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Washington Board Adopts Code Setting Conduct Standards for School Workers

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By Lisa Jennings

After more than two years of deliberation, the Washington State Board of Education has adopted a tough new code of professional conduct setting moral and ethical standards for all certified school personnel.

With the adoption of the code, Washington joins only a handful of other states--notably California and Florida--that have provided for loss of certification for clearly defined instances of "unprofessional" conduct. (See Education Week, Nov. 30, 1988.)

Although other states have codes of conduct, many are vague and are usually interpreted on the local level.

Among the most controversial elements of Washington's code are provisions spelling out the circumstances under which educators may not engage in sexual relationships with students.

Other key issues during the lengthy debate on the standards included restrictions on drug and alcohol use, the process for reprimanding violators, and local districts' control over their employees.

The code also establishes an advisory committee of teachers, administrators, and school support-staff members to investigate reported violations and recommend disciplinary action to the state superintendent. Most other states handle disciplinary regulations within a separate certification unit.

Privacy Concerns

Approval of the code by the state board, after a six-hour session Dec. 1, ended a long battle involving various education groups in the state. While most educators supported the concept of the code of conduct, some were concerned about its effects on privacy rights.

Carla Nuxall, president of the Washington Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, said last week that the code turned out to be a "good compromise."

Under state law, unprofessional conduct is one of seven violations subject to suspension or loss of certification. Other violations include immorality; intemperance; commission of a crime under state law; and conviction for the physical neglect, injury, or sexual abuse of children.

The code identifies 10 acts of unprofessional conduct, among them "sexual misconduct with a student."

The state board specified four situations in which sexual contact between an educator and a student is unacceptable. They are:

If the student is under the authority of the educator in a profes8sional setting;

If the student attends school in the same district as the educator;

If the contact occurs at any school-sponsored event, even outside the district; or

If the student is under age 18 and was ever under the authority of the educator in the past--even if he or she has since transferred, dropped out, or graduated.

School administrators' groups and others had argued that the code should include a flat ban on sexual contact with students. The board decided not to go that far, although Monica M. Schmidt, its executive director, said members have approached legislators with the idea of raising the state's age of consent from 16 to 18.

Drug, Alcohol Use

Another controversial act of unprofessional conduct identified by the code involves the use of drugs or alcohol on campus.

Under a draft of the policy, any employee caught with any drugs or alcohol on campus could lose certification.

The wea called the draft too strict, arguing that a teacher stopping at school after a trip to a store with an unopened bottle of wine in the car could face charges.

The board modified the proposal to allow local districts to set their own policies--especially in the case of private schools, where many educators live on campus.

Except in cases of immorality and sexual misconduct with a student, the code applies only to educators' professional lives, Ms. Schmidt noted.

The code, which is set to expire in four years, does not apply to noncertified employees.

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