While this week marks the unofficial start of spring training for Major League Baseball, last week marked the official opening for the 2012 State of Connecticut legislative session. At the top of Governor Dannel P. Malloy’s legislative agenda is education reform. However, as part of his State of the State address to the General Assembly, Governor Malloy surprised union leaders with his call to revamp the teacher tenure process. he Governor described the current teacher tenure system by saying “all you have to do is show up for four years.”
Sharon Palmer, President of the American Federation of Teachers Connecticut, was quoted as saying she thought Malloy’s characterization “was a bit harsh and incorrect, but I think we can work our way through it.”
Presently, for teachers to attain tenure, they need to complete forty school months of full-time continuous employment for the same board of education, provided the superintendent offers the teacher a contact to return for the following school year. (C.G.S.A. § 10-151). Once the teacher is tenured, they are entitled to a property right in their position for due process purposes and thus, it makes it extremely difficult for a board of education to dismiss a tenured teacher. Under the Teacher Tenure Act, a tenured teacher can only be terminated for the following reasons:
- Insubordination against reasonable rules of the board of education
- Moral misconduct
- Elimination of the position to which teacher was appointed
- Other sufficient cause
Tenured teachers are not at-will employees because of an affirmative decision of the legislature in enacting the Teacher Tenure Act to protect classroom teachers and administrators below the rank of superintendent from the threat of arbitrary discharge. Cimochawski v. Hartford Public Schools (2002), 802 A.2d 800, 261 Conn. 287. By invoking these protections, the Connecticut legislature has made it extremely difficult to terminate an underperforming teacher. Not only is the standard of “incompetence” a burdensome standard to meet, the termination process is expensive and time-consuming, as teachers are entitled to notice, a hearing before the board of education and appeal rights to the Connecticut Superior Court.
Under Malloy’s proposal, “tenure will have to be earned and re-earned” by meeting certain objective performance standards which would include student achievement, school performance and parent and peer reviews. Malloy would like to see the law changed so that a teacher could be dismissed for “ineffective” performance rather than for “incompetence.”
The Governor should be commended for proposing such reforms to the Teacher Tenure Act especially since one of his primary constituent supporters has been labor unions. However, given the current configuration of both chambers of the Connecticut General Assembly, is it realistic to believe that real reform to teacher tenure can be enacted? Certainly, there will be much hesitancy from the Connecticut teacher unions to reform the current system. It will be interesting to see if the Governor’s opening day surprise can garner enough bipartisan support to achieve meaningful reform.
Bottom Line for Educators
If Governor Malloy is successful in enacting legislation to reform the teacher tenure act by lessening the standards for teacher dismissals and limiting teacher’s due process rights, such change would be welcomed by all boards of education.Read More
It is now past the January 1, 2012 deadline for all Connecticut boards of education to approve their individual districts’ Safe School Climate Plans, the comprehensive procedures to address school bullying that were imposed by last year’s legislative session. The major focus of Public Act No. 11-232, An Act Concerning the Strengthening of School Bullying Laws, was to require each district to implement a Safe School Climate Plan in lieu of their formerly required bullying policies. The act defines “school climate” as “the quality and character of school life with a particular focus on the quality of the relationships within the school community between and among students and adults.”
While the act provided that the State Department of Education would adopt a model Safe School Climate Plan to assist districts in devising their own such plans, this has yet to happen.
The following is a review of the key components of the amended bullying laws, including additional requirements for the Safe School Climate Plans that must be in place by July 1, 2012:
- Definition of “Bullying.” The key is repeated conduct, shown by: (A) either the repeated use by one or more students of a communication that is directed at, or refers to, another student, or (B) an act or gesture by one or more students repeatedly directed at another student that (i) causes harm or damage to property, (ii) places the student in reasonable fear of such harm or damage, (iii), creates a hostile environment at school, (iv) infringes on the student’s rights at school, or (v) substantially disrupts the education process or orderly operation of the school.
- Complaint Investigation Procedures. Any student, parent or guardian may make a written report of bullying to any school employee (defined by the Act; see below). Once received, the Safe School Climate Specialist must supervise the investigation of the report, to be completed promptly. Within 48 hours of completion, if a verified act of bullying is found, the school must invite the parents or guardians of the student who committed the act to meet with the parents or guardians of the victim, at which the school will inform them of the measures being taken to ensure the victim’s safety and to prevent further bullying. The school must document and maintain records of each such investigation report, along with a list of the number of verified acts of bullying, which shall constitute a public record. The district shall protect from retaliation any person who makes or investigates a bullying report.
Updates to Safe School Climate Plans (Due July 1, 2012)
- Safe School Climate Coordinator. This person should be identified in your Safe School Climate Plan as a district-wide administrator with responsibility for overseeing the Safe School Climate Specialist at each individual school.
- Safe School Climate Specialist.This person must be the school principal (or designee) at each school in the district, and is responsible for supervising the processing of bullying complaints
- Safe School Climate Committee.This committee is established by the Safe School Climate Specialist at each school, and must include at least one parent/guardian of a student enrolled in the school. The committee must receive copies of completed investigation reports, identify and address patterns of bullying, review and amend relevant school policies, make recommendations concerning the Safe School Climate Plan, provide education on bullying, and assist with data collection pertaining to bullying incidents. The act includes an exception prohibiting the parent/guardian member of this committee from taking part in any activity that may compromise student confidentiality.
- New Responsibilities for School Employees. Any person who has regular contact with public school students in the performance of his or her employment duties (broadly defined to include substitute teachers and contracted service providers), and who witnesses bullying or receives a report of bullying, must orally notify the Safe School Climate Specialist within 1 school day, with a written report within 2 school days. Any such person making a good faith report of bullying shall be indemnified by the board of education for any action arising from the making of such report. School employees must also attend annual training on bullying prevention strategies, including related topics such as Internet safety and youth suicide prevention.
- Criminal Conduct. The Safe School Climate Specialist must notify law enforcement of any bullying incidents that he or she believes may constitute “criminal conduct.”
- Cyberbullying. The law defines cyberbullying as “any act of bullying through the use of the Internet, interactive and digital technologies, cellular mobile telephone or other mobile electronic devices or any electronic communications.” A mobile device, as defined by the statute, is broad enough to include video gaming devices and cameras. It’s a smart idea to have a detailed cyberbullying policy that complements your student discipline policies, as well as those policies pertaining to acceptable electronic network and equipment use by both students and staff.
Bottom Line for Educators
The deadline for amending the Safe School Climate Plans to incorporate the new bullying requirements is fast approaching. Please contact Siegel O’Connor’s Education Law attorneys for specific guidance on the new school bullying laws and related issues.
–Melanie E. Dunn is an associate in the Hartford office of Siegel, O’Connor, O’Donnell & Beck, P.C., where she represents boards of education with an emphasis on special education and other legal issues pertaining to students.Read More