As the summer begins to wind down, the first whispers of fall rippling through cool evening breezes are a welcome reminder that school is back in session. That means it’s an opportune time for Pennsylvania’s 500 public school districts and many charter schools to examine their policies governing employee reporting of arrests and convictions and their handling of arrest and conviction reports.
Pennsylvania has long required that school district employees self-report arrests or convictions for many common offenses (e.g. kidnapping, endangering the welfare of children, sexual abuse of children, etc.). The law prohibits schools from hiring applicants with certain offenses, and requires immediate discharge of teachers/educators who are convicted of or who plead guilty to those same offenses. In addition to the obvious violent crimes and crimes against children, PA law also requires self-reporting for all felony, first-degree misdemeanor, first-degree misdemeanor or felony DUI, and controlled substance-related offenses. The reporting requirement applies to all current and prospective employees of public and private schools, intermediate units, and vocational-technical schools, including independent contractors and their employees who have direct contact with children.
Obviously, in light of the potential consequences, employees were not really motivated to report arrests for these offenses. For those employees who may have hoped to remain undetected following a reportable arrest or conviction, life just got a little harder. Thanks to a recently-implemented notification system, the Pennsylvania Department of Education (“PDE”) is now automatically notified by the Pennsylvania Justice Network (“JNET”) when an educator is arrested. Once notified, the PDE sends a notification to the Teachers Information Management System (“TIMS”) and the chief school administrator for the school in which the educator is employed. Once notified, the TIMS officer and administrator receive frequent reminders until the administrator acknowledges the arrest.
The chief administrative officer is then required to review the pending criminal charge. Importantly, the chief school administrator will be given access to a broader range of information than they would have if they were relying solely on the employee to self-report. The notifications sent from JNET to TIMS and the chief administrative officer include arrests, indictments, and charges that do not require self-reporting. For example, a second-degree misdemeanor may not otherwise be reported, but would come through JNET to the school district just the same as an arrest for a more serious offense. As a result, school districts are becoming aware of potentially unflattering information about their employees they may otherwise never have received. Of course, an arrest is public information, and where school districts would formerly rely on the local newspaper’s “police roundup” section, they are now given convenient, broad access to such information on employees.
It is important for school districts to be mindful of their use of this information when making an employment decision. The school district must balance its obligations as an employer and duty to protect the integrity and safety of the educational institutions with the procedural and substantive due process rights of its public employees. The school district may also have obligations pursuant to a union contract or other contract. As a result, any potential employment action in response to a report should be accompanied by thorough documentation and consultation with counsel.
Although school districts should already have a procedure in place for how to deal with teacher arrests, now would be a good time to review that procedure and determine if any updates are necessary. Also, a procedure regarding how to process and handle the TIMS reports should be considered.
For questions or updates on this issue, contact any of the attorneys in the McNees Labor and Employment Group.