To become licensed and credentialed as an educator is one thing; to become certified as a K-12 school principal is a cut above. It requires intensive education and fieldwork, as well as a deep level of commitment to the education process itself. Unfortunately, even the most well-meaning and effective principals can find themselves in hot water when it comes to their professional license.
The reasons for this may be myriad. Perhaps there was a misunderstanding with a parent or community member. Maybe a teacher made an accusation of misconduct. Or, in some cases, a principal may be accused of something they didn't do at all. Whatever the reason, if you are a K-12 principal and find yourself in a situation where your credentials are under review or at risk, it's important to take immediate action to protect yourself. If the state education board decides to take action against you, it could revoke not only your certification as a principal, but also your license to teach—effectively ending your career.
One of the first steps to take when your certification is in jeopardy is to hire an experienced professional license defense attorney to represent you throughout the disciplinary process. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has plenty of experience helping educators and other licensed professionals in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York who are in danger of losing their licensure. Knowledge is power, so if you're in this situation, the Lento Law Firm has compiled the following critical information to help you be informed.
Who oversees disciplinary action against principals in my state?
The Department of Education for your state (the same department that also regulates licensing for teachers) administers the certification of principals and other administrative authorities. If you are accused of wrongdoing, this board will oversee your disciplinary process. In New Jersey, it's the State Board of Examiners in Pennsylvania, the State Board of Education and in New York, the Office of Teaching Initiatives.
What types of allegations could lead to me losing my license and certification as a principal?
Most offenses that would result in a principal losing their license and/or certification revolve around issues of ethical/moral misconduct, academic misconduct, or other breaches of the public trust. Common examples include:
- Sexual misconduct. This offense can take many forms, including inappropriate sexual conduct toward faculty/staff, sexual harassment, sexual misconduct with students, etc.
- Ethics violations. Violating any code of ethics your state has adopted for school authorities may be grounds for removal. Examples may include conflicts of interest, exerting undue influence, receiving inappropriate gifts/bribes, etc.
- Drug and alcohol offenses. Excessive alcohol consumption, using illegal drugs, giving alcohol/drugs to minors...these are just a few examples of offenses that can result in loss of license and certification.
- Academic misconduct. Examples, include falsifying student records, tampering with grades, and similar activities.
- Criminal convictions. Being convicted of a crime can disqualify you from working as a principal in many states.
How does the disciplinary process work?
Each state board has its own disciplinary procedures in place, but with minimal variations, it is similar for most states when it comes to investigating and disciplining K-12 principals. Your disciplinary process may look something like the following:
- Complaint. Most disciplinary proceedings begin with a formal complaint to the board. This complaint may be filed by a student, parent, coworker, faculty member, or even a member of your local school board. The board may also be given information about a criminal conviction by the courts, or they may come across a criminal record during a periodic check.
- Review. The board will evaluate the complaint to determine its validity and credibility, as well as whether it falls within the board's jurisdiction.
- Investigation. After reviewing the complaint, the board will begin an official investigation to see if there is evidence to back up the allegations. They'll most likely ask you to submit a letter of response to the allegation; they could also speak with witnesses and review documents as part of the process.
- Consent order. In some cases, especially if there is sufficient evidence to back the complaint, the board may negotiate a consent order with you as an alternative to summoning you to a formal hearing. In a consent order, you effectively confirm the existence of wrongdoing and voluntarily submit to the board's disciplinary recommendations.
- Formal hearing. If a consent order is neither offered nor accepted, the matter moves to the formal hearing stage--either taking place directly before the board or in front of an Administrative Law Judge. You'll be asked to provide cause as to why your credentials should not be revoked. You may bring an attorney with you to this hearing.
- Final determination. When the hearing concludes, the board makes a final decision as to whether to revoke your certification and/or license, or whether other disciplinary actions are in order.
Hiring an experienced professional license defense attorney to represent you through the disciplinary process can greatly improve your prospects of saving your career. At any point in this process, a good attorney can negotiate with the board at multiple points to dismiss the complaint for lack of evidence or get them to agree to lesser sanctions as a way of resolving the complaint.
Are there other disciplinary alternatives that would allow me to remain in my position as a K-12 principal?
Yes. Depending on the circumstances, the board may impose a variety of lesser penalties that could keep your principal certification intact. Examples include:
- Temporary suspension. The board may suspend you until certain conditions are met, at which point they would consider reinstatement.
- Imposing fines. The board may issue a monetary penalty.
- Probation. The board may impose a probationary period.
