When teachers misbehave [Editorial]

State lawmakers and educators are right to be concerned about how much time it presently takes to clear or dismiss teachers accused of misconduct. When teachers are yanked out of their classrooms for months or even years while allegations of wrongdoing are investigated, both they and their students suffer from the absence. Maryland's school districts need to expedite the process by which such cases are resolved, but they must do so in a way that is fair to teachers while protecting the vulnerable young people entrusted to their care.

As The Sun's Liz Bowie reported last Sunday, several hundred Maryland school employees are removed from their workplaces every year due to allegations of misconduct. When an investigation begins, their classes are taken over by substitutes who may or may not be as well qualified as the instructors they replace. Meanwhile, the suspended teachers are assigned other tasks or end up warehoused in off-site facilities with essentially nothing to do besides spend their time reading, playing board games or sleeping.

School systems pay a pretty penny in the process not only because they have to hire substitutes to make up for the loss of their regular instructors but because under union rules they must also continue to pay the full salaries of teachers who have been suspended until they are either reinstated or dismissed. That's a colossal waste of scarce education dollars that Maryland can ill afford. The state clearly needs to find a way to reduce the time teachers spend in a legal limbo in which they are prevented from doing their jobs yet schools are still obliged to pay them for being idle.

That is why some eduction advocates are calling for the teachers unions and school systems to voluntarily agree on how to speed up a process that is both expensive for taxpayers and detrimental to the children whose classrooms are staffed by substitutes. One way to accomplish that would be to put a reasonable time limit on how long investigations could continue before a teacher accused of misconduct is either allowed back into the classroom or fired.

Defining what is reasonable in such cases may not be as easy as it sounds, however, and what may seem reasonable for one school district may not be appropriate for another. A small district in a rural county that receives few complaints of misconduct might easily resolve most cases that come before it within a few days or weeks at most, for example, while a large urban school system that receives hundreds of complaints a year could take much longer to deal with its backlog, especially if school officials have to wait for police and other government agencies to complete their own investigations first.

Moreover, even in districts with relatively few complaints, some cases invariably are more complex and difficult to investigate than others, especially those involving allegations of sexual misbehavior in which witnesses or victims may be reluctant to cooperate with authorities. A reasonable time frame for investigating an unauthorized use of school funds or theft of school property might not be at all sufficient to resolve allegations of improper touching or molestation, for example.

Yet it is in precisely such cases that it's essential for officials to determine with some degree of certainty whether criminal charges are warranted, both to hold the perpetrators accountable and to prevent other students from being victimized as well. The worst possible outcome of an inflexible time limit on misconduct investigations is not that teachers innocent of wrongdoing might have to wait a little longer until the charges against them were dropped but that teachers whose behavior is clearly unacceptable might escape punishment and return to the classroom to continue their predations just because they managed to run out the clock.

Such considerations suggest there's no one-size-fits-all formula for how long investigations of teacher misconduct should last. That is why we are wary of attempts to solve the problem through legislation at the state level, as some lawmakers have proposed. Maryland is simply too diverse a state to impose a single standard for all of its 24 separate jurisdictions in this matter. Rather, it's a problem each of the state's districts will have to work out individually between its teachers and school officials according to their own unique needs, circumstances and available funds. Ultimately, the most important step may have been to shine a light on the problem and make it clear to school officials that providing more resources to investigate these cases expeditiously would be a wise investment.

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