Published by MARE, June 2010
An Examination of Immoral Conduct under the Missouri Teacher Tenure Act
It’s Monday morning. You hear through the rumor mill that one of your best high school teachers was arrested over the weekend for driving while intoxicated. To make matters worse, you hear later that during the arrest process the teacher assaulted the police officer. You know this conduct is unacceptable, but does it rise to the level of immoral conduct under the Missouri Teacher Tenure Act? Should you prefer charges against the teacher for his/her conduct and begin the termination process?
Under the Missouri Teacher Tenure Act, an indefinite contract with a permanent teacher may only be terminated for one of six enumerated reasons. Section 168.114 RSMo. One of the six reasons permitting termination is if the teacher engages in “immoral conduct.” However, the determination of what constitutes actionable immoral conduct can be a difficult analysis in some cases as there is no set list of what rises to the level of immoral conduct, and what does not. This article will examine a few Missouri cases which examine the concept of immoral conduct under the Missouri Teacher Tenure Act.
While there is no one definition of what constitutes immoral conduct, Missouri courts have defined “Good moral character”, for purposes of determining whether particular conduct warrants a teacher’s termination, as “honesty, fairness, and respect for rights of others and for laws of state and nation.” Hamm v. Poplar Bluff R-I Sch. Dist., 955 S.W.2d 27 (Mo. App. 1997). Conduct ranging from sexual misconduct to theft of twenty dollars has been upheld by Missouri courts as conduct warranting dismissal of a teacher.
In Schmidt v. Board of Education of Raytown, 712 S.W.2d 45 (Mo. App. 1986), the Missouri Court of Appeals found that there was sufficient evidence to support the determination of the Board of Education of the Raytown Consolidated School District No. 2, that two of its teachers had engaged in immoral conduct which rendered them unfit to teach. In Schmidt, the facts demonstrated that District teachers/wrestling coaches, left a group of high school students unsupervised at a hotel while out of town at a wrestling tournament. While unsupervised, male and female students hung out in each other’s hotel rooms and alcohol was present in the room (although the evidence showed that it was a third party who brought alcohol into the room and the students did not drink the alcohol). When the teachers returned to the hotel, the teachers allowed male and female students to sleep in the same hotel room and one of the male teachers slept in the same bed as one of the female students (the evidence demonstrated that no one was unclothed and there was no evidence of sexual misconduct). This conduct was upheld by the Court as “immoral conduct” rendering the teachers unfit to teach.
Missouri courts have also held that immoral conduct includes theft of school property. In Cochran v. Board of Education of Mexico Sch. Dist. No. 59, 815 S.W. 2d 551 (Mo. App. 1991), the Missouri Court of Appeals upheld the termination of a teacher from the Mexico School District for immoral conduct. In Cochran, the teacher at issue oversaw the school district’s participation in the federal surplus property program. Charges were brought against the teacher for immoral conduct for filing false reports with the State Agency for Surplus Property, his partial responsibility for the Surplus Property Program’s failure to comply with various program regulations, and because he filed an application to teach in the District containing incorrect personal information which caused the District to overpay him. The Missouri Court of Appeals upheld the termination of the teacher for immoral conduct based on these charges.
In Kimble v. Worth County R-III Board of Education, 669 S.W.2d 949 (Mo App. 1984), the Missouri Court of Appeals found that the decision to terminate a tenured teacher for immoral conduct was proper based on the following evidence: a teapot which was a prop in a school play was returned by the teacher after word was disseminated that it was missing, the teacher took $20.00 from gate receipts collected at a basketball game (although the teacher refunded the money after being confronted), and the teacher took a set of books belonging to the school district (which she subsequently returned after being confronted).
To terminate a teacher for immoral conduct there must be some nexus between the immoral conduct exhibited and the teacher’s fitness to teach. Some of the factors to consider when determining if a teacher’s immoral conduct renders him/her unfit to teach are the likelihood that the conduct will be repeated and the age and maturity of the students that the teacher instructs. Thompson v. Southwest Sch. Dist., 483 F. Supp. 1170 (W.D. Mo 1980).
In conclusion, a wide variety of conduct can constitute immoral conduct under Missouri law. However, as it is not always clear what a court will determine to be immoral based on a given set of facts, it is advisable to speak with legal counsel before preferring charges of immoral conduct against a teacher.
© 2010 Mickes Goldman O’Toole, LLC