Teacher Nonrenewal Overturned by Commissioner

A teacher found two 7th graders scuffling on the ground in the classroom. She did not see how that happened, but just saw the two kids on the ground. As one of them got up to leave the scene, the teacher grabbed him by the wrist with both of her hands and held on to him as she asked him “what happened?”  The student attempted to free his arm, and did not answer the teacher’s question.  This standoff went on for more than a minute, and 56 seconds of it were caught on video. The student’s wrist was not red, bruised or otherwise injured.

Was the teacher using “reasonable force”?  That was the critical issue when the district proposed to nonrenew the teacher’s contract.  Two administrators testified that this was not reasonable force.  In their view, the student was not trying to walk away from the teacher, and so she should have released his arm.   However, another teacher who witnessed the incident testified that the teacher acted reasonably.

The school board sided with the administrators, but the Commissioner did not.  The Commissioner concluded that the board’s decision was arbitrary and capricious because it was not supported by “substantial evidence.”   Thus the Commissioner ordered that the teacher be reinstated with back pay. The district had proposed several specific reasons for the teacher’s nonrenewal, citing her for violations of “policy, rules and directives.”  But they all flowed from this one incident in the classroom. When the Commissioner concluded that the teacher’s use of force was covered by a statute that protects teachers (T.E.C. 22.0512) the rest of the case melted away like snowflakes in Austin: “When an educator is entitled to immunity, the district cannot take disciplinary action against her for violation of policy, rules, or directives.”

We have had several decisions along these lines lately, and so some things have become clear.  First, if the teacher asserts the immunity provided by the statute, the burden of proof is not on the teacher—it’s on the school.  Second, the doctrine of “in loco parentis” is alive.  In his decision, Commissioner Morath explicitly notes that “As teachers stand in the place of parents, they are protected from allegations that they have improperly used force against children in a very similar manner as parents are protected from equivalent allegations.”  Third, teachers are protected from disciplinary action even if they violated a directive or a school policy: “If the force used is reasonable, immunity trumps the directive or policy.”  Fourth, the school should consider five factors when determining if the force used was reasonable: 1) the age, sex and condition of the child; 2) the nature of the student’s conduct and the motives of the student; 3) the influence of the student’s example on other students; 4) whether force was reasonably necessary to compel obedience to a proper command; and 5) whether the force was disproportionate, unnecessarily degrading, or likely to cause serious injury.

The case is Williams v. Spring ISD, decided by the Commissioner on October 9, 2017.  It’s Docket No. 037-R1-08-2017.


Tomorrow: Why filing suit over a FERPA violation does not work.