As a junior high and/or high school instructor, you are truly a breed apart. You are investing yourself into educating young people at a critical time in their lives when their choices will shape their future. Being a secondary education instructor is often a thankless job (not to mention underpaid), but you can't imagine doing anything else. That's why having your teaching license and credentials threatened can be such a disruptive and traumatic experience.
Unfortunately, all it may take to put your teaching license into jeopardy is a single allegation of misconduct or wrongdoing. State licensing boards take these allegations quite seriously, and they have a relatively low burden of proof and broad disciplinary powers to take action against you if they believe you have violated their standards of conduct. If you find yourself in this situation, your best bet for saving your career is to hire an experienced professional license defense attorney to protect your interests. Joseph D. Lento is a knowledgeable lawyer who has helped numerous New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York secondary school instructors defend their credentials. This Q&A will address some of the most prevalent reasons why teachers lose their licenses/certificates, as well as how a professional license defense attorney can help.
What state agency investigates allegations against me as a teacher?
The board that initially granted your teaching credentials will also investigate charges of misconduct and impose disciplinary action as deemed appropriate. In New Jersey, it's the State Board of Examiners; in Pennsylvania, it's the State Board of Education; and in New York, it's the Office of Teaching Initiatives.
What types of allegations could jeopardize my license and certification to teach?
There are a number of allegations that, if proved, might result in your teaching license being revoked. Some of the most common include, but are not limited to:
- Sexual misconduct with students. This allegation covers both physical and non-physical forms of misconduct, including "sexting," sexual harassment, inappropriate remarks, and so on.
- Drug and alcohol offenses. Includes possession, sale, or distribution of alcohol/drugs, giving alcohol to minors, etc.
- Physical and/or verbal abuse of students. If you physically or verbally abuse students, not only is this considered inappropriate, but it could also be considered child abuse, and you may lose your teaching license as a result.
- Cheating. If you are accused of falsifying student records, inflating grades, passing students who don't meet the criteria, etc., you could be disciplined by the state board.
- Criminal convictions. Committing a crime may disqualify you from teaching in many states--especially those that are considered "crimes of moral turpitude" or crimes that put minors in danger.
What does the disciplinary process look like?
Each state licensing board has its own set of disciplinary rules, but they typically follow a similar pattern from state to state. You can expect a process similar to the following:
- Complaint. Typically, when someone files a formal complaint about you with your licensing board, it sets in motion the disciplinary process. This could be a parent, a child, a colleague, an employer, etc. The licensing board may likewise be automatically notified by the courts if you have been convicted of a crime.
- Review. The board will investigate the complaint to determine if it is genuine, credible, and within the board's jurisdiction.
- Investigation. The board will conduct an investigation to assess whether the complaint is backed by facts. Witnesses may be interviewed, subpoenaed records obtained, and other evidence gathered by an investigator. If there isn't enough evidence to support the claim, the board may choose to dismiss the complaint at this point.
- Consent order. If the inquiry turns up substantial evidence against you, the board may offer to negotiate a consent order in lieu of going through a formal hearing. A consent order is a legal agreement in which you acknowledge your mistake and agree to the board's proposed steps as a result of misconduct. This might not be the ideal option in every scenario, but it may work if the contract includes a route to reinstatement.
- Formal hearing. The next step in the process, absent a consent order, is to bring the matter into a formal hearing. You will be summoned to give cause as to why the board should not invoke disciplinary action against your license. An attorney may represent you at the hearing.
- Final determination. The board will issue a determination at the conclusion of the hearing on whether to find you at fault regarding the complaint. They will then determine whether your license should be suspended or revoked or what other punitive action should be taken.
Bear in mind that the board might choose to dismiss the complaint for lack of evidence at any point during the disciplinary process, or they may agree to lesser penalties that allow you to keep your secondary education instructor license and credentials. A skilled professional license defense attorney can work on your behalf to obtain a more favorable outcome.
Are there other disciplinary actions besides revoking my license to teach?
Yes. While the most severe disciplinary action is license revocation, there are lesser penalties that the board may choose to impose. Examples include:
- Temporary suspension. The board may suspend your teaching credentials until you satisfy certain conditions, at which point they may be reinstated.
- Fines. The board may impose a monetary fine.
- Probation/license restrictions. The board may restrict you from doing particular activities or place you under monitoring.
- Conditional agreements. The board may impose certain conditions that, if met, will allow you to keep your license--for example, mandatory treatment for drug addiction or alcoholism.
