School & District Management

Disciplining Educators: How Schools Should Tackle Conduct Concerns After the Insurrection

By Mark Lieberman — January 13, 2021 9 min read
People listen as President Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Washington shortly before the attack on the U.S. Capitol building.

As teachers scramble to put last week’s violent attack on the U.S. Capitol in context for their students, school district leaders are discovering that some of their own employees and school board members were among those supporting, attending, and even participating in the insurrection.

Several districts have suspended employees as they investigate potential wrongdoing. The fallout from the insurrection highlights the tricky complexities district leaders face as they attempt to separate constitutionally protected speech from illegal activity and behavior that’s inconsistent with school values or violates employee codes of conduct.

The events at the Capitol last Wednesday began with an 11 a.m. rally on Pennsylvania Avenue, where President Trump urged a crowd of thousands of his supporters to “fight like hell” and contest Congress’ certification of Joe Biden’s presidential election victory—in essence, subverting democracy.

The crowd marched to the U.S. Capitol, at which point a portion of the group stormed the building, breaching barricades, damaging federal property, and assaulting police officers, one of whom later died. Some reportedly spoke of trying to find and kill Vice President Mike Pence and other elected officials. Police found a vehicle parked near the Capitol that contained guns and homemade bombs, and two pipe bombs were found at nearby office buildings around the same time. Five people total died in the melee.

An Associated Press review of public records for more than 120 people either facing criminal charges or subsequently identified as being involved in last week’s unrest found they were “overwhelmingly made up of longtime Trump supporters, including Republican Party officials, GOP political donors, far-right militants, white supremacists, members of the military and adherents of the QAnon myth that the government is secretly controlled by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophile cannibals. Records show that some were heavily armed and included convicted criminals.”

In the days following the attack, private companies and public institutions alike have opened investigations or punished employees for their suspected involvement in or support for the insurrection. Police departments in Virginia and Washington have placed officers on leave to examine whether they took part in the insurrection, and fire departments in Florida and New York City have raised similar concerns, Reuters reported. A Philadelphia police detective who performs background checks on the department’s new recruits has been reassigned and is under investigation after she allegedly attended the rally last Wednesday, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

A similar reckoning is underway in schools across the country. Here’s an overview, drawing from media reports:

  • An employee of the Cleveland Metropolitan school district in Ohio resigned amid reports that law enforcement officials are investigating her role in the insurrection, including searching her home on Friday.
  • Two teachers from the Valley View schools in Arkansas boasted on Facebook of reaching the bottom of the scaffolding in front of the Capitol building. The district’s superintendent told the Arkansas Times he won’t punish the employees unless they are charged with a crime.
  • A member of the Ohio State Board of Education organized a bus trip to Washington last week to attend the rally. She told the Chronicle, a local news outlet, she attended President Trump’s speech but didn’t participate in or condone breaching the Capitol that afternoon.
  • A teacher from the Burlington school district in Wisconsin has been suspended with pay after a student raised concerns last Tuesday about an assignment posted in Google Classroom. In a social media posting that appears to depict the assignment, a middle school social studies teacher told students to watch a video of Rudy Giuliani sharing voter fraud falsehoods, and informed his students he would be traveling to Washington between Tuesday and Thursday.
  • Two West Virginia school bus drivers on Monday sued the superintendent of the Jefferson County district, arguing that the district’s decision to suspend them with pay pending further investigation of their participation in last week’s events in Washington violated their civil rights. Both employees were cleared of wrongdoing on Tuesday, the Journal reported, though the federal lawsuit will continue.
  • The Allentown district in Pennsylvania last Thursday suspended a teacher after an unspecified image surfaced that tied the teacher to the events at the Capitol.
  • More than 5,700 people have signed a petition calling for the firing of a teacher in the Susquehanna Township district in Pennsylvania for posting videos of himself attending the rally and singing in a tightly packed crowd while not wearing a mask, PennLive reported. The district’s superintendent has said an investigation is underway.
  • A school board trustee in the Sierra district in California has declined calls from community members to resign after he attended the rally and allegedly posted videos with racist content to his social media pages.
  • A newly elected member of the school board in Moore County, N.C., has drawn scrutiny for commenting “Kick some a-- and come back with a collection of severed ears!” on a Facebook post of a Trump supporter the day before the Capitol insurrection, and subsequently praising people who attended the Wednesday rally, disputing the contention that any of them were white supremacists.