- Conditional agreements. You may be allowed to maintain your license and certification contingent upon certain actions prescribed by the board--for example, agreeing to treatment in cases of substance abuse or addiction.
- Formal reprimand or censure.
An important caveat here: Even if you receive one of these lesser penalties, you should know that any disciplinary action imposed by the board can have a negative effect on your career because it becomes a matter of public record. If a parent, community member, or local school board member checks your credentials, they may see whether disciplinary action has been taken against you in the past, possibly affecting their willingness to hire you, send their students to your school, etc. The best way to reduce the risk of any type of disciplinary action is to consult an experienced license defense attorney.
Why should I hire a lawyer to defend me? Can't I address the complaint myself?
You always have the right to represent yourself before the board or before a judge...but it's generally not in your best interests to do so. State education boards have sweeping authority to administer discipline and a low burden of proof to meet. In other words, they don't treat allegations of wrongdoing as "innocent until proven guilty" beyond a reasonable doubt. The board's job is to protect the public, and any suggestion that you've broken public trust will be taken very seriously, no matter how scant the evidence. The board will actively search for evidence of wrongdoing once a complaint has been filed. This can make it very difficult to resolve the matter informally. You could end up in a very difficult position even if the complaint was not founded.
Another way to view it is that your teaching license is a legal agreement between you and the state. Therefore, any action taken by the board against your teaching license is considered legal action. To ensure a fair outcome, it is in your best interest to have a lawyer representing you in legal matters such as these.
How can an attorney help protect my career?
An experienced license defense attorney can greatly improve your chances of a favorable resolution in disciplinary proceedings, reducing the chances of losing your principal certification and/or teaching licensure. Here's how an attorney can help you:
- Assume the role of your legal representative during all communications and discussions with the state licensing board, up to and including any formal hearings.
- Evaluate the complaint against you and make sure you understand your options.
- Work with you to develop a compelling response to the complaint against you.
- Gather evidence and witnesses to support your innocence.
- Negotiate for the best possible solution in your case, up to and including reduced penalties or dismissing the complaint entirely.
Do minor violations or offenses also require an attorney?
It's unwise to think of any offense as "minor" when it comes to school principals, as the board has the right to revoke your certification as it deems necessary--even for seemingly minor infractions. Even if the board decides on a lesser penalty, it will still be a matter of public record. Not only can a good attorney work to prevent these negative outcomes, but if the board truly does think of it as a minor infraction, an attorney may be able to convince the board to take no formal action at all, keeping your professional record clean in the process. Thus, it's a good idea to hire an attorney even when facing complaints you believe to be minor.
Is it true that the hiring of an attorney implies that I'm guilty?
Not at all. Your state licensing board regularly deals with lawyers. They understand that this is effectively a legal matter and that you have a right to counsel, and they won't presume your guilt if you have hired an attorney. On the contrary, hiring an attorney lets the board know that, at the very least, you take the complaint seriously.
My K-12 principal's certification has been revoked. Is it possible to have it reinstated?
In cases of suspension, the chances of reinstatement are greater than if your certification and license are fully revoked. However, the state may permit it in certain circumstances. You may be required to resubmit an application and meet certain conditions, which may include, but are not limited to:
- Submitting a formal request for reinstatement along with a written explanation of why you believe your credentials should be restored.
- Paying any filing fees along with outstanding fines.
- Demonstrating that the conditions that led to disciplinary action are no longer an issue (for example, completing a treatment program for substance abuse).
- Agreeing to any action plan the board may consider necessary as a prerequisite for reinstating you.
If your state does offer a mechanism for reinstating your license and/or principal certification, it's best to have an attorney help you through the process for the best odds of success.
I have just been notified that there is a case or allegation against me. How soon should I consult with an attorney?
The sooner you act, the better. By consulting with an attorney early in the process, you give them more time to investigate the facts of your case and develop a strong strategy for responding to the complaint. Remember, by the time your case reaches the formal hearing stage, the board has already made its own case against you, and you're then at a disadvantage because your role in the hearing is basically to convince them not to revoke your credentials. By contrast, hiring an attorney early in the process puts you on fairer footing and creates an opportunity possibly to avoid a hearing altogether.
As a certified K-12 principal, your whole career hinges on your licensure and certification. If these are jeopardized by a complaint or allegation of wrongdoing, your career hangs in the balance. Hiring the right attorney at the right time could save your career. Take steps now to protect your livelihood. Contact the Lento Law Firm at (888) 535-3686 today to see how we can help.