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Washington State Educators At Odds Over Plans for Conduct Code

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Despite intense public pressure to toughen policies regarding teachers who have been charged with molesting children, Washington State education officials have reached an impasse in the development of an unusually explicit "code of professional conduct."

The proposed document, which is being developed by an ad hoc advisory committee to the state board of education, is intended to provide a precise definition for "unprofessional conduct" in the state--and thus unambiguous grounds for termination of certification.

But organizations representing administrators, teachers, and school boards have not been able to agree on the details of a code that would both protect students from the grossly unethical behavior of some educators and shield educators from "witch hunts" that could cost them their careers.

Their discussions, participants said, stumbled on a tangle of conflicting views, with many administrators arguing that the code would tie the hands of local officials wishing to impose a possibly higher standard. Teacher representatives, meanwhile, contended that the code's language on personal morality is an undue regulatory intrusion into private life.

If an agreement is reached, however, Washington will join California and Florida in the forefront of the growing number of states that have moved to regulate standards of behavior traditionally determined by circumstance and the judgment of local districts.

Washington's new code, which would apply to public- and private-school educators licensed by the state, would be the first of its kind to be created under the authority of a state board. Other states typically handle disciplinary regulation within a separate certification unit.

Most states have some sort of "code of conduct" that includes a "general list of good intentions," vaguely described and open to interpretation by local school officials, said John Cahill, a spokesman for the Washington Education Association, the state teachers' union.

According to Mr. Cahill, the hitherto undefined reference to "unprofessional conduct" in Washington's state code had "suited a lot of people who would jawbone teachers into submission" by threatening their certification status.

Washington is known as a strong "local control" state, even though 75 percent of school revenues are supplied by the state.

State officials began work to update the code of conduct four years ago. But the issue reached a boiling point when a Spokane, Wash., newspaper and the state school chief tangled in court over the paper's right to information from teachers' employment dossiers for a pending investigative series on teachers charged with sex offenses against children. (See Education Week, Aug. 3, 1988.)

Though the court battle continues, the series ran in October. It charged, on the basis of independently obtained information, that child molesters were teaching in Washington classrooms.

Amid charges that the state education department was not adequately policing the teaching ranks, Superintendent of Public Instruction Frank B. Brouillet had spurred on the efforts of the advisory committee, which presented its first draft of the new code to the state board in September.

The draft, however, was sent back to the committee for further revision after two unions involved in its development--the Washington Association of School Administrators and the Washington State School Directors Association--refused to endorse it.

"The key here is going to be whether or not all the education professions in the state are going to come together and play," said Ralph E. Julnes, co-chairman of the committee and legal advisor to the superintendent.

"We recognize that there are going to be drafting problems," he added, "but when the impasse occurred, it stopped the dialogue. And now we are not even sure what the problems are."

Several union representatives said they were skeptical that a consensus could be reached at all.

But Howard Coble, executive director of the school administrators' union, noted that the issue had caught the attention of the legislature. "If we don't put a new code together, someone might do it for us," he said.

The state's education laws now cite seven violations of conduct that can result in revocation of certification. These include: immorality; violation of a written contract; intemperance, crime against state law; conviction of an crime involving the physical neglect, injury or sexual abuse of children; and any "unprofessional conduct."

The proposed regulations embodied in the code constitute a fuller definition for the "unprofessional conduct" category.

The first draft lists 10 "acts of unprofessional conduct:"

Misrepresentation or falsification in the course of professional practice.

Improper disclosure of student confidence.

Professional practice while incapacitated, including while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Disregarding or abandoning professional standards.

Abandonment of professional contract.

Unauthorized professional practice, which would include working as an educator without proper certification.

Sexual misconduct with a student.

Improper remunerative conduct, which would include asking a student to pay for equipment, supplies, or services.

Denying a student legal rights.

Failing to report misconduct by a colleague as it becomes known.

In addition to the list, the code's introductory "philosophy" states that "these provisions shall not be applicable to the private conduct of an education practitioner." But it cautions that private conduct might also be scrutinized "when it is not possible to distinguish action in a private capacity from action in a professional capacity."

The draft further defines each of the 10 acts.

The most controversial language for the divided advisory panel came under the sexual-misconduct section. The draft states that any sexual contact between an educator and a student of any age in the same school district would be grounds for revocation of certification.

But Mr. Coble of the administrators' association argued that the code should cover contact with students in any district.

Mr. Cahill, on the other hand, pointed out that the age of consent in Washington is 16. A teacher who married a 17-year-old student from another school district, he contended, should not face certification revocation.

He also warned that the code's private-conduct language could pose an unwarranted threat to homosexual teachers.

But the administrative representatives said in a written response to the draft that they favored broadening the code to include private life.

For both the administrators and the school-board representatives, however, the most serious flaw in the proposed code is the legal shackle it may impose on local governance.

The code represents "minimum standards that could become maxi4mum standards," making it difficult for local districts to hold their employees to a higher ethical standard, according to Larry Swift, executive director of the Washington School Directors Association.

Despite their opposing positions, all parties to the discussion are saying they favor the adoption of some kind of state code as quickly as possible.

"This is not footdragging, or non-cooperation," insisted Mr. Swift. "I think everyone's realized that this thing has to be changed."

Mr. Julnes noted that the document is likely to be revised significantly. But as of late last week, no committee meeting had been scheduled to rework the proposal.

However the negotiations are resolved, Washington's effort to grapple at the state level with issues of professional conduct represents an unusually "progressive" approach, according to Karen B. Wilde, executive director of the Florida Professional Practices Commission, which governs certification and disciplinary issues involving educators there.

Because officials from so many states, including Washington, have asked her for policy guidance, Ms. Wilde and several of her counterparts from other states in June created the National Council for State Education Standards and Professional Practices.

The new association will act as an information clearinghouse and offer technical assistance to states that want to "reinforce their education standards," Ms. Wilde said.

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