LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Every year the Arkansas Department of Education finds dozens of teachers guilty of misconduct, but the majority are allowed back in the classroom, and some won’t show a permanent mark on their record.
Allegations of ethics violations are handled by the state’s Professional Licensure Standards Board, PLSB.
The board is composed of 20 members, only 17 are voting members who are appointed by the State Board of Education and serve 3-year terms.
Specifically, a five-member subcommittee is tasked with reviewing allegations of ethics violations.
So far this school year the PLSB received 106 allegations. Since July of 2015, there have been 1,036 allegations submitted to the board.
Of those, every year less than half lead to public actions taken against a teaching license.
STEEP LEARNING CURVE
It’s a process Ashley Murry is starting to learn as she fights to keep her son’s kindergarten teacher out of the classroom.
In March, Murry’s 5-year-old son was forced to learn a life lesson at school that she never imagined.
“He told me that his teacher made him get his doo-doo out of the toilet,” Murry said. “I was devastated.”
It happened at Crystal Hill Elementary, which is part of the Pulaski County Special School District.
Murry says after her son spoke up she had a phone call with the kindergarten teacher, Karla Lasiter.
“She admitted to it, and she said that she was wrong for doing it, but she didn’t have an explanation for why she did it,” Murry said.
She brought that information to school administration.
“They were trying to sweep it under the rug,” she explained.
It took her help from her mom, Tami Murry, and making some noise by sitting down for an interview with FOX16.
“I’m not going to stop until someone pays attention,” Tami recalled.
Days after the interview the school district sent a statement saying the teacher was on paid leave and it started the process of firing her.
“You have to be held accountable,” Tami said.
Lasiter declined to comment citing that she has an upcoming hearing with the PCSSD school board.
The school district also declined to comment saying it can’t speak on personnel issues.
The family is going a step further and reporting what happened to the state as an ethical violation of the teacher’s license. “We send our kids to school to be safe, to be in a safe environment so we shouldn’t have to worry the teacher done this or that,” Murry said.
SYSTEM SKEWED TOWARDS TEACHERS
While the Murrys have chosen to go public, many cases like this are handled behind closed doors and by a system the state admits is set up to protect teachers.
“I would say our process is very pro-teacher and it is very much to protect the rights of the teacher,” explained Managing Attorney for the PLSB & Department of Education, Amy Douglas.
Allegations are handled through a tiered process.
Anyone can submit an allegation, which the ethics subcommittee reviews and decides to either deny or authorize an investigation.
If the committee thinks there isn’t enough evidence, the case ends there. If it finds wrongdoing there are two options. The first choice the board can make is to send a letter of caution, which like every step before it, is kept confidential.
The second choice is taking public action. That ranges from a written reprimand, probation, suspension, or revoking a teacher’s license.
Only suspension or a revoked license will keep teachers out of classrooms.
“Each school district and each hiring official is required to look at the Arkansas licensure system before hiring someone,” Douglas explained.
PAST MISCONDUCT ALLEGATIONS
Still, there have been several cases where a teacher is accused of misconduct but keeps their job or gets hired at another school.
In September 2019, Russellville kindergarten teacher Celia Wortham was accused of spanking a 5-year-old with autism.
During an interview with FOX16 at the time, his mom Tasheena Roper pointed to witness statements by multiple staff claiming they heard Wortham call the student a “bad boy,” followed by a hit, and crying.
“How dare you, that’s my child not yours,” Roper said.
The PLSB investigated and found Wortham had “physical contact” and “inappropriate interactions” with a student. It chose to give her a written reprimand, along with a fine and required training classes.
That doesn’t show up on Wortham’s license. The school district moved Wortham to a pre-school classroom.
Worthman said she had no comment.
At this time, the Russellville School district has not responded to requests for comment.
In another instance, cellphone video taken at Vilonia Middle School shows now-former Assistant Principal Tim Bullington grabbing an 11-year-old on the bus and hitting his head on the roof.
The boy’s mom, Sasha Huffman, said it was because her son wore a knit hat on a morning when temperatures dipped below freezing, but Bullington said the hat wasn’t allowed on the bus. According to hospital records, the 11-year-old suffered a concussion.
“He was snatched up like a rag doll. No matter how you spin it, you do not put your hands on a child,” Huffman said.
In this case, the state won’t say if it ever received an ethics complaint or opened an investigation, since no public action was taken against Bullington.
Bullington moved on to a new school district and runs the athletic department in Heber Springs.
Bullington said he could not comment explaining in an email, “due to The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), I am unable to speak about specifics related to any student, which of course leaves any allegations a parent may make against a school or an educator difficult to respond to.”
The Vilonia School district has not responded to requests for comment.
The Huffman family has their case in court.
Roper says she’s still going through the required process with the school board, and once that’s finished, she can file a complaint in court.
When Douglas was asked if she’s confident that no cases are slipping through the cracks, she said yes.
“Absolutely,” Douglas answered. “There are multiple ways teachers are held to higher standards.”
KEEPING TRACK OF RECORDS
The website to search a teacher’s license shows if it’s currently on probation, suspension, or if it was revoked.
Under state law, the only additional information about misconduct required on a license is for limited cases involving sexual assault.
Everything else is on a separate web page that lists hundreds of actions taken against a teacher’s license.
According to the board, those postings have an expiration date. Once a teacher is off probation – or suspension, the order gets taken down, unless the board votes it should stay up permanently.
“I haven’t been involved in making things more transparent for parents and honestly I don’t know how you would,” Douglas said. “The state board meetings are public, they are recorded, you can Google anything.”
The Murry family sees it differently. They argue cases where wrongdoing is found need to be open, similar to the state’s court system which publicizes minor traffic violations.
“If it’s a seatbelt violation, a speeding ticket, it’s there. What makes the teachers different, especially when they’ve broken rules? That’s not fair at all,” Tami added.
FOX16 Investigates brought those concerns to several lawmakers, all said this wasn’t on their radar. Some recommended talking to the Department of Education, others said they were concerned and wanted to do some of their own digging.
The Murrys never expected the spotlight they’re now in but hope it will lead to change in classrooms across the state.
“I think some laws need to be changed where teachers are concerned,” Tami said.
FOX16 Investigates reached out to all the teachers named in this story, they either declined comment or have not responded to requests.
FOX16 investigates also found there are limits on what teachers are required to report to the PLSB. Teachers are only required to report cases involving known sexual abuse. Failing to follow the requirements of a mandatory reporter is an ethics violation.
As mandated reporters, teachers are supposed to report allegations of child abuse to DHS and police, but the burden of proof in those cases is much higher than the standard the licensing board uses.