Silberman Over-reached by Charging
Conduct Unbecoming a Teacher
Conduct Unbecoming a Teacher
Finding "no error with the trial court’s order," the Kentucky Court of Appeals today affirmed an order by Judge Ernesto Scorsone of the Fayette County Circuit Court and threw out the Fayette County School district's appeal.
Hurley-Richards had been disciplined, in February 2009, following a student disturbance in the hallway of Cardinal Valley Elementary School after which former Fayette County schools Superintendent Stu Silberman determined that Hurley-Richards' actions consitituted conduct unbecoming a teacher when she disciplined a student involved in the incident.
Following the incident, Silberman informed Hurley-Richards that she would be suspended, and subsequently that her contract was terminated. An administrative tribunal followed, and determined that Hurley-Richards' actions only constituted bad judgment, and the tribunal reduced Silberman's termination to a suspension.
Richards sought review of the hearing tribunal’s final order by the Fayette Circuit Court. She requested retroactive reinstatement with lost wages and benefits. The trial court found that the conclusions of the tribunal’s order were unsupported by substantial evidence on the whole record and reversed the tribunal’s order. The case was remanded to the tribunal for further proceedings. That was interrupted when the district decided to appeal.
Ultimately, by a 2-1 vote, the appeals court rejected the arguments offered by school district attorney Bob Chenoweth that the trial court misinterpreted the tribunal’s final order by making findings of fact on issues not raised before the tribunal, and by substituting its judgment for that of the tribunal.
The Court of Appeals determined that an administrative tribunal is afforded great latitude in its evaluation of the evidence and the credibility of witnesses. According to court records,
On February 3, 2009, Richards arrived at Cardinal Valley Elementary School, where she was a teacher. After seeing that there did not appear to be a hall monitor, she posted herself in the hallway as the hall monitor. Three sibling children, MK, a fifth-grader; ZK, a second-grader; and EK, a kindergarten student were present in the hallway and ZK and EK were running. Richards instructed ZK and EK to go back up the hall and walk back down properly, without running. ZK ran down the hallway again. When Richards reprimanded him, he responded that she could not tell him what to do. Richards instructed MK and EK to go to breakfast so that she could speak with ZK. MK and ZK then began pulling EK in separate directions with ZK pulling EK’s hair.
Richards, who had one arm full of school supplies, placed her other arm around ZK and proceeded to direct him toward the school’s office. ZK protested, and physically resisted being directed toward the office. At one point ZK remarked to Richards that she was choking him and Richards responded that she was not hurting him. The incident was witnessed by another employee, Sheri Hall, who testified that it appeared as though Richards had ZK around the neck. Hall did not intervene. Upon entering the office, Richards reported the hallway incident to the Principal and left.The Court of Appeals seemed critical of Silberman's broad use of conduct unbecoming a teacher saying, "The phrase 'conduct unbecoming a teacher' has never been given a more expansive definition." The court determined that it "means something more than one incident of physically coercing an unruly child to the office" and "involved some sort of dishonest or corrupt behavior."
As the trial court observed, there is a clear disconnect between the tribunal’s factual findings and its suspension of Richards. Such an outcome is arbitrary and was therefore properly reversed and remanded by the trial court.