Law enforcement agencies are warning that more violence is possible in Washington and elsewhere in the coming days and weeks—and district leaders are taking heed, according to Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

“With the conditions that we’re seeing, and what’s happening in our country, all superintendents are beginning to start to do their homework and say, ‘More of this could happen and many more of our staff could be involved in this kind of thing. We’ve got to set a game plan,’” Domenech said.

How do schools discipline employees without overstepping their authority?

School workers enjoy First Amendment protections for their right to free speech, including participating in peaceful protests in their private capacity as citizens. When deciding how to proceed with discipline for involvement in or proximity to a violent insurrection, administrators should be asking three main questions, said Tom Hutton, interim executive director of the Education Law Association:

  • Did the person break the law?
  • Did the person break the school or district’s code of conduct?
  • Could the person’s actions and behavior negatively affect their ability to effectively serve students in the classroom?

Answering the first two can be fairly simple, particularly if the person is charged with a crime.

Hutton emphasized too that “there’s a very strong strand in the law that upholds the authority of school districts to hold teachers to a level of behavior that may be higher than would apply to others,” including other school employees. Courts tend to justify that higher standard by pointing to teachers’ role in their community as civic leaders and role models, according to Hutton.

In this situation, determining whether attendance at the rally without breaching the Capitol affects a teacher’s ability in the classroom is difficult. One big question, Hutton said, is how courts will deal with people who were participating in, or supporting, seditious attempts to overthrow the government because they had internalized false information from right wing news media or QAnon conspiracy theories.

“Were they really trying to overthrow the government or believing all the propaganda about this election having been stolen somehow? If they innocently believed it, are they culpable if they didn’t do something that was trespassing?” Hutton said.

Several of the educators listed above have been criticized in recent days for social media posts that included racist language and imagery or depicted people not wearing masks or social distancing to protect others from the spread of COVID-19. The legal precedent for punishing school employees for objectionable social media postings is still emerging, according to Hutton. “There’s no bright line or easy rule,” he said.

Domenech and Hutton said suspending employees with pay is a routine and appropriate way to handle a volatile situation in which facts and evidence are still emerging.

Still, an employee’s lawyer might argue that an employee’s suspension and the media attention that follows is damaging even if the person eventually can return to normal duties, he said.

Police hold back Trump supporters who tried to break through a police barrier on Jan. 6, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol.
Police hold back pro-Trump rioters who tried to break through a police barrier Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol.
Julio Cortez/AP

Some district leaders may be tempted to actively monitor their staff’s social media accounts for evidence of potential future criminality or sympathy for violent extremists. Rachel Levinson-Waldman, deputy director of the liberty and national security program at the New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice, cautions against that approach. She believes it would be a waste of time and resources for an effort that could lead to an overly punitive approach.

“A lot of people falsely believe the election was stolen; it doesn’t mean they were planning to engage in violence,” Levinson-Waldman said. “Even coming to D.C. doesn’t mean they were going to engage in violence.”

Social media monitoring could take the form of keyword searches, but because people might be posting critically about the insurrection and violence at the Capitol, rather than endorsing it, “you would end up with a huge ratio of chaff to wheat,” she said. “I think it is incredibly invasive.”

A more worthwhile approach to being more vigilant, legal experts said, would be to remind the school community of the process for reporting inappropriate or troubling social media behavior to the relevant administrators, and to highlight district standards for acceptable staff conduct.

“Mostly this seems like a good opportunity for very robust civic education,” Levinson-Waldman said.

Historical developments continue to unfold at a rapid pace—the U.S. House of Representatives voted Wednesday 232 to 197 to impeach President Trump for the second time for “incitement of insurrection,” with a Senate trial to follow.

See Also

Illustration of young person connecting dots.
Nadia Bormotova/iStock/Getty
Teaching & Learning How to Teach the U.S. Capitol Attack: Dozens of Resources to Get You Started
Education Week Staff, January 7, 2021
6 min read

For Gladys Cruz, superintendent of the Questar III set of 23 districts in upstate New York, releasing an emphatic statement the day after the attack was a high priority.

“I summarized that I believe part of the core mission of public education is to develop engaged citizens who are knowledgeable about history, and the key role of our education system is developing citizens who are ready to protect the values of a democracy,” Cruz said. “I think that’s the first thing that we all needed to do.”

Answering the thornier questions of how to appropriately address behavior in the wake of a disturbing tragedy with implications for the future of the nation’s democratic governance will be far trickier.

“It’s the tension between ‘actions need to have consequences, our democracy is at stake’ and ‘raising the temperature only makes things worse for our democracy,’” Hutton said. “That’s a really tough discussion for everybody from the U.S. Senate down to the principal.”

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