SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Board of Education has launched a process to update board rules pertaining to the discipline of and standards for licensed school teachers.

Late last week, the State School Board approved recommendations of a task force that reviewed the Utah Professional Practices Advisory Commission’s process, a group that reviews allegations of misconduct by licensed educators, conducts hearings and makes recommendations to the state board.

The task force report encourages the State School Board “to continually monitor the (commission) process to ensure that educators subject to allegations of misconduct are treated fairly and that the children of our state have educators who are well trained to avoid ethical problems in the classroom that would reduce their teaching effectiveness.”

The task force recommendations include updates to six State School Board rules on issues such as reporting of alleged misconduct by school districts or schools, and licensure reinstatement and the creation of a new rule on educator standards.

In the coming months, the proposed rule changes will be reviewed under the board’s committee and public comment process. The state board will have final say on the proposed amendments to existing rules or the addition of new rules.

The recommendations adopted by the board also include “comprehensive training regarding educator professional conduct and discipline” for teachers, said State School Board Vice Chairwoman Brittney Cummins. Cummins, a task force member, said the training would require a legislative appropriation.

The Utah Professional Practices Advisory Commission is comprised of nine educators and two community members “charged with maintaining and promoting a high standard of professional conduct and ethics among Utah teachers,” according to its website.

teacher discipline | Heather Miller

The commission makes recommendations to the State School Board on discipline and licensure matters, which the board can accept, remand to the commission for further consideration, or take other action on.

The task force was formed under a legal settlement with two licensed educators who appealed the State School Board’s disciplinary actions against their teaching licenses. A state audit on the educator discipline process also played into the board’s decision to create the task force, officials said.

The 2018 audit conducted by the the Office of the State Auditor shed light on local schools failing to report inappropriate conduct of educators to state licensing officials, which means problem educators avoided discipline and could readily move to other schools.

”Because these cases were not reported, the Utah State Board of Education’s ability to manage and control educator licensure is diminished, and some educators have likely avoided USBE‐imposed discipline,” the audit states.

Auditors discovered 58 cases of alleged educator misconduct that, based on available documentation, “should have been reported to UPPAC for investigation as required by law.”

Board member Michelle Boulter of St. George said she’s had concerns about the Utah Professional Practices Advisory Commission process since she was elected to the board in 2016.

Those concerns grew following the arrest of Curtis Payne, a former Washington County elementary school music teacher, she said.

Earlier this year, Payne pleaded no contest to four counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child, a first-degree felony, according to court records.

Payne was recently sentenced to four consecutive terms of 15 years to life in the Utah State Prison. The plea agreement and sentencing were the culmination of a case that included more than 30 accusations of sexual misconduct and abuse dating back to 1999.

Fifth District Judge Jeffrey Wilcox, who sentenced Payne, criticized the school system’s handling of complaints against Payne, saying he was “frankly appalled” that Payne was allowed to keep teaching 9- and 10-year-old girls, the main group he victimized, according to the St. George Spectrum.

One policy change recommended by the task force would clarify the ambiguity of when school districts should report allegations to the professional practices commission, Cummins said.

The existing rule has several sections of lower-level misconduct that schools “may” report as well as sections where schools “shall” report to the commission

The task force’s recommendation is, “anything that is in our rule is a mandatory report,” Cummins said.

Lower-level misconduct would be removed from the rule with the intention that schools can appropriately deal with those issues, the task force report states.

“There was a lot of inconsistency across the state about LEAs (local education agencies) judging the discretionary places where (they) may report things so it was not equitable across the state as to what was reported to UPPAC,” Cummins said.

The task force, which met 10 times over four months, was charged with reviewing the overall fairness of the commission process from initial reports of alleged misconduct to final action and notification, as well as the length of the process.

“Throughout its discussions, the focus of the task force was to ensure that the discipline process protects the interests of all individuals affected by the process — students, education professionals, parents, and community members. The task force considered the need to maintain high expectations of educator conduct while recognizing the need to encourage educators struggling with minor, remediable misconduct to resolve the issues and return successfully to the profession,” the task force report states.

The task force was also asked to consider the State School Board’s role, whether it is an appellate body as it reviews the commission’s recommendations or whether it should accept evidence, briefs and conduct hearings.

The recommendations also include specific training for State School Board members. 

The task force also studied whether an appeal to the State Superintendent of Public Instruction is necessary for judicial review. “This was seen to be unnecessary. It was basically removed, stricken from the rule,” Cummins said.

The task force also recommended that the commission continue the data collection that informed its work and that the group reconvene one year after the new rules are put in place to determine their impact.