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Committee defeats proposal to curb access to teacher reprimand letters

A state school board committee defeated a proposed policy change Thursday that would have limited online access to letters of reprimand to those issued after Jan. 1, 2017.
A state school board committee defeated a proposed policy change Thursday that would have limited online access to letters of reprimand to those issued after Jan. 1, 2017.
Marcos Osorio, Adobe Stock

SALT LAKE CITY — A state school board committee defeated a proposed policy change Thursday that would have limited public online access to information about letters of reprimand issued to teachers issued before Jan. 1, 2017.

The Law and Licensing Committee of the Utah State Board of Education in a split vote defeated the proposal, which one board member described as a "very limited change" because it would only apply to letters of reprimand. Information about other forms of discipline, up to revocation of a teacher's license, remain available online.

Under the proposed change, the letters of reprimand could be obtained under the state Government Records Access and Management Act or GRAMA.

Board member Alisa Ellis spoke against the proposed change.

"Just as a citizen, it is very difficult to GRAMA things. You get huge fees attached to it so it does feel like they (records) are hidden on there. … I am for any ease of access we can do, so I can't vote for these amendments," Ellis said.

Board member Carol Lear, who supported the change, said the larger issue was "doing a disservice to our educators" who had entered stipulated agreements that did not include the possibility that the disciplinary actions taken against their licenses would be accessible on a website.

Board member Linda Hansen said she was initially opposed to making teacher disciplinary records available on a searchable public website. But after talking to parents and educators, she's changed her mind.

"Teachers and parents like it. They like it because it's transparent. Teachers who haven't had reprimands, they like it because it shows they're good teachers and they haven't had reprimands. I have been convinced this is actually a good thing," Hansen said.

Moreover, "This is not an unusual thing. We have DOPL for licenses they have," Hansen said, referring to the state Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing.

Responding to an earlier request from a board member, staff of the Utah State Board of Education compiled a list of "offending conduct" that had resulted in letters of reprimand in the past two years after investigation by state educator licensing officials.

Letters of reprimand were issued for issues such making racist and sexually explicit comments to a student, leaving a firearm in a faculty restroom, multiple DUI convictions and engaging in consensual sex in the classroom during school hours.

Other offending conduct included testing positive for marijuana during school hours, making unauthorized changes to a family member's individualized educational plan, convictions for disorderly conduct and erratic classroom behavior, and convictions for theft of government property.

While the state board's Law and Licensing Committee took no action on Thursday, the full board could address the matter during its meeting Friday.

The searchable database, launched in February, includes teacher credentials and disciplinary actions. The Utah Education Association, the state's largest teacher union, filed a lawsuit against the State School Board last month challenging its authority to publish disciplinary actions taken against teachers.

The lawsuit, filed in 3rd District Court, takes issue with the retroactive nature of the database, which includes limited information about misconduct dating back 10 years.

The database lists disciplinary actions taken but it requires users to file GRAMA requests for more detailed information.

The lawsuit states that state law that permits comparable databases of disciplinary actions taken against people who hold other types of state licenses does not apply to the Utah State Board of Education.