This story has been updated.
PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Proposed requirements that would make South Dakota school teachers and school administrators report knowledge of alleged ethics violations by other teachers and administrators have been turned down.
The Legislature’s Rules Review Committee deadlocked 3-3 on approving them. Republican Senator Jean Hunhoff, the panel’s chair, then switched sides to send each proposal back to the state Department of Education.
Hunhoff, who currently is the Legislature’s senior-most member, sternly told the department and the South Dakota Education Association, which represents many teachers and other educators, that they needed to work together to find agreement and bring back a new package next year.
She said teachers shouldn’t fear being accountable for their actions as professionals.
The panel also unanimously rejected a proposed change to how dual-credit courses are counted toward high school graduation.
State Education Secretary Joe Graves made the central pitch for the teacher-reporting package. He said the department in the past has received “covertly” copies of non-disclosure agreements between school districts and teachers that the teacher who had allegedly committed some violation was allowed to leave in exchange for a neutral recommendation.
“The rule steps up the importance of the situation. They need a nudge and frankly a requirement like this provides it,” Graves said. “If we can give these people this nudge to report, we can at least shorten the careers of people who do not have the best interests of children at heart and thereby save others from the unfortunate consequences of their behavior.”
The department has put in place an email portal where others can report anonymous tips. SDEA lobbyist Jeremiah Murphy drew attention to that.
“Now you can anonymously report somebody — and quite honestly, I just imagine the trouble. Imagine the trouble that would ensue if I can anonymously report somebody. I don’t — frankly, that contradicts the method, because I can’t imagine how you can send an anonymous email, short of going to a lot of trouble and setting up a blind account or something,” Murphy said.
The department refers reports of alleged ethics violations to the state Professional Teachers Practices and Standards Commission or the state Professional Administrators Practices and Standards Commission. The governor appoints all members of both groups.
One of the teachers commission’s past members told the committee that the rule changes shouldn’t be made.
“Appropriate reporting of misconduct, that has to happen,” said Paula McMahan, a middle school teacher for the Elk Point-Jefferson school district. “I am in agreement with that. But inappropriate reporting or misreporting only creates a bigger gap between our students, our administrators, our stakeholders of all kinds.”
Watertown school superintendent Jeff Danielsen also spoke against the proposals. So did Gerry Kaufman of Huron, a retired lawyer who formerly represented Associated School Boards of South Dakota.
Department lawyer Amanda LaCroix defended the proposed rules. “The Legislature has determined and declared by statute that teaching is a profession. We want this to ensure that our students are safe and the public is safe, but also to ensure the integrity of the profession is secure,” she said.
LaCroix said there have been cases of grooming and recently two cases of child pornography that school districts hadn’t reported.
Rep. DeGroot said he’d served as a school administrator for 40 years and understands there are nuances to school law and how school systems work. He suggested that the proposed requirement would break a school’s chain of command. Replied Secretary Graves, who was a long-time superintendent for the Mitchell school district, “I can’t imagine a district trying to argue the chain of command for a report to the ethics commission, and I cannot believe that would be enforceable.”
DeGroot responded, “There’s just not enough regulations in what you’re doing as far as guidelines in what you’re doing.” He asked whether an unsubstantiated tip received by the department would go in someone’s permanent file. “That could ruin somebody’s future, and that’s a false report. You were in education a long time, Doctor Graves, teachers can be friends one day and the next day they’re not friends. And they can be petty…It happens.”
Sen. Hunhoff said teachers operate under a professional code of conduct. “And listening to the discussion today, there’s a lot of fear of what the ramifications are going to be. And I guess I’m challenged by that because of those that — I’m going to say, I’m in a profession, I’m in nursing — I have to report, and that’s my duty to do that. And am I fearful? Well, if I do something wrong or I do a bad behavior, then I need to be investigated and I need to be out of that profession. I’m thinking this is not to punish, but it’s to identify,” she said.
Sen. Mehlhaff agreed. “I think there should be requirements that if someone has knowledge, that somebody in that profession is acting unethically, and maybe harming kids, that there ought to be a reporting requirement,” he said.
Sen. Foster took the opposite side. “In the most egregious cases, absolutely it needs to be reported,” she said. “But I think there is a current process and I don’t know if in these situations this proposed rule change would address those. If people aren’t referring at the lowest level, I don’t know it’s going to change it at the highest level. And I support local control. There’s still a lot of unanswered questions of how this would work, what the true impacts will be.
Rep. Healy also spoke against the changes. “I worry about these rules. I worry it upsets the profession and the impacts it might have on our teachers.”
Rep. Hansen backed the changes. “I just think for the sake of the students and the parents I would rather err on the side of reporting this information and letting professionals deal with it. I just don’t think there’s a lot of instances of false reporting at the local level now and I don’t think there would be a lot of instances of false reports in the future, which seem to be like a big part of the concern.”
He added that non-disclosure agreements in these instances should be illegal and perhaps there should be legislation to make them so.
Hunhoff said she would change her vote so that the tie could be broken. “And I’m looking at all of you that provided opposition. I want to know your commitment, and want the agency to also go back and get the stakeholders. And I hope that in the future I do not hear this again — and again, I challenge you — you are a profession, then stand up and protect our students and do the right things that are out there.”
She continued, her focus on the opponents spread throughout the north half of the room, “And I think I have a right to say that, because I am one (a professional) and I have to follow it, and I would expect that you not be fearful that I’m going to lose a job or somebody’s going to say something. Because if that tops the safety of our children, then I feel very bad for the students who have teachers like that.”