Q: I am a parent in a public school system in the Boston area. In our local newspaper, I have read about a teacher at our middle school who has been arrested for a DUI and then domestic abuse. I am concerned that this teacher may be unstable. What is the protocol for a school system? Can this teacher be fired for this? I realize arrests are not convictions but there seem to be a pattern.
A: I understand your concern. Teachers are entrusted with our children and we have the right to know that teachers are responsible professionals. As a parent, you are right to be worried about any behavior by a teacher than may indicate a serious problem. You should bring your concerns to the school principal and ask to know that the school is taking steps to ensure that the children are in a safe environment. This is particularly important if your child, or others students, are alone with the teacher during extracurricular activities or if the teacher drives students to school-sponsored events.
Unfortunately, the law may limit the school administration’s options in dealing with this teacher, even if the school district wants to assist him or satisfy itself that there is no cause for concern. Employers, including cities and towns, are subject to Massachusetts and federal law concerning discrimination. While a teacher who was arrested for a DUI or even domestic abuse may have alcohol or substance abuse issues, the law places limits upon what an employer can do to address such situations. Attorney Valerie Samuels, an employment and labor law attorney practicing at the Boston firm of Posternak Blankstein & Lund LLP shares that the federal law known as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prevents employers from discriminating against employees with a “disability.” Samuels explains, “The definition of disability is very broad, and under certain circumstances, may include employees with substance abuse issues.” According to Samuels, while the school may prohibit the use of alcohol or illegal substances at work, it cannot easily take action against an employee who has taken steps to remedy his addiction or is not currently abusing illegal drugs. Current users of illegal drugs are not protected under the ADA, but it is extremely difficult for employers to discern who is actively using drugs. In addition, current and former alcohol abusers are protected under the ADA. Massachusetts law places similar constraints on employers.
Another factor is whether the teacher is covered by a bargaining agreement. Most collective bargaining agreements require an employer to demonstrate “just cause” before action can be taken against the employee. “Just cause” is difficult to prove particularly where, as here, the teacher has not done anything unlawful in connection with his job. The school will likely monitor the situation to make sure no misbehavior occurs at work.
Finally, an arrest is not a conviction. Given that the alleged behavior did not take place at school, and because the teacher has not yet been convicted of any crime, the school district must tread carefully.
by Pattie Hunt Sinacole, First Beacon Group LLC
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