Dismissal of Tenured Teacher for Irremediable Sexual Harassment of Student Upheld
The Illinois Appellate Court for the 2nd District (Court) considered an appeal from the Circuit Court of Lake County (Circuit Court) and affirmed the dismissal of a tenured teacher for sexual harassment of a student as irremediable conduct, denying the teacher’s complaint for administrative review seeking reinstatement.
Lance Pacernick (Plaintiff) began working for Waukegan CUSD No. 60 (District) during the 2002-03 school year as a teacher and served as head coach of the Waukegan High School girls’ track team from January 2014 through March 2017. In March 2017, a member of the girls’ track team reported that Plaintiff had touched some of the girls on the buttocks. The District promptly began a thorough investigation into the allegations, headed by the Title IX Coordinator. On the first day of the investigation, the District held a due process meeting with Plaintiff and his union representative and placed Plaintiff on paid administrative leave pending the investigation. A few weeks later a second due process meeting was held with Plaintiff and his union representative, during which Plaintiff was informed of, and denied, the allegations. Plaintiff then submitted a written statement denying the allegations, and he was provided with redacted statements from 48 current and former students interviewed during the investigation. Four students reported unwelcomed touching on their buttocks, seven reported receiving inappropriate verbal comments, 17 witnessed unwelcomed touching and/or comments to their teammates, and eight reported feeling discomfort or suspecting “other” intentions from Plaintiff. Five of these students were also in Plaintiff’s English class. On April 19, 2017, Plaintiff’s dismissal was recommended to the Superintendent, who approved the presentation to the Board of Education (Board). On April 21, 2017, a third due process meeting was held with Plaintiff where he was informed his dismissal would be recommended to the Board.
On May 9, 2017, the Board received a two-page Executive Summary of the allegations against Plaintiff and the investigation’s findings, as well as a three pages of Supporting Documents that included a factual timeline of the investigation, summary of a 2012 investigation, and summary of relevant Board policies. The Investigator recommended that the Board terminate Plaintiff for sexual harassment of female students and the Board unanimously approved the recommendation. On May 16, 2017, the Board gave Plaintiff a nine-page Notice of Charges with a Bill of Particulars, informing Plaintiff that the Board unanimously approved his dismissal. Notably, the Bill of Particulars related a May 2012 incident that had been unfounded but that had clearly put Plaintiff on notice that “care in [his] dealings with female students was necessary and that sexual misconduct of any nature with students is intolerable and a potential basis for discipline.” Despite this 2012 warning, Plaintiff did not change his behavior or exercise sufficient care. The Bill of Particulars also noted that Plaintiff’s continued denial of the allegations in the face of “voluminous accounts of inappropriate incidents” showed a lack of candor that “buttressed negative conclusions about [his] character and [his] conduct.” As a result, the Board concluded that Plaintiff’s conduct was irremediable, having a negative impact on the teaching profession and psychologically harmful to students.
Plaintiff chose to have a tenured teacher dismissal hearing, which began in December 2017 before an Illinois State Board of Education hearing officer and involved the testimony of 16 witnesses for the Board. Plaintiff did not put on a case. In an October 2018 decision, the hearing officer found that the Board had proven that Plaintiff engaged in the charged offenses and that these offenses were sufficient for dismissal under the School Code (105 ILCS 5/24-12(d)(1)). Regarding whether Plaintiff’s conduct was remediable, the hearing officer noted the test was whether: 1) damage was done to the students, faculty, or school, and 2) the conduct could have been corrected had the teacher been warned. The hearing officer found Plaintiff’s conduct had harmed both the students and school, and that Plaintiff’s conduct would likely not have been corrected if he had received a warning because he had already received a warning in 2012 about getting too close to students. Accordingly, the hearing officer recommended that Plaintiff be dismissed. On December 11, 2018, the Board adopted the hearing officer’s findings and dismissal recommendation, and it notified Plaintiff of this on December 12, 2018. Plaintiff sought administrative review of the Board’s decision, and on October 8, 2019, the Circuit Court affirmed the Board’s findings and its dismissal of Plaintiff. Plaintiff then appealed to the Circuit Court.
On appeal, Plaintiff argued that the Board erred in dismissing him because: 1) they erroneously found he had sexually harassed track team members and that his conduct was irremediable, and 2) the Board had not strictly complied with required procedures for dismissing a tenured teacher for cause because it never approved a motion with specific charges and did not timely mail to Plaintiff a Notice of Charges and Bill of Particulars.
The Court first reviewed whether the Board’s factual findings were against the manifest weight of the evidence, and whether those findings provided a sufficient basis for dismissal. Generally a Board’s decision is reviewed, but because the Board adopted the hearing officer’s decision, the Court reviewed the hearing officer’s decision to determine if it was erroneous. The School Code only allows a tenured teacher to be dismissed for cause. Though the School Code does not define “cause,” case law has defined it as “that which law and public policy deem as some substantial shortcoming which renders a teacher’s continued employment detrimental to discipline and effectiveness.” Thus, a school board has the power to dismiss a teacher for various reasons, including incompetency, cruelty, negligence, immorality or other sufficient cause. A school board must prove there is cause for dismissal by a preponderance of the evidence. After reviewing the hearing record, the Court determined that the Board’s conclusion that Plaintiff sexually harassed female students and that this was sufficient cause for dismissal was not erroneous. Moreover, the Court found that the Board correctly determined Plaintiff’s conduct violated its policies – most significantly its policy prohibiting sexual harassment.
Next, the Court considered whether Plaintiff’s conduct was irremediable. The Court used the same test for determining whether cause for dismissal is irremediable as the hearing officer had used: 1) whether damage has been done to students, faculty, or school, and 2) whether the conduct resulting in that damage could have been corrected had the teacher’s superiors warned the teacher. To meet the first prong, the Board had relied only on the students’ testimony about the damage that was done – and the Court found no error with the Board’s analysis. To meet the second prong, the Board had determined Plaintiff was unlikely to fix his behavior because had had already been warned in 2012 – and the Court found no error with this analysis either. The Court succinctly stated “the harm Plaintiff caused here by his demeaning treatment of the students who were entrusted to his care cannot be undone or corrected.”
Third, the Court considered Plaintiff’s argument that the Board hadn’t strictly complied with required procedures. Section 24-12(d)(1) of the School Code requires that a board seeking dismissal of a tenured teacher “first approve a motion containing specific charges” and then provide the teacher with “written notice of such charges, including a bill of particulars” by mail and also by certified mail or personal delivery within five days of adoption of the motion. Plaintiff claimed the Board’s Executive Summary wasn’t a “motion” with “specific charges” because it described his conduct as sexual harassment but didn’t provide context, so it was an incomplete and misleading presentation to the Board. The Court disagreed, finding that both the two-page Executive Summary and three pages of Supporting Documents, despite their titles, reasonably apprised Plaintiff of the allegations against him as required by the School Code. As for the five-day timeline, the Court found that strict compliance was not necessary here, where there was only a one-day delay and the delay didn’t cause prejudice to Plaintiff because he was able to have a hearing and was represented by counsel. The Court affirmed the Circuit Court’s decision upholding the Board’s dismissal of Plaintiff.