Concerns Over A Teacher’s Behavior

Q: I am a parent in a public school system in the Boston
area. In our local newspaper, I have read about a teacher at our middle
school who has been arrested for a DUI and then domestic abuse. I am
concerned that this teacher may be unstable. What is the protocol for a
school system? Can this teacher be fired for this? I realize arrests
are not convictions but there seem to be a pattern.

A: I understand your concern. Teachers are entrusted with our
children and we have the right to know that teachers are responsible
professionals. As a parent, you are right to be worried about any
behavior by a teacher than may indicate a serious problem. You should
bring your concerns to the school principal and ask to know that the
school is taking steps to ensure that the children are in a safe
environment. This is particularly important if your child, or others
students, are alone with the teacher during extracurricular activities
or if the teacher drives students to school-sponsored events.

Unfortunately, the law may limit the school administration’s options
in dealing with this teacher, even if the school district wants to
assist him or satisfy itself that there is no cause for concern.
Employers, including cities and towns, are subject to Massachusetts and
federal law concerning discrimination. While a teacher who was arrested
for a DUI or even domestic abuse may have alcohol or substance abuse
issues, the law places limits upon what an employer can do to address
such situations. Attorney Valerie Samuels, an employment and labor law
attorney practicing at the Boston firm of Posternak Blankstein &
Lund LLP shares that the federal law known as the Americans with
Disabilities Act (ADA) prevents employers from discriminating against
employees with a “disability.” Samuels explains, “The definition of
disability is very broad, and under certain circumstances, may include
employees with substance abuse issues.” According to Samuels, while the
school may prohibit the use of alcohol or illegal substances at work,
it cannot easily take action against an employee who has taken steps to
remedy his addiction or is not currently abusing illegal drugs.
Current users of illegal drugs are not protected under the ADA, but it
is extremely difficult for employers to discern who is actively using
drugs. In addition, current and former alcohol abusers are protected
under the ADA. Massachusetts law places similar constraints on
employers.

Another factor is whether the teacher is covered by a bargaining
agreement. Most collective bargaining agreements require an employer to
demonstrate “just cause” before action can be taken against the
employee. “Just cause” is difficult to prove particularly where, as
here, the teacher has not done anything unlawful in connection with his
job. The school will likely monitor the situation to make sure no
misbehavior occurs at work.

Finally, an arrest is not a conviction. Given that the alleged
behavior did not take place at school, and because the teacher has not
yet been convicted of any crime, the school district must tread
carefully.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Boston.com Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.