On September 17, 2019, the State Board of Education (“State Board”) approved a revised version of its Licensure Code of Professional Conduct for Ohio Educators (“Code of Conduct”). The Code of Conduct is the basis for decisions on issues pertaining to licensure and currently contains eight main Principles of Conduct.
The updated version approved by the State Board makes several substantial changes, which are outlined below. Districts and their employees should review the updated Code of Conduct as soon as possible and discuss how these changes impact employees’ professional responsibilities.
1. The updated Code of Conduct applies to more employees.
The original Code of Conduct applied to “licensed” individuals “such as teachers, principals, superintendents, and others serving schools (such as school nurses, coaches and substitute teachers).” The updated Code now applies to “credentialed” individuals and explicitly includes “educational aides, coaches, substitute teachers, and others.” (Emphasis added.) This expansion may signal a desire to hold as many school employees as possible to these conduct standards.
2. The updated Code of Conduct adds a 9th Principle specifically dealing with technology and social media.
The updated Code of Conduct creates a new 9th Principle: “Appropriate and Responsible Use of Technology.” Principle 9 consolidates provisions relating to technology formerly found in other Principles and requires professionals to “maintain appropriate boundaries with colleagues, students, and the school community when using technology and electronic communications.” While the 9th Principle recognizes that educators have constitutionally-protected rights, it cautions that an educator’s statements on or use of technology “can reflect negatively on their position, school, and profession.”
The range of “conduct unbecoming” for this Principle is extremely broad. It includes both negligent and knowing conduct, affirmative acts and failures to act, and covers conduct on school-owned and personal devices. The discipline for violating this Principle rangers from a letter of admonishment up to a five-year suspension depending on the type of conduct involved. Because of its breadth, school employees should pay particular attention to Principle 9 in reviewing the new Code of Conduct.
3. The updated Code of Conduct generally expands the scope of “conduct unbecoming” under each Principle.
The updates to the Code of Conduct make more acts (or failures to act) subject to professional discipline. Some of the changes are not surprising – for example, the updated Code of Conduct now explicitly prohibits sexual harassment (Principle 1) and requires employees to comply with local procedures regarding confidentiality (Principle 5). However, “conduct unbecoming” now includes the following noteworthy additions:
- Assisting another in committing an act of conduct unbecoming (Principle 1);
- Having a “continuing physical or mental inability, incapacity or addiction” which significantly impacts the employee’s ability to carry out professional responsibilities and makes him or her “incapable of safely maintaining the care, custody and control of students” (Principle 1);
- Failing to verify that an educator possesses appropriate credentials before hiring, recommending, or paying that educator (Principle 1);
- Soliciting, encouraging, engaging in, or consummating an inappropriate relationship with “any student, minor, or individual who was a student in the preceding 12 months” (Principle 2; emphasis added);
- “Engaging in habitual or excessive abuse of alcohol,” exhibited by two or more alcohol-related convictions in a five-year span or by a “severe alcohol-related conviction” (Principle 6); and,
- Failing to transparently and responsibly account for and manage “any and all school-related funds,” including failing to follow the rules, opinions, and bulletins of the State Auditor and Ohio Ethics Commission (Principle 7).
Because the updates to the Code of Conduct have wide-reaching implications, districts should review the changes closely and work with Board counsel to determine whether to make any corresponding changes to Board policy or staff handbooks.