-090: improper remunerative conduct which is deliberate act requiring/pressuring students to buy anything from educational practitioner.
8. WAC 180-87-095: failure to file complaint by superintendent, ESD superintendent, when (WAC 180-86-110) superintendent or ESD superintendent has “sufficient reliable information to believe that school employee is not of good moral character, or personally fit, or has committed an act of unprofessional conduct,” such superintendent within “reasonable period of time: shall file written complaint with SPI. If considering discharge, need not file complaint until 10 days after issuance of notice of discharge.
9. WAC 180-87-055: use of alcohol or controlled substances is unprofessional conduct under these circumstances:
a. Acting under the influence on school premises or during a school-sponsored activity following:
- Notice by employer of concern regarding alcohol or substance abuse affecting job performance
- Employer recommendation to seek counseling
- Reasonable opportunity to obtain counseling
b. Possession or use on school premises or at a school-sponsored activity of controlled substances without a prescription.
c. Consumption of alcohol on school premises or at a school-sponsored activity involving student if contrary to district or building policy.