Those who teach at the elementary school level are a special breed of individual. While the job may be challenging, it is also incredibly rewarding. Seeing the excitement in a child's eyes when they finally understand a concept or hearing the laughter of students during free play are just some of the ways that elementary school teachers make a difference in the lives of their students. It is clear that those who choose to teach at the elementary school level are truly dedicated to their craft. And that's why you, as a licensed elementary instructor, have invested time and money into your education and teaching credentials.
But as rewarding as this job can be, all you've worked for could be jeopardized in a moment by a single complaint or allegation of misconduct to the state licensing board. Teachers today are coming under more intense scrutiny thanks to a growing number of indiscretions by a few "bad apples." Hundreds of teachers have had their licenses revoked or suspended in just a few years throughout the State of New Jersey alone. Whether the claims against you are true or not, the result could be the same: a loss of your teaching license.
If you're an elementary school instructor facing allegations of misconduct, it's important to take steps to protect your license--because your entire career hinges on it. Joseph D. Lento is an attorney with a wealth of experience assisting teachers in saving their teaching licenses in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. The Lento Law Firm has compiled the following critical information to help you be informed and prepared during the disciplinary process.
Which agency handles allegations of wrongdoing for teachers?
The same licensing board that issued your teaching credentials will also investigate misconduct allegations and discipline. You'll answer to the State Board of Examiners in New Jersey; the State Board of Education in Pennsylvania; and the Office of Teaching Initiatives in New York.
What types of offenses could lead to me losing my teaching license?
Elementary instructors can lose their licenses over a range of offenses. Among the most common are:
- Sexual misconduct with students. This allegation is one of the most high-profile forms of teacher misconduct. It includes both physical and other forms of misconduct such as "sexting," harassment, inappropriate comments, and sexual harassment.
- Infractions involving drugs and alcohol. This includes possession, sale, distribution, and giving alcohol to minors.
- Abusing students verbally or physically.
- Cheating. Falsifying student records, inflating grades, and other forms of academic misconduct could cost you your license.
- Convictions for criminal offenses. A conviction for a crime could result in your exclusion from teaching.
How does the disciplinary process work?
Each licensing board has its own disciplinary procedure, but for licensed instructors, it tends to be fairly streamlined. Most disciplinary actions begin with some sort of complaint filed against the teacher with the state board. The most common course of action when someone files a complaint is the following:
- Investigation. The board will usually begin by reviewing the complaint to determine if it is valid and whether there is any evidence supporting it. The board can ask you to reply in writing. They may also subpoena documents or interview witnesses.
- Hearing. The board summons you to a hearing (sometimes called an "Order to Show Cause") to discuss the complaint against you and give you an opportunity to present your side. Depending on the rules of your state, this hearing may take place directly before the board or in front of an Administrative Law Judge. You may have an attorney represent you.
- Board action. The board makes a final determination as to whether to impose disciplinary action against your elementary instructor license--up to and including suspension or revocation.
Keep in mind that at any time, the board can decide to either throw out the complaint due to lack of evidence or to reduce the penalties to allow you to keep your license and/or certification. Hiring an experienced professional license defense attorney greatly improves your chances of obtaining one of these more favorable outcomes.
Are there any disciplinary actions other than revoking or suspending my teaching license?
Yes. Although it's quite common for state boards either to suspend or revoke a teacher's license over misconduct, lesser penalties may also be applied if the board deems it appropriate, which would keep your license intact. These include:
- Fines. The board may issue a monetary penalty.
- Probation. The board may supervise and monitor your activities for a time.
- Conditional agreements. (For example, if you're disciplined for substance abuse or addiction, you may be required to attend mandatory treatment as a condition for keeping your license.)
- Formal reprimand or censure.
You should be aware that even the smallest of these penalties can have a negative impact on your teaching career, even if you get to keep your license or certification. The majority of disciplinary actions taken by the licensing board become a matter of public record. This means that fellow teachers, school officials, parents, and potential employers can check with the state board to see if there are any disciplinary records against you. If possible, it's always best to seek a full dismissal of the complaint to avoid this kind of outcome. To reduce the possibility of disciplinary action, consult a license defense attorney.