- Formal reprimand. The board may place a reprimand in your professional file.
Even one of these minor penalties, however, could still have a significant impact on your career. The majority of licensing board actions are a matter of public, which means that teachers, students, parents, and school officials can look up your license to see if you have any disciplinary records. It's usually a good idea to hire a professional license attorney to decrease the likelihood of discipline.
Is it possible to resolve the complaint with the licensing board without hiring an attorney?
You certainly have the right to speak and act on your own behalf to the board, but it's typically not advisable. The licensing board has broad authority to discipline you and does not necessarily have to prove their case "beyond a reasonable doubt." Remember, the board's priority is to protect the students and their parents, not the teachers. And for that reason, as soon as a complaint is filed, they are actively looking for evidence to support that complaint and show that you are culpable. This puts you at a disadvantage, Anything you say or do could actually be used against you, and unless you have an attorney's help, the board is far more likely to impose the harshest measure of discipline if they believe the complaint is valid.
In other words, acting on your own behalf often puts you at the mercy of the board to decide your future--and they aren't necessarily working in your favor. Having an attorney in your corner helps level the playing field and gives you a much better chance at having a more favorable outcome.
What can an attorney do to protect my teaching career?
An attorney who has experience in professional license defense can help you achieve a positive resolution in disciplinary proceedings that are pending against your secondary education instructor license. These are just some of the ways an attorney can assist you.
- Examine the allegations against you and advise you of their implications
- Strategize with you to create a persuasive and convincing response to the complaint
- Act as your official legal representative in all interactions and correspondence with the board
- Ask witnesses to testify and collect evidence to back up your story
- Negotiate with the board for the most favorable resolution possible, including having the complaint dismissed, advocating for lenient penalties, or working for favorable terms in a consent order if applicable
- Defend you at a formal hearing
Is it possible to have minor violations without affecting my license? What about minor violations that do not result in my license being suspended? Do I need an attorney?
Do not assume that any complaint or allegation is "minor." The board may have the authority to revoke your credentials even over seemingly minor offenses--and even if they invoke lesser penalties like fines or reprimands, these actions still become part of the public record and can negatively impact your reputation as an instructor. An experienced license defense attorney will give you the best chance of resolving even minor violations in such a way that your professional record is unaffected.
Won't hiring an attorney make me look guilty to the board?
No. The licensing board is accustomed to dealing with lawyers. Hiring an attorney does not mean that you are guilty, nor will the board view it that way. Rather, hiring an attorney shows the board that you take the matter seriously, which you should.
Is it possible for an attorney to help me get my teaching license reinstated if it has been revoked?
Yes, in some cases and depending on the circumstances. Unless your license has been revoked over something particularly egregious (such as a felony conviction or sex crime, which may disqualify you from holding any teaching position or even coming near a school), the state may provide a path for reinstatement. You may need to meet certain conditions, such as:
- Sending a written explanation explaining why you want to be reinstated and why the board should consider it
- Paying any outstanding fines, filing fees, etc.
- Fulfilling any prior conditions set forth by the board (for example, going through a rehab program or counseling)
- Agreeing to any action plan that the board considers necessary to restore your license
An attorney who specializes in license defense can assist you in coordinating the reapplication process and communicating with the board to negotiate the best terms for reinstatement.
What should I do if the licensing board contacts me regarding a complaint or violation?
You should immediately contact a professional license defense attorney if you are contacted or informed by the licensing board that an investigation is underway. You should remember that any statements or actions you make during the investigation could be used as evidence against you. It is vital to have an experienced legal professional on your side to protect your rights.
How soon should I contact an attorney after being notified of a complaint against me?
Truly, as soon as possible. An attorney should be involved early in the process to allow them to review your case and develop a solid response. This also gives them more opportunities to begin negotiations with the licensing board to minimize the damage to your career. Waiting until you are summoned for a formal hearing before hiring an attorney will cause you to start off on the defensive, as the board will already have evidence against you. An attorney's early involvement greatly improves your chances for a favorable resolution, even to the point of making a formal hearing unnecessary.
Whether you teach grades 7-8, 9-12, or 7-12, you've worked too hard to establish your career to have it jeopardized by an allegation of wrongdoing, a misunderstanding, or a misstep. Hiring an experienced attorney at the first sign of trouble could very well save your career. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has plenty of experienced helping licensed professionals like you navigate the complicated disciplinary process. Contact the Lento Law Firm at (888) 535-3686 today to see how we can help.