The contours of the professional educator discipline system are established in the Professional Educator Discipline Act (Act)(24 P.S. §2070.1a et seq.). Under the Act, the Professional Standards and Practices Commission (Commission) has jurisdiction over all certificated employees and all charter school staff members who would be required to hold certification if they served in a traditional public school. The term "educator" is used here to include both certificated employees and charter school staff members.
Professional discipline refers to action against an educator's professional certificate or a charter school staff member's employment eligibility as a result of a finding of misconduct by the Professional Standards and Practices Commission (Commission). The Act sets forth the types of actionable misconduct and also sets forth the types of discipline that can be imposed. Professional discipline should be distinguished from local discipline or employment action. Misconduct may result in specific action by the local employing educational agency and in state action against your certificate as well. Imposition of either local or state action for misconduct is not contingent on one another.
DISCIPLINARY SYSTEM OVERVIEW
Both the Commission and the Department of Education (Department) play an important role in the professional educator discipline system. The Department has responsibility for the intake of educator misconduct complaints as well as the investigation and prosecution of disciplinary cases before the Commission. The Commission's adjudicatory jurisdiction is invoked with the filing of a Notice of Charges by the Department against a specific educator. The authority to impose discipline after charges are filed rests with the Commission.
Filing a Complaint:
Any interested party may file an educator misconduct complaint with the Department within one year from the date of an educator's alleged misconduct or the date of the discovery of the alleged misconduct. If the misconduct is of a continuing nature, the party has one year from the last date on which the conduct occurred. Complaints involving sexual abuse or exploitation may be filed up until five years after the child/student reaches 18 years of age.
Legal Sufficiency Review:
After initial review to determine if the educator holds a Pennsylvania certification, a Department attorney is responsible for determining whether the allegations contained in the complaint are legally sufficient. A complaint is legally sufficient if the facts alleged in the complaint, if accepted as true, would be sufficient to warrant discipline under the Act or the Code.
If it is determined that legal sufficiency is lacking, the complaint is dismissed and the educator and complainant are so notified by the Department. Similarly, if legal sufficiency is found, the Department notifies the affected educator of the complaint and the current and/or prior employing school entity. The complaint then progresses to the next level of review.
Probable Cause Review:
If legal sufficiency is found, the attorney will conduct a preliminary investigation to determine whether probable cause exists to proceed. The preliminary investigation may be limited to a review of documents submitted by the affected educator, the complainant and/or the pertinent employing school entity. If probably cause is not found, the Department notifies the affected educator, the complainant and the employer, where appropriate, that the complaint has been dismissed. Conversely, if probable cause is found, the legal office initiates a full investigation.
After its investigation, the Department may elect to: dismiss the complaint because discipline is not warranted or because there is insufficient evidence to establish professional misconduct; determine that any action taken by the local school entity is sufficient; enter into a negotiated settlement of the complaint; or initiate formal hearing procedures before the Commission with the filing of Notice of Charges.
Notice of Charges:
The formal adjudicatory hearing process is initiated with the filing of a Notice of Charges with the Commission. A Notice of Charges must set out with specificity the grounds for discipline and the factual allegations in support thereof. The Charges are served on the affected educator and the current and/or prior employing school entity. The educator has 30 days in which to file a responsive pleading and to request a hearing. In cases where the Department seeks an Immediate Suspension of an educator's certification or requests an expedited hearing, the time period for response by the educator is abbreviated. Failure to respond to the Notice of Charges may result in the imposition of discipline based on the Notice of Charges.
Under section 13(4) of the Act, the local school entity in which the affected professional educator is or was last employed may intervene in the case. If a school entity elects not to intervene, it is not entitled to receive information about the progress of the case until or if discipline is imposed. School entities that intervene may participate fully in the case, including the hearing, but do not have authority to appeal any decision of the hearing officer or the Commission.
When factual matters are in dispute, the case will be assigned to one of the Commission’s hearing officers. The hearing officers are independent attorneys who are under contract to act as presiding officers in hearings pursuant to the Rules of Administrative Practice and Procedure (Rules).
Under the Rules, the hearing officers are granted authority to hold pre-hearing conferences, to conduct a fair and impartial hearing, to rule on evidentiary questions, and to dispose of procedural matters. A hearing officer is prohibited, however, from making a final determination of the case except through a proposed report to the Commission. The Commission is charged with making all final determinations.
Upon completion of the hearing, the hearing officer prepares a proposed report containing findings of fact, conclusions of law and recommending discipline where appropriate. Parties to the case, excluding the intervening school entity, may file an appeal of the proposed report to the Commission within 30 days after receipt of the decision. If exceptions are filed, the Commission may accept, modify or reject the hearing officer’s decision as the Commission is the ultimate fact finder.
Decisions of the Commission are considered to be “adjudications.” Administrative law defines an adjudication as any final order, decree, decision, determination or ruling by an agency affecting personal or property rights, privileges, immunities, duties, liabilities or obligations. As an adjudication, decisions of the Commission are appealable to the Commonwealth Court by either the Department or the educator. Unless the Commission has made a determination that the educator poses a threat to the health, safety or welfare of students or other persons in the schools or Commonwealth, an appeal of a Commission’s decision acts as a stay of the discipline.