Supreme Court clarifies 'off duty' for school employee discipline

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By Mackenzie Mays 
The Charleston Gazette

A recent West Virginia Supreme Court decision could allow local school boards more authority to discipline school employees for misconduct that occurs outside the classroom.

Last week, following an incident at Riverside High School where a baseball coach allegedly hit a player during practice but was not fired from his teaching job at the school, Kanawha County school board members voiced concerns over a state law that provides protection for teachers and their privacy when certain misconduct happens outside of school.

That law, which stems from a court decision made in the 1980s concerning a Harrison County teacher who was caught shoplifting, provides a “rational relation” test for school boards, which means they have to prove that a teacher’s off-the-job conduct is rationally related to the person’s ability to teach.

School officials have pointed to the law as a reason for keeping a teacher’s role in the classroom totally separate from their role as a coach.

“So, in theory, there might be off-duty conduct that impaired a coach’s ability to perform [his or her] job as coach but not [his or her] job as a teacher,” said Sherri Goodman, an attorney for the state Department of Education. “One example, perhaps, would be some kind of financial wrongdoing. As a coach, the individual would have access to gate receipts, etc., but as a chemistry teacher, the individual is not in a position to misappropriate funds,”

However, in a separate court decision also dealing with a Riverside High School employee that was filed last week, the court ruled that the “rational relation” test did not apply and that the employee in question should be fired from all school positions for her actions while off school grounds.

The ruling puts more emphasis on whether a school employee is technically “off duty” and less emphasis on whether they are physically outside the school environment.

According to the decision, an RHS cheerleading coach in 2008, who also worked as the school’s head cook, allegedly took students, who were minors, on an overnight weekend getaway without permission and posted obscene photos of them to social media.

The photos showed the girls topless in a hot-tub with the coach, who posted the picture to her Myspace and called the girls “hoes,” according to the decision.

The court ruled that the individual should be fired from her position as a coach and as a school employee — overturning the Public Employees Grievance Board’s decision that she should be terminated only as a coach because her actions did not directly affect her ability to work as a school cook.

The court ruled that the coach’s behavior directly involved her conduct with students and that “parents entrusted” her with their children.

Kanawha County Schools Superintendent Ron Duerring was unsure how the decision could impact current cases, such as the one concerning the RHS baseball team, but confirmed that the employee, who resigned as baseball coach after the incident, is still employed in the system.

“In my mind, this provides another level of evaluation,” Kanawha school board Vice President Robin Rector said. “Unethical behavior is unethical behavior.”