Commissioner reverses teacher termination based on use of force

We have a statute in the Education Code designed to give teachers some protection when they find it necessary to use physical force with a student. Section 22.0512 of the Code tells us that professional employees may not be disciplined for the use of physical force with a student to the extent that such force is justified by the Penal Code.  That means that non-deadly physical force can be used “when and to the degree the actor [meaning, the teacher] reasonably believes the force is necessary to further the special purpose or to maintain discipline in a group.”

Dallas ISD fired Caroline Lee, a third grade science teacher, for what the district believed to be the unreasonable use of force.  However, the independent hearing examiner, Robert Prather, did not see it that way.  He recommended that Lee not be fired.  DISD rejected Mr. Prather’s recommendation, terminated Lee’s contract, and she appealed to T.E.A.

Commissioner Morath did not issue this decision, presumably because he was on the board in Dallas at the time the decision was made.  Instead, he named T.E.A. Director of Audits, William Wilson, as his designee.  Mr. Wilson overturned DISD’s decision.  Here is the takeaway quote from the Commissioner’s decision:

As a remedial statute, T.E.C. section 22.0512 is to be given the most comprehensive and liberal construction possible.  A school district has the burden to prove that an employee’s use of force is unreasonable.  It is not an affirmative defense that the employee must prove.  When an employee is using force, a district cannot take disciplinary action against an employee because she was directed by an administrator not to use force.  Likewise, when an employee is using reasonable force, a district cannot take disciplinary action against an employee because it might cause the public to lose confidence in the administration.  The use of reasonable force cannot directly or indirectly be the basis for taking disciplinary action against the employee.

I encourage you to read that entire paragraph out loud, slowly, two or three times.  There is a lot there.  The case is Lee v. Dallas ISD, decided by the Commissioner’s designee on February 16, 2016. The Docket Number is 012-R2-12-2015.