Disproportionate use of force is costly for teacher.

The Commissioner has affirmed the termination of a DAEP teacher in Seguin ISD for the use of physical force that was unreasonable under the circumstances. The Commissioner’s opinion reminds us of four things that are important in cases like this.

First, Texas law provides considerable protection for teachers using force with students.  The decision states that “the Texas Education Code provides a high level of protection for the teacher” similar to the protections that parents enjoy when using force to discipline their children. 

Second, the district bears the burden of proving that a teacher’s use of force was improper.  The big issue is whether the use of force was reasonable, and the district has the burden of introducing evidence to show that it was not.

Third, the amount of force should be proportionate to the infraction. That was the decisive issue in this case. The teacher and five students were working on a project that involved newspapers and glue.  When the 11-year old student got upset about a comment the teacher made, she started to empty out her glue bottle onto the newspaper. The teacher snatched the paper up, which caused some of the glue to smear on the student’s shirt.  The student grabbed the paper back and pushed it into the teacher’s chest.  The teacher then “snatched the paper and forcefully pushed it into Student’s face and hair, causing Student to bend backwards and move back several steps towards the wall until [the teacher] stopped pushing her.”

Both the hearing officer who recommended termination and the board that approved it considered the student’s infraction to be a minor one. The Commissioner affirmed: “Pouring glue on a paper is a minor infraction.”   The Commissioner noted that the student’s actions were not disruptive or aggressive toward other students. 

What about the student pushing the glue-smeared newspaper on the teacher’s shirt? The Commissioner said this:

Even if [the teacher’s] rendition of events were believed by the factfinder, an adult teacher shoving a paper covered with glue at a child’s face is disproportionate and unnecessarily degrading to the offense of pouring glue on paper, not to mention unprofessional conduct for a teacher.

Fourth, the general rule is that the district cannot bring up incidents from previous years.  The Commissioner addresses this in a footnote to the decision:

The Notice of Proposed Termination also includes references to seven previous incidents of inappropriate interactions with students.  Inappropriate interactions in prior contract years cannot form the basis of the termination of a current contract and were not considered herein.

That’s the general rule, but sometimes it’s fair to bring up prior year incidents to show that a teacher has been put on notice of what is acceptable and what is not.

Bottom line: in this case, despite the strong protection the law provides, this teacher went too far.  Termination for good cause affirmed. The case is Doggett v. Seguin ISD, decided by the Commissioner on May 1, 2019. It’s Docket No. 022-R2-03-2019.


Tomorrow: Revolution continues in Serenity Falls.