Heads could roll over Ethics in Education Act

06/30/08 Seán Kinane
WMNF Drive-Time News Monday | Listen to this entire show:

Florida’s new Ethics in Education Act goes into effect tomorrow and it may force school districts to fire longtime employees. The law requires school districts to check the criminal records of teachers and other employees who are in contact with students. Employees who have been convicted of a felony in certain crimes may be disqualified for employment under the law.

The Ethics in Education Act was co-sponsored by panhandle Republican Sen. Don Gaetz. Gaetz is a member of the Senate's Education Committee and is the former Superintendent of Schools in Okaloosa County.

Yvonne Lyons, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers’ Association, said the law would primarily affect any employees who had committed felony sexual battery or lewd and lascivious offences against children.

“We haven’t actually received specifics from the Department of Education as yet, but it’s a clamping down or a tightening up of the ethics laws that we work under in education. Part of it is really for the most severe offenders and what’s changed in the law is that not only does the person lose their job and their certification; they would also lose any of their retirement funds.”

Lyons said the loss of retirement benefits is the biggest change in the law, but the Classroom Teachers Association is not likely to oppose that aspect.

“That would affect so few people, I don’t consider it a major issue. We don’t believe those types of people should be in the classroom either. Certainly if they break the law in that manner, then whatever the punishment is under our civil codes is be the appropriate punishment. They have absolutely no business in the classroom and certainly I would personally say they have no business having the taxpayer pay for their retirement.”

Sometimes school districts enter into confidentiality agreements with fired employees in order to conceal their offenses, Lyons said, but the new law could end that practice.

Lyons said it’s possible the new law would lead to lawsuits against school districts by employees who are terminated, but she doesn’t think they would be successful.

Linda Kippley is general manager of Professional Standards with Hillsborough County Schools. She was on the advisory committee for the drafting of the bill. Kippley said there are 47 felonies that would disqualify an employee from working with children.

A spokesperson for the Florida Department of Education, Thomas Butler, told WMNF that a technical assistance paper was in the process of being drafted and it would give school districts guidance on how to implement the act. Butler did not know when the technical assistance paper would be completed, but even though the act goes into effect on Tuesday, there would be enough time before school districts find out what the act requires of them before they have to take action on any employees.

Ethics in Education Act

Pinellas County Schools

Hillsborough County Public Schools

Sarasota County Schools

Florida School Boards Association

Sen. Don Gaetz

Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association

Florida Department of Education

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