February 2021 Newsletter – School Districts
Lower Threshold for “Immoral Conduct” and Public can Determine “Evident Unfitness for Service”
The Court of Appeal recently decided a case on the dismissal of a counselor on grounds of “immoral conduct” and “evident unfitness for service” after she publicly criticized students on social media who boycotted school during a protest. Crawford v. Commission on Professional Competence of the Jurupa Unified School District (2020 E071770) ___ Cal.App.5th ____.) The case seemingly lowers the bar on what constitutes “immoral conduct” and indicated that an “evident unfitness for service” can be determined by the public. The case did not however, make a finding on whether the dismissal had a chilling effect on her Constitutional Rights.
Rubidoux High School students protested in support of “A Day without Immigrations.” RHS’s student body is approximately 90 percent Hispanic/Latino and about a quarter of its students boycotted attending school in support of the protest. (Id.) Guidance Counselor Patricia Crawford posted on another RHS teacher’s Facebook post: “Cafeteria was much cleaner after lunch, lunch itself, went quicker, less traffic on the roads, and no discipline issues today. More, please.” (Id.)
Ms. Crawford further responded to student comments on the post: “Disappointing is to think that some of my students still don’t get it about education…. The kids who care were there…. What I saw today was more proof, just like last year, that boycotts, especially of education, aren’t the answer. It just keeps the ones who need it the most as useful fools.” (Id.) Her final comment stated: “…But this isn’t the way to go about effecting change. My post was meant to be snarky. Get over yourselves.” (Id.) Ms. Crawford was subsequently dismissed on the grounds that her conduct qualified as “immoral conduct” and rendered her “evidently unfit to serve” under Section 44932 of the Education Code. (Id.)
On appeal, the court affirmed that there was substantial evidence supporting the finding that Ms. Crawford’s conduct was “immoral.” (Id.) Specifically, the appellate court determined that a teacher’s conduct is “immoral” when it negatively affects the school community in a way that demonstrates the teacher is “unfit to teach.” (Id.) The seven factors from Morisson were then applied to determine whether Ms. Crawford’s unprofessional conduct demonstrated unfitness to teach. (Morisson v. State Board of Education (1969) 1 Cal.3d 214.) In particular, the court discussed the factually significant factors below:
Factor 1: Adverse Effect on Students or Teachers
The court found that Ms. Crawford’s comments had a negative effect on RHS generally and RHS students specifically, as shown by 101 complaints that had been received., the three students who testified as to how Crawford’s comments affected them, and significant media attention. (Id.)
Factor 4: Extenuating or Aggravating Circumstances Surround the Conduct
The court found that this factor weighed against Ms. Crawford from students’ testimony and numerous complaints that expressed a similar viewpoint to this complaint: “What the counselor said was even more devastating; there is no way all the rapport they built with the students will be intact.” (Id.) The court further found that there was no evidence of extenuating circumstances that would have justified Crawford’s behavior. (Id.)
Factor 5: Praiseworthiness or Blameworthiness of Crawford’s Motives
The court determined that Ms. Crawford was not praiseworthy in her motives since she continued to post on Facebook after she knew that the initial Facebook posts were being viewed by the public. The court further found that Ms. Crawford did not demonstrate insight for what she had done, take real ownership for her actions, or exhibit empathy for her students and the community she harmed. (Id.)
Factor 6: The Likelihood of the Recurrence of the Questioned Conduct
The court determined that similar conduct might occur due to Ms. Crawford’s lack of remorse or acceptance of wrongdoing.
Factor 7: Chilling Effect Upon Constitutional Rights
A decision was not made on this factor, which evaluates whether the disciplinary action inflicts an adverse impact or chilling effect upon the constitutional rights of Ms. Crawford and other teachers. (Id.) This is because Ms. Crawford failed to adequately brief the issue by simply stating she ‘may not have a constitutional right to post on Facebook’ and thus conceded it. (Id.)
Although the case appears to lowers the bar on what constitutes “immoral conduct” and indicate that an “evident unfitness for service” can be determined by the public, this ruling did not consider the Free Speech implications.
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