How can an attorney help protect my career as an elementary instructor if I'm accused of wrongdoing?
A license defense lawyer can substantially lower the likelihood that your license will be revoked or suspended as a result of a complaint. A good attorney can:
- Act as your legal representative in all contacts and talks with the state licensing board, including the formal hearing
- Offer you clear insights into the nature of the allegation and any evidence against you so that you can anticipate what's coming your way
- Gather evidence and witnesses for your defense
- Negotiate for the best possible resolution in your case, whether it's a dismissal of the complaint or an agreement on lesser penalties
- Help get your teaching credentials restored in certain instances
Why do I need an attorney to help protect my elementary instructor's license?
Being an elementary school educator is a job that is highly dependent on public trust--after all, parents are entrusting their children to your care every day. For that reason, allegations of wrongdoing are held up to intense scrutiny. Furthermore, the licensing board has sweeping authority to impose discipline and a low burden of proof to determine whether discipline is warranted. Even if the issue appears to be minor, they have the authority to withdraw your license over it. Once a complaint is filed, the board actively searches for evidence of wrongdoing, so any attempt to resolve the issue informally can actually work against you. Without the help of a license defense attorney, you could be at a huge disadvantage, and losing your license becomes that much more likely--even if the complaint is unfounded.
Here's another way to look at it: Your teaching license is a legal agreement between you and the state, and therefore, any action taken against your license by the board is considered a legal action. It is always in your best interest to have a lawyer represent you in legal matters, so you have the best chance of obtaining a fair outcome.
Is it necessary to hire an attorney for minor offenses or violations?
First, it's never wise for a teacher to view any allegation as "minor" because the board can pull your credentials even for minor offenses. Second, even if you receive a lesser penalty (which is becoming rarer these days), that penalty will still be noted in public records, and that could affect your ability to get hired. Hiring a good attorney puts you in the best position to get a more favorable outcome. If the complaint is indeed minor, the attorney's intervention may be enough to get the complaint dismissed rather than having a penalty invoked.
Is it true that hiring an attorney implies guilt to the board?
No. Your state licensing board deals with attorneys on a regular basis. They do not expect you to comprehend the legal and disciplinary procedures that will be followed in the inquiry, and they will not presume you are guilty because you have engaged an attorney. In fact, hiring an attorney shows the board that you take the complaint seriously.
My elementary instructor's license is already revoked. Can an attorney help me get it reinstated?
Reinstating a teaching license is rare once it has been revoked, but in certain situations, the state may allow for it. If your license has been simply suspended, the chances of reinstatement are greater. The board may set certain conditions in place for you to reapply for your credentials, including, but not limited to:
- Sending a formal request for reinstatement, along with a written explanation as to why your credentials should be restored
- Payment of any outstanding fines and filing fees
- Providing proof that you have fulfilled any preconditions for reinstatement (for example, continuing education courses or treatment for substance abuse)
- Providing evidence that the issues that triggered the loss of your license have been resolved and that you are no longer a threat to the public trust
- Submitting to any action plan that the board may consider appropriate
Getting a teaching license reinstated is not an easy task. You can improve your chances that the board will consider your request and restore your credentials if you have a good attorney to help you through the process.
I've just received notice that there is a complaint or an allegation of wrongdoing against me. At what point should I hire an attorney?
Truly, the sooner, the better. You should consult with an attorney as soon as you receive notice of any complaint or allegation. The sooner you have representation, the better your chances are of getting a favorable outcome. Remember, the state licensing board will be actively searching for evidence against you from the moment they receive the complaint. If you wait until they summon you for a hearing before hiring an attorney, the board will have already solidified its case against you by that time, putting you at a disadvantage. By contrast, getting an attorney involved early in the process may actually make the hearing unnecessary.
Your credentials as an elementary instructor are crucial to your employment. Being proactive by hiring an attorney may help save your career if you get notified that someone has filed a complaint against you or that your teacher license is being looked into. Many licensed professionals in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York have used Joseph D. Lento's services to avoid losing their credentials. Take steps now to protect your livelihood. Contact the Lento Law Firm at (888) 535-3686 today to see how we can help.