You just received notice that an ethics complaint has been filed against you and will be investigated by the Arkansas Department of Education’s Professional Standards Licensure Board (PLSB). You may have known this was coming, or you may have no idea that a complaint was filed until you received that notice in the mail. Either way, you’re probably scared and confused and wondering what to do next. Below are the answers to a few of the questions I often get from clients going through this process.
1. What happens next?
The PLSB investigative process can be lengthy and confusing. Anyone can file an ethics complaint against a licensed educator by using this form. Anyone includes administrators, co-workers, parents, students (there is no requirement that the person submitting the complaint be 18 years of age), and anyone else with whom you may come into contact. Once the complaint is filed, it’s validated by the PLSB’s Chief Investigator (in other words, he makes sure it has been filed by a real person) and sent to the PLSB Ethics Subcommittee for a determination as to whether the complaint should be authorized for investigation. Because this is all confidential, we don’t know what percentage of complaints filed are actually “authorized” for investigation, but I suspect it’s most of them. If you’ve received notice of a complaint filed against you, then this is where you are in the process.
After authorization, the actual investigation begins. What happens in the investigation depends on the investigator assigned to the case, but in my experience, they attempt to interview everyone involved and review any documentation related to the incident in question. They don’t have subpoena power, so if someone refuses to talk to them, there’s nothing they can do about it. After the investigation, they write a report and submit it back to the PLSB Ethics Subcommittee, along with any written response or evidence the teacher wishes to submit in their defense. The Ethics Subcommittee then issues an Initial Determination and Recommendation, finding whether or not the teacher committed an ethical violation, and if so, what sanction is recommended. The teacher can then either accept this recommended sanction or reject it and request a hearing in front of the Ethics Hearing Subcommittee (a different panel of individuals than the initial Ethics Subcommittee). A full-blown hearing is held, and after which, the Hearing Subcommittee issues a Final Determination and Recommendation, again finding whether or not an ethical violation occurred, and if so, recommending a sanction. Again, the teacher can accept this sanction, or reject it and request review before the State Board of Education. All sanctions, even if accepted by the teacher, have to be approved by the State Board of Education before they become final.
2. How long does this process take?
That’s a tricky question. State law and the PLSB’s own rules and regulations require that the PLSB complete the investigation and “take action” against an educator within 150 days of authorizing the complaint, or within 180 days if a hearing before the Hearing Subcommittee is requested. However, it’s my experience with numerous clients that the PLSB does not always meet this deadline. Sometimes, the PLSB will ask that you sign a waiver of this deadline to give them more time. DON’T EVER AGREE TO WAIVE ANY OF YOUR RIGHTS! The PLSB’s position is that they don’t really have to follow those deadlines. I disagree, and there could be litigation to address this issue very soon.
3. An investigator has asked to interview me. Should I agree to an interview?
In my opinion, yes. I always advise clients to be open, honest, and cooperative with investigators. I know some attorneys advise their clients not to speak to investigators, but I disagree. In my experience, whether or not an educator is cooperative in the beginning could affect the outcome of their case.
4. What are the possible sanctions I could face?
Sanctions start at a private letter of caution, which means that no disciplinary action is necessary. Educators can also receive a written reprimand, probation, suspension of their teaching license, and even revocation of their license. Fines of up to $500 can be imposed, and specific trainings and professional development can be assigned.
5. Will anyone find out if I receive a sanction?
The entire process is confidential until it reaches the State Board of Education. A private letter of caution always remains private, meaning it does not have to be approved by the State Board. Every other sanction is placed on the State Board of Education’s consent agenda for approval, and at that point, the sanction, along with the entirety of the investigative file, is public record.
6. Can I have an attorney during this process?
Yes, you can, and I recommend that you do. The PLSB has its own attorneys working on your case, and you should, too. I’ve represented numerous clients throughout various stages in this process, and outcomes are almost always better when the educator is represented by an attorney.